Le Bal des pompiers

July 22, 2010

Photo courtesy Mélina.

la fête nationale – national celebration
le 14 juillet – the 14th of July
le bal des pompiers – fireman’s ball
un pompier –  fireman
une caserne (de sapeurs-pompiers) – fire station
un don – donation
une voyageuse – female traveler
“C’est gentil, merci.” – “That’s kind of you, thank you.”


Wow, you’re creating a holiday.
Barney: Why not? Everybody gets one – mothers, fathers, Bastilles…
“How I Met Your Mother”

Most people I know back home have heard of “Bastille Day”, although my guess is that many would be hard-pressed to define exactly when and what it was.  In fact, July 14 is la fête nationale de France – their version of Canada Day, if you will.  Somewhat oddly, it’s known internationally in English-speaking countries as Bastille Day, even though in France, it is either referred to as le 14 juillet (much like Americans refer to Independence Day as “the 4th of July”) or simply, la fête nationale.  It commemorates the 1790 Fête de la Fédération, a huge feast that was held on July 14, 1790 to celebrate the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in 1789, considered to be a major turning point in the French Revolution.

Now, talk of a national holiday generally tends to conjure up images of the kind of pomp and circumstance befitting a dignified patriotic celebration.  And while it’s true that le 14 juillet is observed over here with much fanfare, parades, concerts and fireworks—the stuff you’d typically see in other countries during similar sorts of celebrations—the French also have another somewhat lesser-known tradition linked to la fête nationale that is quite unlike any of the customs associated with our own national holidays in North America.  In typical French fashion, it flirts with the hedonistic; a backyard barbecue, it’s definitely not.  I’m referring of course to le bal des pompiers, which really deserves to be touted in travel brochures as a genuine tourist attraction right along with the Eiffel Tower, at least for us voyageuses out there.

Every July 13, the night before the official patriotic celebrations begin, France’s finest open up casernes all over the country and throw les bals des pompiers for the general populace.  The parties usually run both July 13 and 14 from 9 p.m. until 4 a.m. and entry is traditionally free, although dons of any amount are gratefully accepted at the door, with all proceeds going towards improving the conditions of workers.  Oh yes, my lady friends back home, you heard me right – on July 13 and 14 all over France there are parties hosted, staffed and filled with firemen.  Dancing.  All with cute French accents.  Don’t you wish you were here?

In the Paris region alone this year, there were no less than 40 different balls at fire halls scattered across the city, hosted by many fine, French uniformed firemen who were fully stocked-up on beer and champagne, and ready to get down to business and party.

When I heard about le bal des pompiers, I decided that this was one French tradition I wasn’t going to miss.  On the recommendation of my friend Maxime, who assured me that the caserne in the 1er arrondissement had the cutest firemen, I decided to check out the party in the rue du Jour.  I was accompanied by my male friend Khaled, who was not particularly interested in firemen, cute or otherwise (I can’t imagine why), but who I eventually managed to convince when I pointed out that the presence of pompiers also guaranteed the presence of many single women, which meant there was always the potential for a bait-and-switch.

Outside the caserne on rue du Jour.
Even early on in the evening, a lineup had already formed outside of the building.

I arrived around 9:30 p.m. to find a lineup already snaking its way along the side of the caserne, eager partygoers patiently waiting for their turn to enter while a few random pompiers coordinated some tricky last-minute parking of bright red fire trucks outside the building. The entrance to the station and the stretch of road in front of it were adorned with strings of little French flags and festive lights, and the faint strain of music from inside the party spilled out enticingly onto the street.  I joined the lineup, slipped my donation into the designated barrel as I entered, and was instantly rewarded with winning smiles from the two firemen manning the door.  “C’est gentil, merci,” one dimpled pompier beamed at me as he moved aside and extended his arm to let me pass.  Swoon.  I was tempted to donate all over again.

Inside, the joint was jumping, despite the fact that it was still pretty early by French party standards.  A live band was in full swing and the courtyard was bursting at the seams—families, couples, and young people alike had all turned up to join in on the community celebration. Everywhere you looked, there were uniformed pompiers in light or navy blue – manning the bar, serving drinks, guarding the door, circulating the room, good-naturedly taking photos with giggling female tourists…  It was the ultimate bachelorette fantasy.  On speed.

The Paris pompiers are evidently as efficient at tending bar as they are at putting out fires. Who knew?

Have I mentioned that in order to belong to the Paris Fire Brigade, you are required to be in top physical condition and spend at least four hours a day practicing sports or a physical activity?  I’m just saying.

Pompiers, pompiers everywhere…

In the massive crush of people, it took me about 30 minutes and several bouts of texting to find Khaled.  “Man,” he whined, observing the giddy female behaviour around him, “I should have been a fireman.  Do you think if I’d worn my engineer uniform to the party, I’d have gotten this kind of reaction?”  He whipped out his phone to show me a snapshot of himself wearing an oversized hardhat and a baggy blue jumpsuit.  “Ummm…” I chose my words diplomatically, “I think… maybe it has more to do with the whole saving lives thing.  That, and… rescuing cats in trees… Hey, let’s go listen to the band!”

The bar in the courtyard, also manned by Paris’ finest, kept the drinks and smiles coming all night long.
Off-(bar)-duty pompiers hung out and kept their colleagues company.

We dived back into the courtyard and bopped along with the crowd to a bizarre sort of… polka…  while cowgirls in plaid miniskirts line-danced on stage.  Admittedly, the live music in general was somewhat incongruous with the atmosphere, which I thought lent itself more to the likes of Donna Summer’s Hot Stuff or at the very least, a Village People tune, but everybody seemed to be enjoying it, and the hall at the back of the building playing techno music was far too packed to get into or out of, so we stayed put and danced along to covers of Shania Twain and something that sounded like the French equivalent of Miley Cyrus. Wholesome pop tunes aside, the crowd’s exuberance was irresistibly infectious, and even Khaled was placated once he realized we were right beside a group of cute American girls who were happy to chat him up.

The live band played a bizarre mix of relatively wholesome pop tunes, polkas and traditional music selections.
The courtyard in the centre of the caserne, as well as the surrounding rooms, were filled with a crush of wall-to-wall people and unbelievably, more kept pouring in as the night continued. I did wonder at one point if the massive number of people in a space of that size wasn’t a major fire code violation… but I guess nobody was going to say anything about it!

At one point during the evening, a jolly band of sailors showed up at the party dressed in full navy whites and started mingling with the crowd, presumably hoping to cash in on some of the uniformed adoration.  Close to midnight, the beer supply started running low and the pompiers put their skills to good use, forming an impressive human chain and passing cases of beer efficiently across the room and over to the bar.

One friendly pompier circulating the room stopped to chat and asked where we were from.
I, of course, seized the opportunity to ask if he would mind being in my official
“Paris pompier” photo and he very kindly obliged.

As the party crept into the wee hours of the morning, the families with children started to filter out, more and more young singles crammed into the already jam-packed space, and the music volume got turned up several notches.  Soon every last inch of the caserne was wall-to-wall people, to the point where you could barely breathe.  Some enterprising folks realized that there was a bit more room to be had on top of the bar, so up they went…  and while they were there, they thought, hey, why not dance a little?  A few conscientious pompiers, obviously concerned for the safety of their guests, decided that it might be a good idea to join them.

Guests and pompiers alike took advantage of the extra dance space up on the bar, à la Coyote Ugly.

After another couple hours of being jostled around and one unfortunate incident between the spike of someone’s high-heeled shoe and the top of my bare foot, Khaled and I felt that we’d had our fill of the pompier experience and checked out to grab a cool drink on a nearby terrace.  I’m told that later on in the night (or should I say morning?) things got even crazier and some pompiers put on a little Full Monty-inspired show for the ladies.  I, of course, am not at all disappointed that I missed this, as I find such gratuitous displays of debauchery to be appalling and of absolutely no interest to me.  (Hi Mom!)

“You can leave your hat on…” Photo courtesy Andrea Rota.

That night, I drifted off to sleep with visions of pompiers dancing in my head.  Those Parisians sure knew how to party.  I couldn’t wait to see what was in store for tomorrow’s official 14 juillet celebrations.

One Response to “Le Bal des pompiers”

  1. Andrea Says:

    *Sigh* I came home too early. :)


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