Monday, 14 July 2008


We celebrated Bastille Day the evening before, marching around a Normandy village where my mother-in-law lives waving candle lanterns to the strains of - bizarrely - The Longest Day played valiantly, if not professionally, by a group of local musicians. It was fantastic. At one point as we walked down La Rue Grande past a magnificent 16th century merchant's house bearing lanterns aloft as the last swooping birds fled the darkening sky, the music stopped leaving just the hypnotic rattle of drum beating and it felt like we were taking part in a medieval witch hunt. Then the Frenchman struck up a jolly little revolutionary song he dredged from his infinite repertoire - something about stringing up aristocrats from the lanterns or lamp posts - and I thought, well, what we are 'celebrating' is not so very different.

La Fille hadn't got a clue what it was all about or whether Marie Antoinette had really said: "Let them eat cake" or had, in fact, said: "Let them eat brioche", which is something else entirely. She was just pleased as punch to be given her own candle lantern and stubbornly insisted on carrying it without help even though the piece of wood it was attached to was longer than she is tall. As we paraded through the streets she almost set fire to several locals whose only offence as far as I could see was that they were dragging their heels in front of us while wearing bobbly pastel-coloured home knit cardigans, which may be a crime against fashion but does not mean they necessarily deserved to be burned to a crisp. (It could, however, be argued that the two motorcyclists who revved and roared their way impatiently through the crowd as we wend our way down the main street deserved to be torched, your Honour.) Thankfully we made it into the park for a firework display before she singed anyone so as they'd notice. After that there were so many kids throwing petards - firecrackers - of various terrifying proportions around, a burned cardie was the least of anyone's worries.

The following morning, on Bastille Day itself, the local fire brigade turned out and with much hooting and flashing and warbling sirens drove the few hundred yards down the main street and back again. The Frenchman reminded us that most firemen outside of Paris are volunteers, so we stood on the pavement and waved and clapped and cheered. We seemed to be the only people doing this and perhaps we were rather too effusive and manic because instead of looking pleased, the firemen looked slightly apprehensive as if we'd just done a runner from the local hospital and they were going to be called out to scoop us up and return us to a secure ward.

In the village and on official buildings - even on a pole outside my mother-in-law's place - there were spick new Tricolors flying and as we drove through the countryside to the station to take a train back to Paris, we passed a little local July 14 event with officials in colourful sashes and uniformed servicemen sporting rows of gleaming medals, like perfectly painted tin soldiers standing to attention by a newly whitewashed flagpole. Back in Paris, even the buses were sporting the national flag. Somehow and sadly, I cannot imagine this happening in London; the French are much less squeamish about ostentatious displays of national pride; viz the Soviet-style military display on - and above - the Champs Elysées on Bastille Day when the president is given the chance to get all his toys out.

We missed all that, but La Fille is still made up about her candle lantern, even more so as she was able to exchange it at the end of the parade for a big bag of sugary sweets. We'll take her to see the tanks and toy soldiers another year.


Ian Lidster said...

What a good adventure and what better place to celebrate Bastille Day but Normandy? Almost too much history there.

By the way, I wrote the 'Mercury' blog, if you are interested.

Cimon said...

If you need the lyrics for la Fille, here they are : " Ah ! ça ira, ça ira, ça ira,
Les aristocrates on les pendra ;
Et quand on les aura tous pendus,
On leur fichera la pelle au c..."

Nice, isn't it ?

Paris is not the only place where firemen are professionals : there are everywhere in France, at least at departement level, and in cities with some importance. Paris is the only city where they belong to the Army (and with Marseille, with its Marins-Pompiers who belong to the French Navy, the only city where they are military units).

Anyway, it is true in many rural areas firemen units are volunteers only squads, and even in cities with more than 10,000 inhabitants there might be more volunteers than professionals.

Glad you enjoyed this piece of "France profonde" ;-)

parisgirl said...

Thanks Ian, I'm heading your way to read about Norfolk!
Cimon, thanks for the lyrics and the info on firemen. I love La France Profonde.