Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Bastille Day in Paris




Yesterday at 10:30 in the morning, as on every 14th of July in Paris, delta formations of Mirage fighter jets and lumbering military transports screamed across the leaden skies in successive waves.


Oh! you think, putting down your coffee and looking out the window, waiting for the formations to appear after being preceded several seconds by their own thunderous roar, it's Bastille Day. 



Visions of khaki-clad Legionnaires and the Republican Guard in horse formations and camouflaged tanks rumbling down the Champs Élysées—a musty, pompous tradition that reeks of May Day parades back in the good ole USSR. (The French also love to clap rhythmically after concerts and operas, but that's for another post... )



The new President, François Hollande, even had his Michael Dukakis moment trundling along in an armored personnel carrier in a navy-blue suit.


 But beyond the obvious target of a once-major world power playing out the slightly painful anachronisms left over from its days of gloire, the holiday does remind you quite forcefully, even after all these years, of your outsider status. You can't help but roll your eyes at the awkward, somehow plaintive military breast-beating meant to impress and reassure a people (who can only be truly impressed with deeply discounted prices for superfluous consumer goods) with the outdated forms and trappings of the time of their greatness, and you look on the scale of the display with bemusement and complete disinterest. And that complete detachment extends to not even remembering the date until the jets begin to scream overhead, or even finding a scintilla of the slightest emotional investment that every last Frenchman must feel, because not even the most cynical of continentals can rest indifferent who was born here, since it is in your blood and you cannot help but at some point during the day be seduced by pride of country and a free-floating but keen nostalgia for an idea the Germans call Heimat.

So the planes scream by, reminding you this can never be your true home.



Actually, Paris is empty right now, and cold and rain-sodden. There hasn't been a summer to speak of, or an entire warm, sunny day since sometime in late May (and I actually ran the heat last night). Everyone is on vacation—6 weeks per year minimum, 8 weeks for most everybody (not counting the mysterious congés and the universally exploited formation, both of which, if played right, add another ten days of paid free time to the tally). I kid you not, les américains.



The official, countrywide start of the summer vacation season, when France literally closes for two full months, is, for the average Frenchman, almost as exciting as an adolescent's first furtive lovemaking, but so much more satisfying! (The local dry cleaner actually hangs an engraved brass plaque announcing his fermature annuelle and bakeries must co-ordinate their closing dates so as not to leave too vast a swath of ghostly Paris without access to baguettes.)

 
The media gears up for it with breathless, heartpoundingly important special reports, while nonstop traffic updates scroll across the bottom of regular programming all the last week of June, and incessant newsflashes feature a color-coded alert system analyzing the status of the major southbound autoroutes  (remember those Bush-era terror scares?), all of it leading up to the first Friday in July: D-Day!


Everyone scrambles in a mad, delirious rush to be the first to get the heck out of Dodge and indulge in the perfect trifecta of the three universally acknowledged pillars of French identity (and the main subjects of French conversation): food, sex and vacation. Of course, after all those embouteillages sur l'autroute, the Parisians find themselves just as sardine-packed on the beaches.



If only half such dedication and zeal had been expended to defend the country in 1940 as is done today to see to it that the groaning family Citröen, bound down with roof bins and bicycles, arrives on the Côte d'Azur without having sat in a traffic jam, then Angela Merkel would today be speaking French.


The over-accessorized adolescents, slumped in the back seats of cars in Biarritz and Nice and St-Tropez, dangle a foot or languid hand out the window in the clichéd symbol of French lassitude as they crawl along the overburdened and sun-struck beachside avenues. 


A month on the beach, or in the country at the ancestral compound, then a week back in Paris to wash and sort out the laundry, make sure the apartment is in order, and then off again to Charles de Gaulle airport for another two weeks on a holiday tour.

Vive les vacances ! Vive la France !

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