So, if you were in Paris for Bastille Day (which the French themselves simply call le 14 juillet), you may have caught this, but you would be also joined by some 700,000 others and the inexplicably enduring, surgically altered phenomenon and tabloid staple that is Johnny Hallyday...In my corner of the Cevennes, things were a bit smaller scale.
It wasn't actually my intention to join in the village festivities, but with French friends visiting and excited children, it suddenly seemed like the only possible thing to do. On the village square, we tucked into sausages and paella. So French, I know, but keep in mind that in 1789 a famine was raging, so there's never really been a specific dish linked with the day.
After the communal dinner came the retraite des flambeaux. Translate this directly and you get torches, which may be what one might bring to storm the Bastille, but not really what one wants over-excited local children to be carrying about.
In villages and cities across France on the 14th of July, the children, carrying paper lanterns hanging from poles, lead the local population on a walk through town. The swaying, glowing, colorful lanterns, held high, held low, flow through the narrow and dark village streets. It makes for a magical effect, all those candles, all those children. In our village, the parade of hundreds was led, in Pied Piper fashion, by a mesmerizing local percussion group, who were distinctly channeling an African sound. (France's voice and face are changing; immigration leaves its traces everywhere.)
Oh, human river that we were, we could have followed them all night--well, those of us without babies and/or heels anyway--but the walk wound up at the municipal stadium. On cue, a terrific fireworks display began. The intruding cynical thought (our tax euros at work) was drowned out by the shouts of delight from young and old.
After this the bal populaire kicked into gear, and the band had itself some serious fun; multi-culti Nuits Blanches (used to refer to a night where no sleep is to be had) kept the crowd of all ages grooving and jumping and generally making merry well into the morning with Arab-, Spanish-, French- and pop/rap-inflected tunes. What a night for my eight year old, who essentially experienced her first non-classical concert.
I remember being her age, and celebrating the Fourth of July in West African Sierra Leone, on a isolated beach whiter than sugar. I remember the Marine solemnly raising the flag, the bonfire, the anthem. I held my first sparkler, delighted and afraid, and made circles in the ink-black night.