July 14, 2007


We arose relatively early to make our way to the Bastille parade. I was running a touch late, but it was going to be an interesting experience. Julie had scoped out our spot with her experience from previous parades, and knew exactly where she wanted to get us. We were situated roughly 3/4 of a mile from the Arc Du Triomphe, and the streets were already significantly blocked off as soon as we got off the train station, so we had to walk about a mile to get to the Champs Elysees alone.


When we arrived at our spot, we were handed programs and led into a small metal pen, and we were first wanded by a metal detector. Julie wasn't allowed to bring her water bottle in and had to leave it by the gendarmerie by the fence. We caught a place two rows back of some shorter individuals and settled in.


In front of us was a regiment of the French Army. The main reviewing stand of the parade was about three miles to our left, and the various commands were lining up for inspection. There were two army regiments in front of us; to the right were the men of the Paris Fire Department, resplendent in chrome helmets, as well as carrying red-handled chrome parade axes and-somewhat more inexplicably-assault rifles. I mean, I understood they were a division of the army and all, but they are the fire department. I'd understand the fire department being armed in America, but these guys seemed a little over the top. They always got the loudest cheers from the onlookers. When Julie told me this, I pointed out that paratroopers never come to your house and fix what happens when the space heater falls over.



There was no marching going on immediately. The program indicated that there would be a troop inspection taking place first. Most of the Grand Armee had shown up on what appeared to be converted Metro buses. The Supreme Commander of the Grand Armee made his way by in a Jeep, and all of the soldiers were wearing crisp parade wear. I notices more attention being paid to socks being tucked in correctly than when I was in Little League.



The crowds were getting pretty intense, but Julie said it wasn't as bad as years previous. A guy took advantage of my hands being slightly raised for a picture to sidle his way in at my right, so I was then forced to have my right arm flexed at my side for the duration of the parade so that I wouldn't lose the space right in front of my feet. I hate crowds.


Then, we could hear some drums in the distance. An entire band, riding on horseback, trooped by. The drummers alone instantaneously caused me to diminish the skills of thousands of other musicians. It's one thing to play in rhythm. It's another entirely to play in rhythm while controlling a two-ton animal with a brain the size of an orange and bouncing up and down until your spine feels like a wire coat hanger wrapped around a clothes pole.



And immediately following them was a phalanx of jeeps, one of them containing the President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy. He waved to our section. This was his first 14 Juillet parade and the television commentators would later talk about the Great Significance Of This Momentous Event.


After his motorcade passed by, there was mostly silence, with no movement, even well past the times listed in our programs. We weren't sure what was going to happen next; were the armies going to march back around the Arc, were we at a decent vantage point, and what was the wait, really?


We found out later on television that this was Sarkozy's fault. France doesn't really have the sort of permanent campaign that we've become accustomed to in America, so there's no inaugural festivities. He's just been sworn into office five weeks prior, so this was kind of the victory lap. He hopped out near the statue of Charles De Gaulle, and started shaking hands with cripples, children, and crippled children. Then he hopped back up in the Jeep and made his way to the reviewing stand at the Place de la Concorde.


And back towards us, where we knew none of this, the captains started calling out orders, and the marching music came over the loudspeakers. Off in this distance, over the Arc, I could see the jets coming. Three fighter jets, trailing red, white and blue smoke, came screaming down the Champs Elysees, painting the tricolor across the sky. This was followed by more jets, including a C-130 Hercules transport plane, which is the biggest piece of machinery I've ever seen. Barrages of helicopters, an AWACS plane, it made you wonder who was minding the store. Seeing all this armament and hardware in one place, the pride of a large Western nation, I became a somewhat prouder American.




That may not make sense, so let me explain. According to Wikipedia, France has an annual defense budget of 60 billion dollars. We spend 505 billion. So a parade of comparative military pride of the United States would be eight times longer. We are the nation of guns, movies, and fast food. We work longer hours than the Japanese, take less vacation than anyone, and the equivalent of France's gross national product is right next door to me, in California.


As I was standing there, I wasn't necessarily sure that our way's better. We're engaged in a war that increasingly looks like the 21st century's version of Kipling's poem "The White Man's Burden" and we're trying to decide whether to impoverish tobacco companies for the betterment of the smokers or impoverish the smokers for the benefit of the cities and states. We have a surfeit of genuinely stupid people without any sense of history or culture, profoundly rude, coasting between formulaic poison to dine on with a small scooter waiting when their super-sized appetites overwhelm their underworked legs.


And on the Champs Elysees, I was proud of it. My country-one of the wackier attempts to create a society out of released prisoners, religious extremists, and dragooned servants-didn't do so bad after all. We didn't have a Reign of Terror, though there was a Civil War that was equally tragic. And as the helicopters flew over us at the treetops, I was looking forward to getting back to it all.



Following the parade, we walked to the station presenting us the best chance of connecting to our regular line. We were soon back in the comforting neighborhood of the Champ du Mars, and today on the front lawn of Invalides were several of the helicopters that we'd just seen.


They were replaying the parade on television, and we all glanced in on it as we were packing our things. We saw one group that we did not see in person-the Foreign Legion.



Those are full beards, aprons made of buffalo skin, and over their right shoulder, they're carrying axes. They also don't march at the same cadence as everyone else-88 steps a minute as opposed to 120-so they had to go in front. Get a good look at the faces of these gentlemen and tell me YOU'D tell them to speed up. I pointed out that if they went the whole parade route it was likely to frighten the children.


The Legion has always held a sort of mystical appeal in our family, ever since my father first told us that our family motto was "March or Die." I pointed out that if I knew that meant I would get to go slower, I would have been silly enough to point it out.


They were showing the mottoes of the various companies on the televisions as they marched. The Legion's is actually "Honneur et fidelite." That "march or die" thing was apparently unofficial. Then Julie looked at the screen and said, "Wow!"


"What is it?"


"These guys' motto is, 'We do not know where destiny will take us, we know that only death will stop us." And, just like that, I knew what I'd want to get tattooed across my shoulders if I were into that sort of thing. (My policy on tattoos is to earn an M-dot on my right calf the year I turn 35, the capstone on the Resume Of Pain. I'll remain unmarked otherwise, thank you.)


The rest of the day was spent cleaning the apartment, writing the Invalides entries you've read previously, and packing up the last of our things. None of this is unique to France, so if you'd like to take a break to dust and scrub things, be my guest.


Later that night we headed to dinner at a streetside cafe near the Invalides. Revelers were already pouring into the area to get to the Eiffel Tower for the fireworks celebration, and they were closing down streets near us in anticipation of the crowds. We grinned at each other from the streetside as we watched, enjoying a nice bottle of wine and appetizers. I had a plate of large snails that were so loaded with garlic I could have breathed through a concrete wall. It was a festive, warm night that felt like everything that summer should be. The motorists yelling at each other as they tried to find places to park, the police blocking the streets further and further out only to see them overrun with pedestrians where the autos once were. Everyone was clearly in a mood to party and had been doing so already.




We finished our meal and headed down some back streets. We saw an elderly homeless woman apparently wearing a bed sheet as an outfit, and it was disturbingly open in the back. It was clearly nothing a heterosexual male needed to see. I told Julie that this took away from the evening's aesthetics, and she replied, "Well, it IS kind of hot out." That's when I hit her in the arm. Ken did his usual siblings-are-battling ten foot retreat.


Ken managed to get a picture of me standing next to a Smart car, that European phenomenon that would make my Nissan feel like I'm driving a Sherman tank:


Then we were off to upstairs for the close of our Bastille celebration. At 10:15, we were on the balcony looking over towards the Eiffel Tower. Julie had opened one of the bottles of Saint Petersburg vintage Veuve that she'd bought specifically for tonight; we had some of my very favorite champagne as we watched the fireworks. There were neighborhood shows going on across Paris; we were watching one spot that looked like a residential area that we termed "Louie's fireworks garage."



After the show, the streets teemed with people. We finished off whatever wine was left, and I watched the scenes below of revelers making their way back towards trains, to buses, to whatever nations they called home. Though I knew the toll it would take on me to see this, I also knew it would be worth it.



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