Bastille Day in Essoyes
Bastille Day did not end peacefully in France this year, but it did begin that way, at least in “my” little village of Essoyes.
Of course the original Bastille Day was not peaceful either. But it is perhaps notable that it is not called Bastille Day in France, and I think the reason behind that is significant.
In France, the 14th of July is formally called la fête nationale, and most commonly referred to as le quatorze juillet. It is the anniversary both of the day the Bastille was stormed by a Parisian mob in 1789, and the day that celebrated the unity of the French people a year later (Fête de la Fédération). So one of the quatorze juillets is about destruction: the other is about unity, and peace after strife. (You who know your history will surely know that things did not exactly stay peaceful in France after 1790, and that they got worse, much worse, before they got better. Still, let’s hold onto the thought of celebrating unity and the building of something new and better, rather than destruction. Can we?)
In Essoyes celebration of the fête nationale began the night before, with the traditional parade of the children of the village carrying lanterns through the village streets. Prior to that, they had enjoyed taking rides on the amusement park manèges, scooping up little plastic ducks with numbers on their bottoms, and shooting toy rifles at the targets in the concessions that had been temporarily set up in front of the mairie. Then, when it finally became dark enough, around 11 p.m., the fireworks (feux artifices) began.
The next morning, around 11 a.m. the mayor, some local representatives of the Conseil Generale, the local unit of sapeurs pompiers (firefighters), and a flag bearer in uniform, along with a bugler, gathered in the village square, along with a small crowd of villagers.
As the sapeurs pompiers arrived in the square they proceeded to greet, with bonjours and the shaking of hands, each of the villagers (including me, l’américaine) who were waiting for the défilé to begin. And that is how I realized that one of them is a highly skilled, extremely modest, and very industrious young man, a roofer who has helped us keep our roof in good repair. And that is when I realized that the firefighters in this area are volunteers.
I suppose I am not the only mostly urban dweller to be guilty of not having really thought much about who puts out fires in rural areas. (Thinking about it afterward, I believe my Uncle Lewey was a volunteer firefighter in his rural Wisconsin community. I will have to ask about that.) In any case, I suddenly realized, “This troupe of firefighters here, they have other jobs. This is volunteer work that they do.” And as I watched them quietly talking among themselves as they waited for the call to attention, I wondered which of them may have been among those who had saved my husband’s life eight years earlier, by administering emergency first aid and rushing him off to the hospital in Troyes, 45 minutes away, after he had a terrible accident in his studio.
Soon the colors were presented, the bugle was played, and the sapeurs pompiers led us through the streets of the village to the war memorial next to the church, where flowers were laid and two minutes of silence was observed. Then there was a procession back to the square, where two of the firefighters (including our roofer) were recognized and congratulated by the mayor: one of them for 20 years of service, the other for having achieved a new level of service.
Afterwards we were offered petit coupes de champagne and tables were arranged for a village picnic next to the green where the children play soccer.
That was in the morning.
In the evening, I watched and listened to the concert performed by the Orchestre de Paris at the Champ de Mars on television, and after that the fireworks at the Eiffel Tower, which ended sometime between 11:30 and midnight. Before I went to bed, I breathed a sigh of relief that “something awful” had not happened. I did not hear of the dreadful tragedy in Nice until the next morning, and when I did, like almost everyone else, I assumed it was another act of political terrorism.
Twenty-four hours later that seems much less certain. As the evidence begins to mount, there seems to be a strong possibility that the murderous individual who drove a truck into a crowd of families and visitors celebrating the quatorze juillet in Nice was a disturbed loner who went over the edge and decided to kill a bunch of innocent people in a misguided attempt to gain the respect he felt he was lacking in his life. As one commentator said on the radio yesterday, it appears that he had “more like an American-style profile.”
I don’t know what to say about all this, and for a while yesterday I was actually stunned into a kind of helpless silence.
What I do know is that here, in “my” little village of Essoyes, there are a lot of good people who quietly go about their lives, doing mostly good, working hard, providing service to others, some paid, some not.
And I suspect–or should I say I still believe?–that all around this troubled world of ours, it is mostly the same in every village, and town, and city, on earth.
We are definitely facing some frightful challenges and experiencing a period of what feels like increased instability and strife in our world. Or perhaps it is just that the instability and strife that have plagued other parts of the world are beginning to be felt in places they were not felt as much before.
I don’t know really what we can do about it. Except for all of us to try to be the best people we can be. Refrain from judgment and from jumping to false conclusions. Help each other out in whatever ways we can, to the best of our ability.
And celebrate our common humanity, our joy in all the things there are to be joyful about, as much as we can, for as long as we live.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature. She divides her time between the U.S. and France, where she offers writing workshops in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region.