Paris:– Friday, 14. July:– With the weather being so uncharacteristically summerlike I decided to skip the firemen's balls on Thursday. Who wants to get all hot and sweaty and listen to terrible music just because it's the eve of Bastille Day?
I didn't decide this exactly. Arte–TV put on a rare John Ford film named Horse Soldiers with John Wayne and a lot of horses. It was one of those movies I missed because it came out in 1959 when I was too busy being a teenager. I could have gone to one of the firemen's balls afterwards, but then Arte put on some collection of home movies made before and during the Spanish Civil War. So I saw some Catalonia before Orwell paid homage to it.
On Friday I carefully did not watch Arte at all. I told everybody I knew how to see the fireworks at the Champ de Mars and I followed my own advice and set off in plenty of time. All the same the first train that showed at Métro Edgar Quinet was too full to board. I moved down the quay to get on the end of the next train and this worked fine for one whole stop, until an army of fireworks fans tried to get on at Montparnasse.
Then it was sardineville, and being careful not to squash the little kids or stand on their pousettes. After Pasteur nobody else could cram on and we chugged, lurching and swaying, to La Motte where everybody furthest from the doors tried to get off and everybody closest to the doors tried to stay on. On the quay, battlehardened, we congratulated ourselves for a successful escape and then plunged into the panic of leaving the overhead station.
The street below presented itself in total chaos. Streams of people were flowing in every direction, but mostly towards the Ecole Militaire, leaving cars stranded like tiny tin islands in a flood. The flics had the street La Motte closed and the crowd filled it from side to side plus both sidewalks. If I could have remembered I might have thought Paris has some exceptional Mozart fans, but this isn't the sort of thing I remember.
Several thousands strong we all trooped over there. Luckily everybody was going in the same direction except for the insane. We crossed Sufferen as if that wide street wasn't there and then we pitched up at the Place Joffre which is a wide street in front of the Ecole Militaire, flanked by a considerable area of Paris dirt, and then there's the 'peace' monument, a temporary thing put up for 2000. Beyond it is the Champ de Mars and at its opposite end about 750 metres from the 'peace' thing, there is the Tour Eiffel and that's where the fireworks were. The Champ de Mars is supposed to hold 350,000 people comfortably.
I watched the Bastille Day fireworks once before from the Place Joffre. There's a low stone fence and I set the old camera on it. When the wait got tedious I walked around and then returned to my spot, and I roamed around the Champs a bit too.
This year I couldn't find the stone fence. I never saw it. The whole area was full, right up to the front of the Ecole Militaire and halfway up the statue of Joffe. I could see a river of people flowing towards the tower, coming from the direction of the Métro Ecole Militaire, a river of bobbing heads flowing through a sea of heads.
About on time, 22:30, with the sun down 35 minutes but still blue in the sky, a speaker said we would be listening to Mozart because it is his birthday this year. After that I glued my eye to the viewfinder and watched the fireworks through it, quite wide–angle, which did not convey the visual effect of the fireworks hanging right over our heads.
Crash, boom, bam for 35 minutes. Not really in tune with Mozart – I mean this kind of show is supposed to awe and shock – wow! – exploding bombs, rockets, load booms, clouds of smoke – more Wagner than Mozart. Anyway there were some spiral wheelie effects and some – were they hearts? – and some of the color sequences were more 'designer' than bombastic, but you know, three tons of HE – kapow!
On the last crash and with smoke still lingering there was a smattering of applause. And then everybody turned around and headed for the exits. While some had arrived three hours in advance, nobody wanted to be last to leave. The whole mob in the Place Joffre turned about face and began to flow south, to Sufferen and the Métro at La Motte.
More compact than on arrival, 400,000 hard–core freebie fireworks fans moved slowly but steadily to side streets, shortcuts, the least resistance, to the métro, to the métros and the RER–C. I could see overhead trains coming from the west, nearly empty. Possibly to be filled by those five minutes in front – all part of the Bastille Day experience.
The whole area around the métro station was a sea of people and I could see them inside, going up the stairs in droves. Further inside there are also escalators going right up to the platforms. The one for eastbound passengers wheezed and suspended service while I watched, and its line became much longer, fast.
A few crazy drivers were trying to plow cars eastward along Boulevard Grenelle beside the station but so many were ignoring them and marching east in the road and in the bicycle path and filling the sidewalks and the space under the overhead. At the next intersection lady traffic cops surrounded by a hardly mobile parking lot were tossing up emergency barriers, writing off the stuck cars.
By the time I passed Montparnasse and crossed into the 14th arrondissement I had outdistanced most of my thousands of fellow travellers but there were still some ahead of me, going down my street across from the cemetery. It's not the first time I have walked back from the Champ de Mars, but I think it was the warmest.
When I wasn't listening to Mozart, and I wasn't, I was wondering how many deaths there would be, and how many births. With nearly a half million folks in one place at the same time, these life and death things happen – just being the law of averages if nothing else. How many heart attacks? How many marriage proposals? How many big smooches, cuddly huggles?
And it's Paris and everybody goes to these things if they are free and the weather is fine, so there are all the people on crutches, in wheelchairs, the blind, the deaf, on rollers, skates, with bicycles, scooters, babies in pousettes, in backpacks, on shoulders, with drinks, blankets, folding chairs and mini step–ladders, and the portable phones with their blue lights and blitz flashes.
It was a fine Revolutionary evening and we all behaved like social creatures, with respect and a lot of fraternity for the unholy mob that we were. We pulled it off again. Until next year on the Champ de Mars.
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