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Bastille Day had seemed a vague concept, musty with history and weary with Republican pride. I mused about how the modern day French would celebrate it. Would it be a stiff and feeble hark back to the glory days? Would it simply give another carte blanche excuse to drown oneself in alcohol and arbitrariness?
I must say that, after having experienced it, the mystery has not completely cleared.
It started with the parade.
Grey and early we arrived at Concorde not knowing that the following four hours of standing like anchors to a dying ship would soon make us miss the slimy metro seat we had just given up.
Suited and laced Gendarmes on every corner diverted us as we shuffled like dim minions through a tetris of pearly parallel back streets until we were permitted to dive into the Champs Elysées and stake out our place.
It was not a parade but a steady trickle of immaculately presented yet tragically lifeless regiments emerging from the trees on one side and disappearing into the heads of the crowd on the other. Our goal was to see the oh so proudly announced fly past of 50 planes which, for a mere five minutes, was indeed the biggest thrill.
My personal highlight, however, was the hastened coup d’oeil I got of president François Hollande as he toottled awkwardly down in his army buggy, looking just as he always does on the telly — somewhere between concentrated sincerity and genuine boredom. A left-wing black pin on the grey cobbles, he seemed lovingly misplaced in the scale of the pageantry.
If the parade with its disjointed rhythm, plague of booming glory and intermittent brass bands was a little dragging and inconclusive, we were glad to return to recuperate energy for the night time proceedings when the darkness would paint a very different picture on the capital.
The stiffness of the day relaxed its shoulders and sank into the lawn of the Champs de Mars. The ringing of military announcements spiralled into lyrical tranquillity through a classical orchestra. The lines of soldiers dissolved and danced into a mass of picnic makers and, as it grew dark, aeroplanes overhead morphed into fireworks. The fights and flames of the revolution bled into the night sky in a spectacular display of wizardry.
Staring in unswaying awe at the Eiffel tower, we remarked that since the second world war only in France could one delight in such outward patriotism and with such a military emphasis. In Germany the army is tactfully underplayed and any tendency towards nationalism is immediately squashed. In England the sight of a St George’s Cross raises a sceptical brow and inward take of breath through the teeth.
But the French do not feel any reluctance to flaunt their culture. Though they do not boast, they are certainly decisively confident of their values and keen to export the French art de vivre to the world.
Words: Maddie Kilminster
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham