Bastille Day in rural France, a typical event held throughout the land, a formal parade, not quite on time and subject to interruption! Penny Asquith-Evans, a finalist in our 2014 Writing contest tells the tale…
The 14th July dawned with a burst of golden sunshine slanting through the skylight, and an air of tangible excitement in the house. Our first Bastille Day in France!
A small, understated notice in ‘Les Informations Dieppoises’ had provided us with details of the local ceremony, and we were keen to be a part of events to mark France’s national day of celebration.
Breakfast was an unusually hurried affair. No time to savour the aroma and warm fluffiness of freshly-baked croissants from the boulangerie across the road, and high-strength coffee had to be gulped down en route between table and kitchen sink. A mad scramble to get changed into Sunday best outfits ensued, and, in record time for our notoriously dilatory family, we assembled in the garden for commemorative photographs, before heading into the village at a hurried trot.
We arrived at the appointed place by the war memorial with 26 seconds to spare before ‘kick-off’. Catching our breath, we looked around, and realised that despite our very last minute arrival, the village square was much as the Bastille prison had been when Robespierre’s mob arrived to liberate it – practically deserted!
Checking our watches, we looked around the square, where every-day life appeared to be going on as normal. Assorted locals arrived from time to time in battered old Renaults and Citroens, abandoned them casually several metres from the kerb, and dashed into the boulangerie or boucherie, only to leave again, morning shopping successfully completed. There was a vague sense of pre-Bank Holiday haste, though nothing like the panic and pandemonium seen in supermarkets back in England on the 23rd December!
By now, we were feeling vaguely anxious. We began to question our rudimentary translation of the article in the local paper. Hadn’t we been promised Sapeurs-pompiers, a parade with band, and the laying of flowers? We were sure we had. Perhaps we had simply lost track of dates and missed the commemorations completely? We had a desultory, but unsuccessful, wander around the square, trying to find a noticeboard or poster which might offer some reassurance.
Fifteen minutes had passed since the published start time, and we started talking about going back home to check the paper again, this time with a dictionary to hand. Fortunately, just as we moved on to debating whether to abandon hope and head for the coast, we were joined in our lonely vigil by a man in a sharp, shiny suit, an extremely puzzled-looking, and rather unsteady-legged, pensioner, and a buxom lady in navy blue, who somehow put one in mind of the hockey teacher at a public school.
Time marched on, but the parade did not.
As the half-hour mark passed, Dad was sent down to the far end of town to check whether anything was happening near the park. Five minutes later, wreathed in smiles, he returned to report that four fire engines, a gaggle of locals, the Mayor and a band were indeed assembled elsewhere, and were just about to start the parade.
At last, much to the excitement of the seven spectators gathered at the war memorial, the parade finally came into view, led with great aplomb by an enthusiastic gendarme, although he did seem to be waving most traffic through, rather than clearing a route for the procession. As they marched towards us it became clear that the four fire engines had been dispatched elsewhere, and the procession had now dwindled to the Mayor, the ‘band’ – two drums, two trumpets, a trombone, and a flute – together with six firemen and four more gendarmes.
The parade halted at the war memorial, and the ceremonial wreath was fetched from the mayoral Renault Clio. Silence fell for the formal part of the ceremony. Suddenly, out of left field, the buxom matron in the blue dress launched into La Marseillaise, only to stop short fifteen seconds later, thanks to a quelling glance from the Mayor’s aide. A ripple of curiosity ran round the spectators – was this an unscheduled intervention from a radical republican? No, just the official chanteuse missing her cue! A collective sigh of relief as, at a sign from the Mayor, off she went again, on cue and in key, to give a very moving rendition.
The Mayor then moved forward to place the wreath on the base of the memorial, and, stepping back to salute, was nearly bowled over by the passing through, in a blur of red, white and blue lycra, of a lone cyclist, fully kitted out in Tour de France style, and travelling at high speed. Realising that he had inadvertently raced through the middle of a formal ceremony, he gave an agonised backward glance, Gallic shrug and raised hand of apology before speeding out of view with the whine of slick tyres and clicking of gears.
Recovering themselves, the band launched into an instrumental version of La Marseillaise, and thereafter, proceedings rather ground to a halt. The flautist, modelling effortless French chic in her pristine outfit of sable-coloured linen, began to fold up her music stand. The rest of the parade clearly took this as a signal that the ‘vin de honneur’ awaited at the Mairie, and all disbanded with startling efficiency, disappearing rapidly up the main street for a liquid lunch with the Mayor. Looks of bewilderment all round from the remaining few spectators, until the mood was broken by the four year old announcing from atop of Dad’s shoulders: “That was FABULOUS!” and bursting into a round of spontaneous applause.
We didn’t feel confident enough in our rusty French to gate-crash the Town Hall, even though we were sure we would be made welcome, local or not, and feeling overwhelmed by what had been a slightly surreal morning, we did the only thing possible. Retired to the beach, to celebrate France in the best way we knew, with a glorious al fresco lunch of freshly-baked baguette, ham, cheese, and quiche, followed by a selection of mouthwatering French patisseries.
Vive La France!
Penny Asquith-Evans lives and works in the North West of England with her husband and son. Her love of France was positively encouraged from an early age by her parents and grandparents, and was nurtured by a friend of the family, Louis, who was a boat-builder from Le Touquet. One day, Penny will live in France, grow her own vegetables and spend her days writing books.
Read more stories from the winners and finalists in our 2014 Writing Competition