There aren’t many flags or grills on Bastille Day, but man, there’s a helluvalotta pride. And that pride usually comes in red, white & blue fireworks. With liberty
& justice & fraternity & equality for all. Obviously, in a lot of ways it feels like home.
Both of my stays in Paris have been at a hostel near Place de la Bastille. Each morning, we’d eat our baguette & hot chocolate then walk out the door toward the subway. We’d click past the Opéra de la Bastille, the new modern opera house not yet open my first time in Paris, glance over at the Colonne de Juillet & slide down the Metro stairs trying to look as Parisian as possible. Oddly, it became such a part of my motions there that I never took any pictures.
I did once, standing among the men selling small Tour Eiffel keychains, pause to think, “Jesus. This happened right here. Right exactly here.” The column is breathtaking–standing in the spot has the effect something like combining the Vietnam wall & the fields of Gettysburg: a cold, stone silence reminding us of intense death, intense loss of youth, huge grasps at creating a better world.
Because I’ve taken no pictures of my time there, I thought, “What better image to use than the most celebrated painting of the event? Especially since the painter has the single most French name of all time.” Jean-Pierre-Louis-Laurent Houel, who seemingly manages to capture something both ominous & fragile in every painting.
Bastille Day, affectionately called le 14 juillet & formally called La Fête Nationale, commemorates la prise de la Bastille–the taking of the Bastille, a military fortress–which led to the end of the monarchy & the beginnings of the First Republic (which unfortunately led to the Reign of Terror & then Napoleon).
If you were to watch French history unfold in well-known films, it would go something like this: A Tale of Two Cities + Marie Antoinette (~1760-1789), La révolution française (~1789-1794) though not for the faint of heart, coming in at six hours long), Danton (~1794)*, The Count of Monte Cristo + Les Miserables (~1815–1838). Oh, and Casablanca We’re skipping ahead–through multiple forms of government–but why not? Okay, basically I just wanted to carve out a movie marathon for myself as a way to celebrate while drinking wine & eating cheese (and watching people mostly not eat & probably die, but still).
French history is endlessly captivating–bloody, poverty stricken & overly opulent, the birth place of my favorite authors & stories, filled with people so passionate that they don’t fear government: the keep fighting for it. For the right government. Because it is theirs. This, in summary, is the single-largest difference I have encountered between the American & French people. Because their government has fluctuated, and because they have so often been, as a people, at odds with their government, they feel a stronger sense of ownership. This is not a celebration of a new government. This is a celebration of the people. Of having the passion, determination & unity to do what it takes to create the world they needed. (Example: They’re on their fifth republic–their fifth constitution**–in basically the same time the U.S. has had one. Is this better or worse than the States? It’s nothing; it’s just different. But it’s pretty fascinating.)
Looking at the pictures of the taking of the Bastille this year, I can’t help but think how many countries could be writing a similar story into their countries’ histories at this moment. Syria, Egypt, Greece, Spain–the list goes on, with varying degrees of political corruption, death, development, potential for positive outcomes. The holiday feels less static than it usually does.
* This blog post has some others about the time that I’m now really looking forward to watching! I skip straight through most of Napoleon with The Count of Monte Cristo, just for fun movies & smaller pieces of history. I’d love to check out more of the films listed here, though.
** Monarchy –> 1st Republic (1792 – 1804) –> Napoleon I’s first go at an empire (1804 – 1814) –> Kick him out –> Napoleon I’s surprise return party empire (a few months in 1815) –> A complicated monarchy is back with Louis XVIII (1815 – 1824) then Charles X (1824 – 1830) then Louise Phillipe I (1830 – 1848) –> 2nd Republic (1848 – 1852) –> Napoleon III (1838 – 1852 as Prez of the Republic, then kicked it up a notch to rule the empire from 1852 – 1870) –> 3rd Republic (1870 – 1940) –> WWII awfulness –> 4th Republic (1946 – 1958) –> 5th Republic (1958 – present)