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Saturday, 14 July 2012

Vive la France! Le quatorze Juillet!

(A blog I wrote a few years ago to celebrate the best day of the year in France!) 

Le quatorze Juillet or the Fourteenth of July was the date in 1789 that the storming of the Bastille occurred in Paris. The Bastille was a heavily fortified prison in Paris where political prisoners were sent by the corrupt and unpopular monarchy. Although at the time of the storming there were actually only seven prisons in the Bastille, it's something that acted as a flashpoint for the French Revolution.
But to my family, le quatorze Juillet never represented a celebration of the move of France towards democracy or to the birth of the republic but rather the chance to enjoy a fantastic party!
We moved to south west France in 2001 and lived there for seven enjoyable years, but I have to say that the highlight of the French year isn't Christmas or Easter, nor even the month long holiday that lots of people enjoy each August, but instead it's the celebrations each 14th of July.
Where we lived in France, July and August in particular could be stiflingly hot and humid, often unbearably so. Very soon after arriving in France we discovered that our bodies had sweat glands where you wouldn't imagine there would be any! Eighty degrees is hot in anyone's book, but that was just the night time temperature! One rapidly began to understand why many mediterranean peoples take siestas during the heat of the day!
July the 14th is smack, bang in the middle of the searingly hot season. So, rousing oneself to prepare a picnic on a hot afternoon, get in a car without air conditioning and go and sit in a park with hundreds of other sweaty, and I have to say, often smelly, people is not easy.
Our local celebrations were in the landscaped grounds of the beautiful Chateau de Javarzay in a small town called Chef Boutonne, in the Deux Sevres. Each 14th, long tables would be put up on the manicured lawns next to the fishing lake. A makeshift dance floor with a profusion of dangling fairy lights above would be hastily constructed for the more brave or drunk. And a huge table was decked out with barrels of red wine, fresh baguettes, and a local delicacy known as torte au fromage, a sponge cake made with soft cheese with a bizarre burnt looking crust. You either like torte au fromage or hate it. I liked it, my wife hated it! All of these victuals were provided free of charge by the local commune.
Anyone and everyone was welcome to come to the feast, French, English, Martian! For sure, no one could understand each other at the start of the evening but they'd all become remarkably fluent by the end! Lifelong friendships were made, the problems of the world righted and all of this to a background of accordian music and bizarre dancing and frolicking!
The finale of this wonderful evening was an immense and colourful firework display set to music from the far side of the lake, free of charge of course. And, as the crowds made their way quietly home, everyone realised the stifling heat had suddenly become quite bearable, quite nice even. Perhaps this was more due to an alcoholic hue than a change in the actual temperature?
So, why not have a celebration like the French on le quatorze Juillet? Most of the people in the area slumbered for the rest of the year, but for one night only, rural France comes to life. Vive la France!        

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