Image by After The Dark via FlickrJuly is here, the first wave of holidaymakers have left the towns for the beach or the mountains, and Bastille Day is almost upon us. President Sarkozy will be in Paris for the traditional march past which, while it cannot rival the military might of Russia rolling past the podium in Moscow, offers a vivid TV occasion all the same. The year before last, the armed forces of other European countries were invited to send representatives so we had the enthralling spectacle of the German army marching down the Champs Elysees.......again. I sometimes wonder if Sarkozy has any grip at all on modern history or whether some media savvy total illiterate thought that this image would replace that of the more triumphalist occasion in 1940. That image is indelible for people of my generation and older, but it is in the past and doesn't need reviving. These days the question is not so much how long before the German army is marching all over Europe again as whether the German army serves any useful purpose given the perception of Germany's militaristic past which prevents it being sent to fight anyone anywhere.
I never used to watch the parade, except in clips on the evening news, as the village had its own way of celebrating the day which involved a mid morning start and a bit of advance preparation.
The evening before, the village musicians would be loaded up into a trailer behind a tractor and would visit every hamlet in the commune, accompanied by outriders on bicycles blowing horns and showering passers with white powder....those were innocent days. Now, at the mere mention of white powder you would have police and narcotics dogs crawling over the whole shebang. Every hamlet would show its appreciation by having a table set out with food and drink to sustain the performers, bike riders and anyone else who happened to pass by, so you can imagine that by the time the last few hamlets had been reached the band was in a fair state of inebriation and most people were pushing the bikes. The tradition demanded that the band play something appropriate at every stop, and it is a great pity that Queen Elizabeth could not have experienced her anthem being played on an asssortment of instruments under a cloud of white powder on a warm July night....not to be missed. However, no doubt like her great great grandmother Queen Victoria, she would not have been amused. I was. I loved it.
Once the band had passed and night had fallen, it was time to go down to the village where they played rousing marches to accompany the maire leading the procession of children with chinese lanterns down to the village hall, ready for the fireworks display. I have seen wonderful displays in the big towns, and the atmosphere of the night of the thirteenth of July can be great.....cafes open, crowds of people and spectacular lighting on the historic buildings....but I like the village affair too, friendly and small scale, with someone's cow being evicted from her field to make way for the pyrotechnics and inevitably finding her way back in half way through. After the fireworks, there was always a dance with free admission and a bar and although I did not often stay for that, on the rare occasions I did it always astonished me that guys who had been drinking since mid afternoon could not only still stand, but could even dance...in time!
A quick recovery was called for the the following day, the holiday proper, which was marked by a morning walk through the vines which surrounded the village. Some of the views were wonderful.....as tourists we miss so much by following the guide books round the obligatory sights....better to take a picnic in the car and just poodle round the quiet backwaters to get a real idea of the beauty of the countryside. People would comment on how the grapes were coming along, nit pick about how M. Machin needed to cut back the leaves if he ever wanted the fruit to develop and nod and smile when coming across a block of the Oberlin vines tucked among the Breton and Chenin. At intervals, the commune's van would appear, and the walkers would take a plastic beaker of wine from the barrels in the back before starting on the next stretch. It was good exercise, it cleared the head and it prepared you for the next event, the communal picnic.
This was the advanced preparation part of things. You had either to have someone at home preparing it while you walked, or do it yourself before setting out as the picnic started at noon sharp....and this was and is the only event that I have ever encountered in France which started on time.
Tables had been set up and you filled them up as you arrived so you never knew who you would get as a neighbour. You brought your own picnic, but the commune provided a starter which was described as melon and pineau. The melon describes itself, but pineau is a drink made from the new wine, where the fermentation is stopped by the addition of spirits. It is sweet and alcoholic.
The maire, councillors and assorted helpers made the rounds with half melons, the seeds already scooped out, followed by more assorted helpers with the pineau, which was poured liberally into the melon...no puddles in the bottom for these boys, full measure and overflowing was the order of the day. Inhibitions cast aside, the picnics were opened and you would find yourself sharing with people on either side of you. I learned to ask for a supply of pork pies from people coming from the U.K. in time for the fourteenth as these were always popular, as was the chutney that went with them.
Replete and sleepy after the picnic, it was time for games and people produced cards and boards with which to while away the time until digestions had recovered enough to start the last activities of the day. The barrels of wine provided by the commune were broached, the plastic cups circulated and the buzz of voices rose again in volume. The fire brigade, all volunteers, gave the same demonstration every year involving an incredible amount of knots and tours of the picnic field in the fire engine, and then it was time for the sack race for the maire and councillors and if you have never seen assorted portly ladies and gentlemen who have drink taken being assisted into sacks by firemen in uniform before collapsing in heaps where they stand, well you have missed something in the line of gentle comedy.
Gradually, over the years, the celebrations changed. First, the refreshments for the band were discouraged. Then the band became discouraged and the tour of the hamlets finished. There was still the chinese lantern parade and the fireworks, but the dance was given over to a pop concert, making people spectators rather than participants.
The walk through the vines lasted for a number of years until the commune set up a wine centre and wanted people to congregate there instead. It was a long way outside the village, and participation dropped dramatically. Finally, the gendarmerie finished off the picnic by breathalysing people on their way home, another skirmish in their private war with the then maire, and that was that.
Another tradition gone.