By glancing at this photo, you have now seen more fireworks than I ever did on Bastille Day. I did, however, see two memorable characters in action… Photo © R.L. Wolverton | Dreamstime.com
To celebrate France’s biggest national holiday, in addition to the military parade that I talked about last week, the city organizes a fireworks display on Bastille Day Eve, July 13. During my first summer in Paris, I thought it would be fun to go see it.
Fortunately, I had already been wrong about a couple of other things by that point in my life, so what happened was not too much of a shock. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t anything like fun. If, as the saying goes, getting there is half the fun, the other half in this case was getting home. As it turned out, finding a place to watch the show on the Esplanade des Invalides, which was where the fireworks were set off back then (now they’re at Trocadéro), was a midsummer night’s impossible dream. The crowd was so huge and dense that it was impossible to get anywhere near Invalides, and I ended up stuck on a side street hearing skyrockets go off a hundred yards away, getting the occasional glimpse of a red or green glow over the rooftops, but otherwise missing the whole thing.
The next year on July 13, I happened to be with a group of people who had just moved to Paris and thought it would be fun to go see the fireworks. I didn’t endorse the idea but went along to be a good sport. And guess what? The crowd was so huge and dense that it was impossible to get anywhere near Invalides, and we ended up stuck on a side street hearing skyrockets go off a hundred yards away, getting the occasional glimpse of a red or green glow over the rooftops, but otherwise missing the whole thing.
The next year after that on July 13, I happened to be with another group of different people who had also just moved to Paris, and they, too, thought it would be fun to go see the fireworks. Once again, I didn’t endorse the idea but went along to be, as always, a good sport. And guess what? The c. was so h. and d. that it was impossible to get anywhere near I., and we ended up stuck on an s.s. hearing s. go off a hundred y.a., getting the occasional g. of an r. or g.g. over the r., but otherwise missing the w.f.t.
I could go on, but to spare you the blow-by-blowing-it account, suffice it to say that this same scenario played out more or less identically five years in a row. Every year after my own first attempt, I would try to convince the people I was with that it wasn’t worth the effort, and every year I ended up going anyway, and every year I ended up missing the show again for all the same reasons. Obviously, I’m a slow learner.
It was on one of these attempts that I encountered Mr. Laser Gaze. This is the nickname I have given to a young man with a very narrowly focused perception of the world.
It was on July 13 in about 1987. There I was, stuck yet again on Boulevard de la Tour Maubourg while the fireworks were bursting and blasting a block away, invisible to me. The end of the street was sealed off by the crowd. I was standing at the edge of the throng to see if there was any hope of moving forward (answer: no), when I suddenly felt a repetitive sharp stabbing pressure on the back of my right leg.
I turned around and there was a young guy on a motor scooter who apparently felt an overwhelmingly compelling need to drive down that particular street at that particular time. Despite the fact that there were literally hundreds of people in his immediate field of vision, filling every square millimeter of street and sidewalk, he had decided, for reasons known only to him and God (and I’m sure God is still trying to figure them out), that I personally was the sole, single obstacle preventing him from enjoying the splendor of the pyrotechnical spectacle.
He also seemed to have difficultly expressing this concept. He didn’t beep his horn. He didn’t say anything. He just kept bumping his front tire into my leg over and over, scowling at me with an enraged grimace on his face. My first reaction was that he must be either blind or an idiot. Did he think he had any faint hope of plowing through all those people, or did he just not see them?
Then my second reaction was to go with “idiot,” because he was, after all, riding a scooter and trying to go see fireworks, both of which would suggest “probably not blind.” But, with reflection, my third reaction was not to rule out vision-impaired right away, because it was only when I stepped aside and gestured toward the human barricade in front of me, saying “Go right ahead,” that he finally turned around, realizing (at last) that he’d have a better chance of driving his scooter through the Amazon rainforest.
Discouraged by the repeated fireworks fiascoes, I gave up on the rockets’ red (and green) glare after that, but for many years my wife and I used to enjoy another mainstay of the July 14 festivities: the firemen’s balls. On the evenings of July 13 and/or 14, each of the firestations in Paris hosts a bal des pompiers with a live band (invariably, as though dictated by Central Casting, featuring at least one accordion), cheap drinks, light food and little amusements like raffles and carnival games. Our friends and we used to go every year to swill bad champagne, eat bad French fries and watch people dance badly to bad music. We had a good time.
It was at one of these events that I encountered The Speedy Mediator, the nickname I have given to a young man who, unbeknownst to him, impressed me tremendously in the way he handled an unpleasant situation (sometimes those firemen’s balls get hot!) (punchline ©2011 by the Puerile Punners League, all rights reserved).
The incident in question took place at the now-demolished Marché Saint Honoré firehouse. It was the night of July 13, c. 1990, and the ball was in full swing. Nancy and I were sitting at a table near a group of German tourists and another group of hard-partying British guys in their early 20s who were drinking as though there were no Bastille Day.
In sharp contrast, the Germans, all couples in their 50s or 60s, probably on a group tour, were just sitting there talking quietly. Most of the women had one of those single cellophane-wrapped roses that those indigent, itinerant and incredibly insistent street vendors were already selling back then.
At one point one of the young Brits was doing a parody of a kind of hoochie-coochie shimmy dance and cracking everyone up. To spice up his act, he reached over, grabbed the rose of the German lady nearest him and put it in his mouth like a tango dancer. It was funny for everyone except the rose’s rightful owner.
At the first opportunity, she lunged forward and grabbed her blossom back, possibly inflicting thorn damage, and then loudly and firmly told the guy, in surprisingly idiomatic English, to get lost. Only she didn’t exactly say “get lost.” The expression she used would be more properly spelled “#@%£ §##!”
Maybe I misheard. Maybe she was asking him if his name was “Chuck Goff.” Or maybe she was saying that she had been sick for a long time and had a “stuck cough.” Or pointing out that the plastic glasses of wine, on sale for the equivalent of about a dollar, were a “buck quaff.” Or that his dancing style would make a “duck scoff.”
In any case, she was really mad. But get this: instead of delivering a perfunctory apology, or just ignoring her completely, as most people would have done, the young man went over to her and said, very calmly and politely, “Excuse me, did you just tell me to “#@%£ §##?”
There then ensued a short conversation that I couldn’t overhear but that I wish I had, because I would love to know how he did it: one minute later that kid was waltzing across the dance floor with that woman in his arms, smiling and cracking jokes and making her laugh her head off. Obviously, he had launched and maintained a barrage of bonhomie that no one could resist. Putting his own ego aside, he had transcended generational and national-cultural differences in order to quickly and handily transform a belligerent confrontation into a pleasurable experience for all concerned.
It is nearly impossible to put into words how much I admired that guy. But I’ll try: I admired that guy. A lot. Seriously, I wish I had his people skills and he had my mortgage. This was some time ago, and he is no doubt putting his special powers to use in the workforce now (and paying his own mortgage). I sincerely hope that he’s in the UK diplomatic corps, although sometimes I wonder if he stayed in Paris – and became a motivational speaker for rose sellers.
© 2011 Paris UpdateFavorite
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