The French know how to party in the streets. I think this comes from their tradition of regular protests, strikes, and rallies. I’ve never seen a protest rally as huge and jovial as the last time Bush decided to visit Paris. The streets were filled with groups from every walk of life gathering to bang drums, march hand in hand, and denounce the village idiot in the white house. There were also plenty of Americans around shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Don’t blame me… I didn’t vote for the idiot. Blame the morons in the red states.” Actually, they said a lot more, but you get the point.
No, the French really enjoy gathering en masse and celebrating events, no matter how big or small. I think the most dangerous thing in the world is a French man with a microphone. Good lordy do they love to hear themselves speak. It’s quite entertaining to stand back and watch.
Just the other day, Jim and I noticed that there was a lack of strikes and protests this visit. It’s become part of the vacation to either walk through a rally or wait at a metro stop for hours because of a transit strike. But this year, the natives were certainly not restless.
This all came to a halt last night as every single person in Paris took to the streets to enjoy music. The Fête de la Musique is a celebration of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. It’s an evening where anyone can set up a stage or open an accordion case on the sidewalk and perform for loose change and whatnot without a permit. While there were plenty of impromptu performances and temporary sidewalk bars/restaurants, the majority of the events were held in the traditional tourist areas.
Place des Vosges
We began by walking through the Place des Vosges. We knew it was going to be an interesting evening when the first act was a guy blowing a Kenny G saxophone with two modern dancers flopping and posing around him. My favorite part was when one of the dancers sat against the wall with the other in front of her. The featured dancer would stand up and then faint into the arms of the seated dancer, who would then push her up into a standing position and continue to repeat the fainting, fall, push, stand, faint, fall, push, stand routine.
As riveting as this sounds, we somehow were able to push past the crowds and continue along the route. We passed a few outdoor mint julep salesmen, a man with a microphone singing traditional French folk songs with the crowd, an agitated French woman with a cigarette dangling from her mouth as she tried to park her car between drunken people, and more. All of this happened within the walls of Place des Vosges.
We continued west towards the Marais, the gay/orthodox Jewish ghetto of Paris. This was certainly a destination for people around the city as it was packed. This weekend is Gay Pride weekend in Paris, so there were probably even more people in town on the pride circuit.
Tucked into cubbyholes were bake sales, booze sellers, and small performances. We popped into a courtyard to hear the Gay Chorus sing a couple songs and moved on. They were quite good, but lacked the crunching guitars and missed beats that I was looking for.
Jim bought a half-baked chocolate cookie from one of the local schools’ bake sales and we braced ourselves for what lay ahead.
On one corner, a jazz quartet played to a circle of admirers. In the middle, an elderly Greek man danced like he was 18 and made the rest of us look like statues. Finally, one of the onlookers joined in the dance and Jim and I left, exhausted from merely watching. We had miles of music to still experience.
The music became a bit more to my liking as we continued down the street. There was a band that sounded a bit more shoe gazer. The crowd had completely filled the small street as the music continued to build to a frenetic pitch of an aria, feedback, guitars, and old women running away with their hands over their heads. Taxi drivers sat impatiently waiting for the song to end and a chance to push through the crowds. Jim said, what is that music; I began to describe the shoe gazer sound of Mogwai and God Speed Ye Black Emperor when the band began a saxophone solo and destroyed my concentration. Needless to say, we moved on.
One corner had a fun crowd as a man sat behind a keyboard and sang Indian/Arabic dance music. Next to him was a jazz quartet and down the street you could hear the thump, thump of a large outdoor disco.
We finally made it down towards a main street and began walking towards one of our favorite hangouts, the Bears Den. It’s a local gay bar/watering hole with a dress code. You have to be hairy, fat, or bald to get in. We planned on grabbing a Perrier and rest on the patio area to enjoy the commotion. But first, we had to make it down many blocks of cobblestones, arguing with each other as to which direction it was actually in. Naturally, I was correct, but Jim kept insisting we make a right turn at the guy dancing on the electrical box or a left turn at the 15 piece accordion ska band…
We finally reached the Bears Den and walked right by it. The entire block had been turned into an outdoor disco with strobe lights, speaker stacks, and more. Of course, just to the left was a pop-punk band trying to pound out some Green Day inspired riffs and impress the three ladies up front. I did appreciate their use of crime scene tape to mark off their performance space. Quite a nice touch.
The Journey Home
It was beginning to rain and the cobblestones were getting to Jim’s feet, so we decided to head back. Little did we know that we would be entering the most challenging part of the night. As I said earlier, there were certain destinations for the millions of people in Paris. The streets were shut down by the thousands of people walking around. That leaves one option—the metro.
Keep in mind; everyone was in a jovial spirit. People were singing, dancing, yelling, and dancing some more as we squished together like sardines. It was a mess of humanity. We got off a stop early to avoid the crowd at the Bastille. There was only one thing keeping us from the fresh air, about 4,000 people trying to leave the metro and 4,000 people trying to enter the metro through two staircases. If you’ve ever seen the cars navigate around a traffic circle in Paris, you can imagine what it was like trying to move through these steps. Jim slipped on through, but I got stuck behind a semi that pushed me off to the side and had to wait for a break in traffic before darting back into the center and finally to the outside world.
At this point, it is beginning to rain and we are on Rue de Rivoli, a main street of Paris. Normally, this street holds 3-4 lanes of traffic each way, but this evening a car was lucky to make it through the people walking in the street because the sidewalks were too full.
We passed more bands, but none of them were very interesting. One guy was trying to impress his friends by yelling obscenities into a phone and stomping around the street like he was some kind of macho hero. We finally arrived at Place des Vosges and stopped to listen to a choir perform. Jim enjoyed them quite a bit and I snuck off to watch a trio perform traditional Jewish tunes on violin, accordion, and cello. We finally turned and walked away, passing an Elvis impersonator and another Jazz trio as our friend Bob’s place came into site.
Yes, the French know how to celebrate. We only saw a tiny portion of the events being held all over the city. Palais Royal held classical concerts, the Bastille had large concerts; I can only imagine what happened at the Eiffel Tower and in some of the ethnic neighborhoods.
From now on, the summer solstice in America is going to seem so boring and quiet. Perhaps this is a happy tradition that we can import, like dining with dogs.