When living in France, as we did for eight years, you learn there is no such thing as Bastille Day. Instead, “la Fête nationale” or “le 14 juillet” is the national public holiday celebrated on July 14 everywhere in France and in many places around the world. The date is never changed to make it convenient to a long weekend. It’s that important. Like 4th of July, Christmas Day, and New Years’ eve.
The 14th of July is the anniversary of the beginning of the revolution when the common people revolted against their king, Louis XVI, and the French aristocracy. In 1789, economic conditions in France were in crisis and tensions were nearing a breaking point. People were fed up and unable to afford daily bread.
The Bastille was a medieval fortress-prison that held political prisoners with no hope of pardon or freedom. It was also thought to contain munitions and gun powder. A crowd of angry citizens stormed inside the Bastille, freed the few [only 7 at the time] who were imprisoned, but found no guns. It was a compelling action and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 2010, we were living on the 5th floor of a small apartment building in Paris’ 7th arrondissement, on avenue de la Motte Picquet. Tall multi-paned windows opened like full length doors onto the street below. There was a direct view of the top third of the Eiffel Tower in the park of Champs de Mars. For five minutes every night, at the top of the hour, from dark until midnight we watched thousands of lights twinkling on la Tour Eiffel. It charmed our guests and was a spectacular display we never tired of during two years in the neighborhood.
What we did tire of was perpetual plumbing problems ancient apartment buildings in Paris are prone to. It’s all part of 19th century architectural charm. But still. Leaks from above dripped through our ceilings and light fixtures or down walls. After a middle of the night broken pipe in the wall of our unit flooded apartments one and two floors below, it was time to try our luck elsewhere in the city.
But for two summers, living near the Champs de Mars, we adventurously celebrated la Fête nationale far above the crowds amassed for the fireworks display along the river Seine. With the best seats in town.
French neighbors who lived in the apartment above ours shared the idea because they said the entire building would be deserted by early evening. And they weren’t going to try it themselves.
There was a tiny one-person-sized elevator in the back of the building that accessed 7th floor apartments. These “chambres de bonne” were maid’s quarters in another century. But in this century they made for inexpensive living, like a one room studio. The ceiling in the hallway of 7th floor had a trap door to the roof eight floors above the street.
By removing the ladder attached to the wall and climbing up to the hinged glass door, it was possible to unlatch and fold it back onto the metal roof. We came prepared. One backpack carried chilled champagne and glass flutes, crudités, and salty snacks. Another held big camera equipment. This was not a party for cell phone photography.
We gingerly situated ourselves on the angled roof near some chimney stacks and away from the sloping edge, set up the picnic, toasted a new adventure, waited for darkness and the show to begin.
We had a bird’s eye top-of-the-world view, albeit a bit precarious. Tiptoeing back up the roof and descending the ladder was another intrepid experience, but no one was the wiser. For two memorable years we managed to enjoy le 14 juillet festivities with a private rooftop party in magnificent Parisian scenery.
I’m reminded this week, on July 14, of the sacrifices French citizens made 233 years ago to spur change and move an entitled monarchy to a democratic republic for all.
Bonne Fête nationale aux français!