What Bastille Day means in America

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Photo from 'euthman' via Flikr

Photo from 'euthman' via Flikr

By Daniel J. Smiechowski

Bastille Day is the great national holiday of France, equivalent to our Independence Day. In the true Gallic tradition, Bastille Day is also celebrated in America.

Why have we Americans so fervently embraced a foreign holiday of which we know so little about? It is due, perhaps, to the unmistakable joie de vivre we have imported from the French culture. Our thoughts about Bastille Day are not so much an exercise in history, but rather a reflection of the things we view as endemic to the nation of France.

From the impressionistic skies of Normandy to the crashing waves of Biarritz, the country of ancient Gaul transports itself to America every July 14th. On this day, the French tricolor waves proudly along with our own “Stars and Stripes,” political intentions are discarded and a union of cultures is born of civility and cultivation. Francophiles unite for a celebration of the Gallic spirit here in America.

What exactly is this joie de vivre and how do we define it? It is partially Epicurean in nature, stemming from the most discriminating tastes in life’s finer pleasures. Yet, there is also an emotional aspect to why we Americans celebrate Bastille Day, which is tied to the romanticism inherent in the French language and culture. It is at times both melancholic and uplifting as it tugs at our innermost feelings.

The “Sweet France,” as she is sometimes affectionately called, endures as America’s oldest ally, the friendship spanning over two centuries. A good friend tries to give good advice as the French Government did in admonishing the United States not to invade Iraq. Now that they appear correct in their assessment of an ill advised Iraq invasion, it is time to recognize our well-intentioned friend. Since the “French Café Society” of the 1920s, subsequent modes of travel have been accessible to the masses, thereby fostering greater Franco-American cross-cultural awareness.

Several generations ago, the Great Liner Ile de France dazzled the world on her 1927 maiden voyage into New York Harbor. She was followed closely by the Normandie in 1935. The French liner offered the ultimate in Gallic luxury as America’s social register will attest. The elite often met on board the superliners. On the European side, disembarkation was at Cherbourg and Le Havre where the giddy travelers were whisked off to places like Chantilly, Longchamps, Chamonix, La Baule Deauville, Cannes, and of course the City of Lights itself. Douglas Fairbanks, Lady Astor and J.P. Morgan, Jr. were there, as were golfing great Bobby Jones, Gertrude Stein, Madame Curie and the effervescent Josephine Baker. The romance of the sea and the superliners were headed for their twilight years.

During the 1950s commercial air travel began to flow into Le Bourget and Orly airports outside Paris. These jumbo jets descended the storied low clouds of Paris like the giant Albatross in the epic poem “L’Albatross” by Charles Baudelaire. Except for the ill-timed launching of the superliner France in 1962, air travel had rendered a night on the North Atlantic obsolete. On a gray overcast day in 1979, church bells gently tolled, as the home port of Le Havre bid adieu to her beloved “France.” The great liners of the past began to fade into a distant memory.

Upon their landing in the City of Lights, American tourists were greeted by a warmth which touches the soul. It was a passion American travelers would feel, but could not fully describe.

At the world-renowned Café de la Paix, the cigarette girls moved like fallen angels, while a few blocks away, the famous Paris opera was entertaining American tourists.
Around the corner at Harry’s New York Bar, patrons kept busy perusing the International Herald Tribune and for those that could read it, the French daily Le Monde. For fine food and dining there would be Fauchon, Maxims, the George V, and countless other outstanding restaurants.

There was also the Comedy Française and the big three of French theater, Moliere, Corneille and Racine. French movies included perhaps the greatest films ever produced, “Children of Paradise,” “King of Hearts” and ” La Grande Illusion.” Also, who can forget the 1979 belly buster, “La Cage Aux Folles.” The Cordon Bleu Culinary Institute attracted those Americans interested in the gastronomic delights of France. The Tour de France cycling race and the lesser-known Paris-Roubaix event also attracted their share of U.S. tourists. During the early to mid eighties, the Nice Triathlon World Championship was dominated by San Diegans Mark Allen and Scott Tinley.

There were also the fine beaches of Cannes, Nice, La Baule, Deauville and Wissant. Several local swimmers had even swum the English Channel, among the most famous being Florence Chadwick. Along the coast of Normandy, American veterans would recall a time of great sacrifice at places like Utah and Omaha Beaches, Arromanches and Saint Mère Eglise.

The seemingly ubiquitous hedgerows of the Norman countryside are etched forever in America’s memory.

Additionally, American travelers would learn firsthand the wealth of customs in this country of contrasts. They would enjoy a collation at 4 p.m., sample a piece of Pont L’Eveque cheese in the Norman countryside, or try the famous crépes suzette at Le Mont St. Michel. There would even be the enjoyment of a morning glass of muscatel in the Brittany region of France. They would also learn the many patois or dialects scattered throughout this romantic country.

But finally, it is perhaps the children of France who truly make the holiday. The French have endeared their children to one of the highest levels on earth. This tells us all we ought to know about the Gallic spirit.

Daniel is a former public school teacher in San Diego, where he currently resides. He is considered an overall bon vivant, having written on topics as diverse as politics, bicycle racing, French Culture, philosophy and social issues. He has completed over one hundred triathlons worldwide and has visited France eighteen times at last count. He attended the University of France, “Sorbonne” and graduated from San Diego State University. He has run for public office nine times … finally being elected to The San Diego County Democratic Central Committee, 76AD in 2008.

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