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a short respite from tyranny

by Claude Monet


Today is Bastille day. But if you call it Bastille day (or jour de bastille) in France, they’ll blink at you blankly for a few moments until a flash of recognition comes over their faces and they say “ahhhhhh, La Fete Nationale! Or “ahhh, Juillet 14th!

The French do that a lot…blink blankly when you attempt to speak to them in their native tongue. Personally, I think it’s is a passive aggressive thing (come on, Frenchy, you couldn’t make the mental leap from Bastille day to Fete Nationale? Donnez moi un break. –Or is that une break?) but I’ll let that slide for the moment.

La Fete Nationale commemorates the anniversary of the French taking a stand against the monarchy (Louis, Louis and Louis) and storming the Bastille to free the political prisoners put there by the King. There were only seven prisoners in the Bastille when they stormed it (sounds more like a drizzle than a storm). But I guess it’s the thought that counts.

Afterwards, some guy named Bernard Raspail (I believe he was named after a good shopping street on the Rive Gauche) got together with some other guys, Thomas Jefferson among them, and wrote a lovely document about the rights of man which is very similar to our Declaration of Independence. This lead to the French revolution. Which lead to Napoleon who was worse than what they revolted against. Now that I think about it, what the hell are they celebrating?

Like our Fourth of July, Juillet 14 has parades, fireworks (feu d’artifice), flag waving and general nationalist fervor…everything I hate.

My deep and abiding terror of fireworks (with the possible exception of sparklers is the result of reading a book about a kid who went blind from a firecracker when I was five. I think it was supposed to be some uplifting tale about rising above difficulties, but all I got out of it was a 40 year plus fear of fireworks. I usually need to be sedated on firework related holidays. Especially after 9/11.

But even if I LIKED fireworks, it seems a little excessive for freeing seven prisoners.  I kind of get the fireworks for our Independence day– we had a war and there really were the rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air.

Wouldn’t a more appropriate celebration be locking some people in a closet or small room and then freeing them? Maybe followed by a drunken fistfight? Think of the money they’d save on fireworks.

I’m hoping here in Auvers, at least the festivities will be on a smaller scale than what I’m used to in New York. I’m also hoping that every time I hear a firecracker pop I won’t react the same way I did in New York, which was to shield my eyes, cower in a corner and contemplate how best to flee the city.

by Eduoard Manet

Here, the fireworks actually begin on the 13th. I discover this on the 13th, when at twilight a series of explosions rouse me from my pot au creme induced stupor. I rouse myself long enough to figure out the sounds are Fete Nationale related and return to my stupor.

Then I smell smoke. Once I’ve determined I haven’t set the house on fire I figure that someone is burning leaves again. Until the sirens sound. Yes, the first sirens I’ve heard in Auvers in almost three months.

I take it as a sign of emotional health that the thought of terrorism doesn’t cross my mind. The possibility that the sirens are a dragnet is coming to take me back and try me for crimes I’ve forgotten or for saying something bad about the US government flickers, but doesn’t take hold. Nor does the “Diary of Anne Frank” movie flashback that makes me want to hide in the attic at the sound of European sirens.

Nonetheless, I rush to the window to see what’s going on. To my relief, firetrucks race past Rue du Pois and line up in front of the empty building used for the Thursday/Sunday market. The roof is burning. And I just know it’s some stray spark from one of those nationalist firecrackers that has caused the damage. When will these people learn?

A fire I can deal with. And looking out the window, it seems the people of Auvers take it as opportunity to socialize. I go outside and join the crowd watching the fire as if it were on wide screen tv. It’s almost as though the fire is part of the festivities. I look for a keg. I check out the firemem (Like every woman in the world, I have fireman fantasies). Maybe I should find myself a nice French Fireman. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate? I guess this probably isn’t a good time to flirt with them, though. But they are doing a mighty fine job. The fire is almost out. And that guy on the ladder sure seems to know what to do with his hose.

My neighbors Jerome and Carole interrupt my reveries. They introduce me to some other neighbors. We chat. Well, they chat and I pick out words I understand and nod accordingly.

I also make my first French joke: le jour independence en France est meilleux que notre le jour independence en par ce que Les Francais a les feu d’artifice ET les feu vraiment. It’s not very funny in English and only mildly funny in French, but they seem to appreciate the effort.

Now that it’s dark enough, The fireworks by the river start to go off, and I nervously look back towards the house. I notice the front window is open. Good lord, is history repeating itself? Has the prison been breached?  Have my kitties escaped?

When I get to the house, my worst fears are confirmed: Desdemona is in the center of the lawn chewing some grass. God knows where Denzel is. I pick up Desdemona and carry her back to the house. She serenades me with some of the most horrifying sounds I’ve ever heard from a cute little cat. They could definitely use her for Exorcist 4 (or whatever number they’re on).

Denzel is the real problem. If he’s out there, he might as well be invisible because it’s dark and he’s black. My only hope of finding him is the bell on his collar.

I search the house and he’s nowhere to be found. I go outside and I start to call him frantically. Silence.

I could sure use some of those wartime night vision goggles right now. The light from the fireworks (which I’m sure are lovely) aren’t quite enough to light the yard. I finally hear the tinkle of his bell and see him sitting calmly among the bushes. But as I walk towards him, he dashes off in the other direction. He stops when he gets a good distance and rolls on the grass as the rockets red glare and bombs burst in air overhead. But as soon as I get close, he takes off in another direction and once again, when he gets a good distance, he rolls luxuriantly, taunting me. Dogdamnsonofabitch!

This goes on for a half hour, me chasing him from the bushes, to the lawn to the bushes to the lawn to the bushes… until a neighbor kid yells something to his mom, which freaks Denzel out and he runs to the front door and paws desperately at it until I let him back in the house. I’m sure there are some who would say that his hasty retreat only proves that Denzel has some French in his blood.

The fireworks have stopped now. Denzel and Desdemona are locked safely in their room (being punished) and now I feel ready to celebrate the true meaning of the holiday. I crack open another pot au crème. The cats scratch at the door and make complaining noises. Denzel occasionally yowls in dissent.

Poor kitties, I think to myself as I savor the rich creamy dessert. Let them eat cake.

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