AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France — The only bad thing about vacations is that they eventually end. But what better grand finale than Bastille Day, France’s July 4, complete with a real-life general, an oompah band, 20 minutes of fireworks set to classical music, and a 16-piece disco-pop-rock orchestra, complete with go-go girls pulsating beneath the statue of King Rene, who led Provence in the 15h century.
You really had to be there.
The official celebration began at 5 p.m. with a bit of speechifying and a “parade” that amounted to a few fire trucks driving up the city’s renowned, tree-lined Cours Mirabeau; the general getting in and out of his vehicle on special portable steps; and several dozen well-armed representatives of the French military.
There was, however, an awfully good old-fshioned band, decked out in white and wearing straw hats, which continued to play after the pomp and circumstance had ended. Or at least tried to play. By then it was 6:15 p.m. Up the street, by the statue, the evening’s rock band (Orchestre XL, according to the logo on its trucks) was setting up for its concert with some wicked riffs piped through powerful amplifiers. Down the street, city workers banged around noisily disassembling the metal gates put up for crowd control. And through all the clatter and conflicting music, the oompah band played on for a small but appreciative audience.
“Who’s in charge here?” Kathy asked.
This being the South of France, the answer seemed pretty obvious. Let’s put it this way. In England, people form neat lines and wait patiently. American lines are somewhat less orderly and less patient. In France, whether waiting for a bus or a ski lift, people form flying wedges. May the best man win. So the Bastille Day cacophony seemed only fitting.
The fireworks were elegant and dramatic, with quiet arcs of silver intersecting in the sky as interludes between the usual bangs and sparkles. The yellow lab beside us didn’t like the noise at all. So his owner rewarded him when the last glitter fell from the sky by letting him dive into one of the city’s fountains in the middle of Cours Mirabeau.
And then Orchestre XL got down to business: five horns (three saxes, trumpet and trombone), five singers, bass, guitarist, synthesizer keyboardist, drummer …. and two go-go dancers. First the dancers appeared dressed in white with angel wings, which waved through a rendition of the theme song for the musical Mamma Mia. It was, shall we say, an interesting interpretation.
Next, as the music turned to a harder-edged rock, they appeared in black leather, scooped to the waist in the back and leaving awfully little to the imagination in the front. As the light show flashed even brighter and smoke rose from the floor of the three-level stage, they re-appeared, this time slmost as scantily clad as the dancers in Paris’ famous Moulin Rouge — just before those dancers dove into the big tank with the snakes (that’s another story from a long time ago).
The Bastille Day program was … eclectic. First, lots of disco (“burnin’). Then atonal rock whose genre escapes me (’90s, I believe, but I never listened to that stuff). Then the standby Volare began a Spanish medley, during which one of the dancers walked onstage dressed as a matador. And when the lead singer launched into a song whose chorus seemed to start with “in America,” the dancers were back, this time wrapped in American flags (bathing suit, cap and cape).
The French don’t much like American politics, but they clearly love our culture, even if the version of that culture celebrated here is a bit dated. At one point, much of the crowd joined in the Bus Stop, a line dance we did with friends at New Year’s Eve parties at my parents’ Vermont house a long, long time ago.
Response singing was big, too, last night, though it was sometimes difficult to decipher, what with the challenges of language as the band sang one American song after another (one audience response was, “I say the la,” which my intrepid wife interprets as “I see the light.”)
We tired after awhile and sat down on a bench next to a pleasant-looking woman about our age. That’s when Kathy felt hot breath on her arm. Something touched her. She turned abruptly to discover that the woman’s French mop (a little dog with lots of hair drooping over its eyes) had taken a liking to her and rested a paw on her leg.
Ah, yes. All vacations must end. At 12:40, Kathy bade dog and owner goodnight. We lingered for a few more songs and headed to our hotel, just as the band launched into “we will, we will rock you.”
I can’t imagine what came next.