The summer of 1989, I was living outside Paris with my mother and stepfather. I had just finished my last year of high school, and my best friend from California came to visit. Her visit overlapped with the 14th of July, known in France as “le quatorze juillet” (or “The 14th of July.”) Also known as Bastille Day, the anniversary of the start of the French revolution. This was to be the bicentennial celebration. There was lots of excitement about the the holiday, and my friend and I made plans to be in Paris for the big day itself.
We got to stay in a studio apartment that belonged to a friend of mine from high school. She was away, and knowing what a long train ride I lived from Paris, had offered the apartment to me for my friend’s visit. It was in the 8ème arrondissement, within walking distance to the Place de L’Étoile and the Champs-Élysées.
The night of the 14th was a beautiful one, and rather cool. I don’t remember what my friend and I did during the day, but by evening, we made our way back towards the Champs-Élysées to watch the big parade that everyone was talking about.
The metro and the streets were packed. Moving from the metro stop, it felt like I was being swept up in a wave of people. We were jammed together so tightly, with people pressing from all directions, I had the sense at times that if I stopped walking, I would be carried along by the crowds. (More likely I would have been trampled.) I find it remarkable that my friend and I didn’t get separated.
As we reached the expansive width of the Champs-Elysees, the crowd thinned enough for us to breathe easier and walk at our chosen pace. We strolled a bit and looked for a place to sit among the crowds on the sidewalks.
I remember very little about the actual parade. I couldn’t tell you who was in it, or even how long it was. I remember my friend’s confusion about why the people along the sidewalks would periodically shout “Ozzy! Ozzy!” (They were really shouting “assis! assis!” to get people closer to the street to sit down and stop blocking the view of those sitting further back on the sidewalk. It could be that part of why I remember so little about the parade was that I could actually see very little of it.)
I do remember that there were big tanker trucks from which people sprayed massive quantities of confetti over the street and spectators.
When the parade ended, after some amount of time, my friend and I got up and walked up the Avenue towards the Arc de Triomphe.
Feeling a bit bruised (possibly literally) from our arrival, we hung back a bit, and didn’t hurry. As we got further up the avenue, the amount of confetti on the ground increased. It had piled and drifted into heaps of little white paper dots. There were still plenty of people around, and the mood was festive. People started to scoop up handfuls of confetti from the street and throw them like snowballs. My friend and I joined in, laughing and tossing confetti at each other. Occasionally, some stranger would lob a heap of confetti our way. At one point, a group of teenage boys came up behind me and dumped a whole shopping bag of confetti over me, leaving me with a purple bag over my head. My friend, rather than coming to my assistance, laughed at me. Understandably.
We continued tossing confetti at each for a while, gradually still working our way up the avenue. At one point, I bent down to scoop another handful, and as I stood up, laughing, met the eyes of a fireman who must have been working crowd control. As soon as I met the fireman’s eye, he sprayed me with a fire extinguisher full on in the face, and turned to spray my friend as well. Perhaps he felt threatened by my hands full of confetti, or perhaps I looked particularly maniacal with my hair full of confetti and my gleeful laughing. (Of course, everyone looked rather wild at that point.) Perhaps it was just his way of joining in the fun. But, man, getting a face full (and a mouth full, since I’d been laughing) of fire extinguisher spray was pretty nasty.
With that acrid taste in our mouths, we continued on up towards the Arc de Triomphe, much more subdued (and rather baffled) after our run-in. By the time we reached the Place de l’Étoile, where traffic was still stopped from the parade, we were feeling pretty tired and dragging our feet a bit. There were still lots of people around, mostly also appearing to be heading away from the scene.
Suddenly, as we walked in front of the Arc, fireworks started directly overhead. Really, I should say capital-F-Fireworks. It was the most spectacular display I’d ever seen, and I’d never been so close to such large-scale fireworks. At times, it seemed as if the sparks would actually fall all the way down to us. (But they didn’t.) The fireworks lit up the smoke-filled air like daytime, and the beauty and awesomeness of the display was almost enough to wash the bitter aftertaste of the fire extinguisher from our mouths.
What’s more, it felt like we had stumbled across a completely unexpected treasure. We hadn’t known that there were fireworks scheduled at that location or time, nor apparently did the various others walking across the Place de L’Étoile that night. We all stopped together in wonder. Had we been in more of a hurry, we would have already been tucked away in the depths of the apartment building, perhaps hearing the muffled booms as we brushed our teeth. Instead, we found ourselves with front-row seats to a once-in-a-lifetime show.