In Paris, sometimes it seems that the party -- or some part of the party -- is in the street.
Yesterday evening Miss Bee and I trotted over to the Caserne St. Sulpice on rue du Vieux Colombier for the Bastille Day bal populaire offered by the Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris. I had been advised by two handsome firemen earlier in the week not to arrive too late. So, let's see -- about 9:30? -- I figured. We didn't want to appear too desperate and be the first belles at the ball on the stroke of nine.
Oops. When Bee and I arrived at 9:30, the line was already wrapped around the block like this.
We shrugged and figured we'd get in soon enough, and began our wait with the rest of the crowd. She was texting her college friends who were at Chatelet, giving instructions how to find us.
While she held our place in line, I snuck around the back to check out the party action at the actual entrance. The loudspeakers were blaring Rod Stewart's "The Year of the Cat." The lights were twinkling in the dusk as earlybirds mingled in the courtyard. Partygoers squeezing in at the gate were directed to a big plastic bin to deposit any monetary contribution to the fete. From my spying, it seemed that donations ran the gamut: some people were pretending to put a coin in the slot, and yet I saw others pop in a 10€ bill. The young pompiers, bursting out of their polo shirts, jazzing around at their tasks, were clearly in their element. The air was charged with anticipation. At the bar in the corner, the sign read "Champagne à la coupe 6€." Another oops. I knew I'd have to report back to Bee, since she'd been banking on free champagne.
I joined her back in the line, pleased that we'd made decent forward progress. It was mostly a fun and boisterous younger-than-me crowd, and they were coming and going from their outposts to get take-out beer (at usurious prices) from nearby bars, for quenching thirsts during the wait.
As people walked by viewing the line, here's what we heard.
"Oh, merde, c'est dingue!" (Young soirée-clad woman talking on her cell phone.)
"C'est long, long, long." (Pretty blonde reporting back to her friends after a scouting expedition to find the front of the line.)
"Ah, mais que voulez-vous, c'est le meilleur bal de Paris." (Older guy, tony dresser, ambling by with his BCBG date. I don't think they planned to wait in line.)
"Quoi, tous les pompiers vont se mettre à poil?" (Drunk guy with a baggy jacket and a black backpack, polling the people in line as to why they were still waiting: Were they hoping that the firemen would get naked?)
"Il n'y a plus de places à l'interieur!" (Grumpy invisible guy shouting to the crowd, hoping to make people leave the line by telling them they'd never get in.)
As we rounded the corner on rue du Vieux Colombier this lout and his date arrived out of nowhere and brazenly slipped into the line in front of the group immediately in front of us. I was annoyed that no one protested. So I made a few loud comments to Bee, like, "When you're 6'3" and wearing a bright white shirt, you really stand out and it's soooo obvious when you are an obnoxious line-jumper." I repeated it in French for good measure. Of course, when you are 6'3" and beefy like him, probably no one is going to mess with you when you are an expresshole line-jumper. But I thought I'd wreak my pathetic vengeance by posting a photo of his back on my blog.
Finally Bee's friends arrived. After chatting with them for a spell it was after 11 pm with at least another half hour before any hope of getting into the party (we'd reached the second line on the photo above). So I decided to call it an evening. I'd had plenty of crowd-entertainment for one night. It was chilly, and my cramped toes were beginning to ache in my pointy party shoes. Besides, to be honest it was more their crowd than mine, and so I opted to be a sensible Cendrillon and leave the ball before midnight.
I escaped the hubbub and strolled happily home in the dark of Paris, clasping my cardigan gently at my collarbone to ward off the chill of the evening air. Rue de Babylone was still and peaceful. I looked up between the streetlamps and gasped: the expanse of western sky, a deep sapphire blue, was decorated with dense, flat clouds painted in rust and salmon. A bright half moon hung to the south. I stepped slowly along the silent sidewalk, gawking at the unexpected poetry of the night.
At the back entrance to the gardens of the Hotel Matignon, a solitary policeman on guard quietly greeted me. "Bonsoir." A well-aged, gravelly voice.
"Bonsoir," I echoed.
"On vous entend de loin." I heard your footsteps from far away, he said.
"Ah, oui." I paused, and nodded at my shoes.
"You were looking up at something?" he asked.
"Oh, the sky," I exclaimed. "Did you see? The clouds and the sky! It's so..."
"Oui, c'est beau, Paris," said my officer, glancing skyward, then back down.
"Yes, it is. So beautiful." A pause. A returned smile. A pause. "Well, bonne soirée," I offered as I continued on.
"Be careful," he cautioned gently.
"Oh... merci. J'habite tout près. Au revoir."