Bastille Day

Joelle Ballonzoli

© Copyright 2020 by Joelle Ballonzoli

Photo of the port of La Ciotat.

Bastille Day” is one of a series of short stories, each standing by itself, which focus on the importance placed on the communal nature of life in France in the 1950’s. The series is based on my childhood memories in La Ciotat, a shipyard town of what was then the blue collar portion of the French Mediterranean coast.

Two summer holidays marked my childhood: Bastille Day, July 14, the anniversary of the 1789 French revolution, and Assumption Day, August 15, which commemorates the Assumption in the Christian world - the day when the Holy Virgin Mary disappeared from the human race, rising up in the air on her way to heaven, her arms opened wide embracing the skies, looking down on us saying: “Goodbye, be good!”

Assumption Day was also my hometown’s feast day honoring the Virgin who was its protectoress. For us it was a family day. My mother’s first name being Marie, we celebrated her by showering her with flowers, which she loved, and a big summer dinner at my grand-parents’ house in the country. That day felt a bit like the end of the summer to me because the second portion of August usually brought stormy weather in the Mediterranean. September was beautiful, but by then the beaches were deserted. The excitement was gone. It didn’t feel like summer anymore.
I liked Bastille Day better than Assumption Day not only because of the weather, but also because it was more festive. The celebration started on the night of July 13 with a parade led around town by the Municipal Marching Band, in which Ciotadin adults and children carried paper lanterns set on sticks. This tradition called The Torchlight Retreat had been established in 1890 to commemorate the symbolic storming of the Bastille by the people of Paris – during the monarchy, the Bastille was a prison where convicted aristocrats lived a luxurious life at the expense of the taxpayers. I watched the Torchlight Retreat every year from the sidewalk, envying the privileged kids who marched in it and wondering how they had managed to get in, envying them.
The Retreat was beautiful to my child’s eyes. At one point it became magical. Getting to a part of the town that had very little public lighting it would become shrouded in a dark haze. As it entered the area the blackness accentuated the multicolored pastel glow of the lanterns. Lantern bearers disappeared. The lights of the multicolor lanterns bobbing up and down in the dark bounced like a procession of fireflies floating down a mountain stream. The vision was enough for me to leave the real world for a few minutes and cross the threshold into a dreamlike state. Depending on the mood intensity, the tableau would take me to other areas of my chronic reverie. Among them my observation of fishing boats lights floating on La Ciotat bay, viewed from my favorite spot at the entrance of the port, in the late afternoon when the days got short in the fall.

On the morning of July 14, the commemoration starts at the small historical triangle shaped Liberty Plaza. Liberty Plaza is formed by the meeting of three narrow streets each barely 10 feet wide, along which stand three- and four-story pastel colored buildings. On the Plaza’s western side lies the old convent and the chapel of the Minimes, a Catholic order founded by Saint Francis of Paule in 1436, now defunct in France. Also on the western side of the Plaza, still stand the houses of dignitaries from before and after the Republic was declared in 1793. On its eastern and northern sides, most buildings were built in the 19th century.
A humongous poplar tree, The Tree of Liberty, stands in the middle of the Plaza. The Tree is so big that its upper branches almost reach the houses on each side of the plaza. Starting in 1789, the French developed the custom of planting poplar trees or oaks all over France’s cities, towns and villages as a symbol of the nation’s strength and power – poplars and oaks were considered the strongest trees able to overcome the consequences of time and severe weather. I do not know how many times La Ciotat’s original Tree was replaced, but the current one must be at least as old as I am. By the Tree stands the Declaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, Declaration of Man’s and Citizen’s Rights, the equivalent of the Bill of Rights, proclaimed in the aftermath of the storming of the Bastille. It is engraved on a stone shaped as an open book. The piece looks very much like the one that Moses delivered to the Hebrews on his way back from Mount Sinai in the popular film, The Ten Commandments, which my father took me to see when I was eight years old in 1956. The Declaration of Men’s and Citizens’ Rights was explained to me in grammar school the following year demystifying my confusion with the Ten Commandments of God. Nevertheless, the impressive scene in which Charlton Heston stands before the Hebrews with the stones tablets on his arms will ever be associated with La Ciotat’s Tree of Liberty and the Declarations of the French republic in my memory.
On Bastille Day, La Ciotat’s mayor accompanied by dignitaries and supporters gives a speech by the tree around 11 am. When the speech is over, the attendants sings a somewhat discordant version of the French national anthem. The scene today is far from having the impact it had on me when Pascale and I attended the event after mass once in the 1950’s. That crowd was larger and seemed more attentive to the speech. The singing sounded more passionate. I couldn’t explain the new emotion provoked in me by this powerful expression of patriotism. It took me in the throat and obstructed my wind. I didn’t want to let myself cry. I swallowed the lump in my gullet as strongly as I could, so that the tears would stay in. Mimi whose family was Communist and didn’t go to church, had met us at the site. As the first words of the anthem reached her ears – Arise children of the Patria. The day of glory has arrived….”, Mimi burst into tears. Pascale, who never missed an opportunity to show her cynicism, would mock us making faces. “Dummies! Joelle you look like you’re passing out.” She kicked me. Mimi indignant hiccupping “My uncle died for France.” “OK, but this is not a reason for bringing Versailles’ Great Waters at any occasion.” Pascale would turn her back to us and caught up with the anthem: “Against the tyranny, the bloodying flag has been raised…”

After lunch the bulk of La Ciotat population reconvened on the port to attend another traditional event, the targues, or Provencal Jousts, a naval sport, which is still practiced but does not attract the kind of crowds it once did. The Jousts’ origin is lost in antiquity, but their tradition is more than tercentenary in La Ciotat. The jousts involve two teams, with one player at a time standing on a small platform placed at the end of two long beams, each securely attached on the back of the two boats; one painted in white and red, the other in white and blue, the colors of the two teams. The platforms extend off the back of the boats about three or four meters over the water. Each player is armed with a 10-foot-long wooden spear and protected by a heavy hard wooden shield attached around his trunk. As the boats ride towards each other coming from opposite directions, each player aims his spear at his opponent’s shield, attempting to knock him off his platform and into the water.

The targues took place between two jetties, across from the church and close to my house. I rarely missed a competition on Bastille Day. I attended with my brother Gerard who was in charge of keeping an eye on me, which he would do for a short period of time before he became restless and lost patience watching the game. Over the years his diversions during the games went from catching crabs and limpets on the rocks by the entrance of the port to messing around with girls wherever he could find a quiet remote place, such as one of La Ciotat’s old stone washes that were deserted on the holiday. I was not privy to those activities. When watching the game, one of his favorite locations was an old small rotting raft that was attached to the dock. He stood on it, legs apart shaking the slippery wood plank. My mother had prohibited him to get on the raft. But she was not there and he could not resist the prospect of an exciting ride, rocking the raft back and forth, faster and faster, sometime losing his balance and falling in the dirty waters at the docks edge. In those cases, he would get back home sheepish, all wet and partially covered with the fishing boats greasy exhaust that floated like a film on the surface of the waters. My mother would then show an incomparable dexterity in the art of the round-trip slap, which made him declare: “My mom is short, but she has very ‘dry hands’.”
Once, I got bored watching young men falling into the water over and over again after an hour or so. It was hot. I had gotten thirsty and I wanted to go home. I just hesitated to do so as I was a little worried that my brother, who had disappeared as usual, might have to experience my mother’s dry hands again for leaving me alone. Thus, I just stood there waiting for him to come back from his adventure of the day and hoped that Pedru Titia - Peter-I’m-cold, the vendor, would come around. Pedru Titia was the nickname given by the old Sardinians to one of their own. Pedru was a tall dark man. In contrast, he had a short neck making his shoulders appear very high and attached directly to his head. He often kept his arms very close to his body, sometime hugging himself like he was cold. It was these two very special characteristics that had given him his nickname.
Pedru carried a large basket full of bags of greasy potato chips, peanuts in the shell and a few small bottles of orange flavored carbonated water called Pschitt, up and down the port or along the beaches according to the mood of the day. Lucky me! Pedru liked the joust game and was walking the port on that day. Double lucky me, my mother had given my brother and me 10 cents each to spend as we pleased. I bought a Pschitt that had left the fridge hours earlier.
I was just starting to sip very slowly on my straw to make the beverage last as long as possible when Gerard showed up, all disheveled, his knees bruised and his Sunday shirt in tatters. As I asked him what had took him so long he replied “There has been a fight between the Theater neighborhood gang and the Marin Plaza gang by the green beacon. I had no choice but standing with the Theater guys because that’s grandpa’s and grandma’s neighborhood. It’s a matter of loyalty you see. I lost my 10 cents during the brawl and I’m dying thirsty.” I should have been wary - my brother could not help himself eating my holiday candies and stealing pennies from my piggy bank. Instead I proposed to share and handed him my Pschitt. With one gulp he sucked the bottle dry! I started crying looking at the empty bottle. He put his arm around my shoulders and said: “I am sorry. I didn’t mean it. But if you don’t tell mom I drank all your soda, I’ll make it up to you. I promise I’ll buy you two as soon as I have the money to do so.” I knew he’d never do it, but I forgave him because I also knew otherwise that our mother’s hands would be even dryer if I told her, then just the dryness caused by the ruined Sunday shirt.

The most important event of the day for me occurred at 10 pm on Bastille Day when the fireworks started shooting streams of beautiful illuminations up over our heads; shouts of Hoh(s)! and Hah(s)! rising up from the crowd as the lights sparkled then faded into the sky. The whole town packed the far east end of the port, as the fireworks were shot from the western side by the port entrance. Even the Soeurs Quiquettes, literally Peepee Sisters, a slang expression to designate the religious order of Trinitary Sisters, attended every year in a group. A Catholic order of nurse nuns who serviced home bound patients, the Sisters travelled around town on scooters, their clothing and veils floating behind them on windy days; a vision worth appearing in one of Luis Buńuel’s Surrealist period movies. Sometime in history, the congregation might also have been known for charitable collections because in good French they were called Soeurs-qui-quętent for sisters-who-take-up-the-collection. Qui-quętent is pronounced exactly as the word quiquette, which is equivalent to peepee in the Marseillese region slang. It follows in the Marseillese lingual tradition of playing on words, usually associating them with body parts or functions.
In addition to the sisters, the other Ciotadins I could not avoid noticing were the ones who were on leave from their mandatory military service. Young men, 18 and 19 years old, who a short time before had been the town’s teenage “hunks”, now looked like shy dogs after they have just come back from the groomer’s neatly shaved for the summer. Their hair was gone, their heads round as billiard balls. I had watched them playing soccer on the street, or showing great dexterity in the art of slingshot, or diving in the Mediterranean from the rocky hills of le Mugel, tanned and strong. Now they looked all shriveled and awkward to me without their hair. I noticed some of them had big ears, some had pimples. I no longer found them handsome.
There had long been a populist maxim among the French working class stating that no man was really a man until he went through mandatory military service. Now in the 1950’s, people didn’t seem to be so sure that the military would necessarily emphasize manhood. Especially where I grew up, in the world that had historically and patriotically provided the bulk of cannon fodder. France was at war in its colonies; first in Viet Nam from 1946 to 1954 and then in Algeria from 1954 to 1962. Sending their youth to uncharted territories, such as the torrid lands at the edge of the Sahara, to fight a guerilla type war that no one could apprehend had become a great source of uncertainty. Anxiety, doubt and fear was palpable among the population. As children we perceived this uncomfortable and troubling atmosphere. My older cousin who had been drafted right at the end of the school year 1955 at 18 years old and had come back home in one piece, never spoke about his experience in the army. No one asked. Maybe nobody wanted to know. Or maybe my adult relatives made sure not to discuss the issue when I was around. Still I occasionally caught fragments of adults’ conversations.

Rose did Nine heard from her son? Do you know anything? I ran into her yesterday. I didn’t dare to ask. She looks so drained. It’s a pity.”

No; She is my sister in law, but I don’t feel comfortable asking; just like you. My brother has decided he doesn’t want to speak about it. They don’t even listen to the news on the radio or read the papers. They feel our kids are being killed and the ones who are safe and lucky to be in college, should have a little respect for that. They find the demonstrations offensive.”

The Communist Party…..”

Yes, Krushchev is telling them what to do!”

 There were horror stories circulating at low voice among the adult population about the treatments provided by the Algerian freedom fighters to their prisoners. No one could shield anybody from noticing casualties. One of them, a young man who lived down the street from my grand-parents’ had been tortured and was now seriously mentally damaged. He walked through the streets locked in a dream, staring off into nowhere.

Hello Jeannot. How is it going?”

Comme ci, comme ca…”

I knew Jeannot since I was born. Only three years before, in 1953, he had taken my brother and me to a pine grove in the municipal park to sit among the trees. We both had whooping cough and exposing us to the beneficial essence released by the pines had improved our breathing. Now, seeing him that way broke my little girl heart.
Whether in war or in peace time, the victorious Republic had to be celebrated on Bastille Day. After the fireworks ended, the crowd headed toward the Great Ball Plaza. We, the crowd, walked east towards it, along the road that bordered the water, where the walls that protected the town once stood. At 10:30, the Bastille Day ball would start. On our way, on the wide sidewalk between the road and a parapet overlooking the water, stood a carnival, which had long been coming to La Ciotat three times a year for a two-week duration. Its ensemble consisted of various carousels and rides for children and adults, candy stands, shooting galleries and other amusements. We might have started on a wooden horse at four years old and ended up shooting targets as adults. There was entertainment for all ages. I didn’t like to hang out there for too long. It was noisy, crowded and by the time we reached the Great Ball Plaza we were covered with dust because that sidewalk was really just a dirt path. It had never been tarred.

Despite the drawback, there were two concessions I liked: Mr. Leandri’s merry-go-round and the Russ candy stand. Mr. Leandri’s merry-go-round was a small carousel for children. Mr. Leandri waved a red pompom over the kids’ heads as the carousel circled. If they caught the pompom they won a free ride. The Russ candy stand was long and narrow. It was painted in white with the name of its owner in fancy red letters on its pediment. There were mirrors lining the back wall, in which I could see myself over the dumplings, nougat, candied apples and lollipops. I liked to watch Mr. Russ working the sugar of a Marseille region lollipop specialty flavored with anise. It was similar to the work of a Mozzarella maker, except that the candy man manipulated a meter-long expanse of anise flavored sugar until it turned into a multiple-color-streaked paste. He stretched it, twisted it and finally laid it down on a marble plate where he chopped it in berlingot-shaped candies. At the other end of the stand, his wife was standing behind two enormous copper cauldrons. In one of them was bubbling a red sugar mixture in which she dipped apples before carefully depositing them one at a time on another marble plate, holding them by a three-to-four-inch long wooden sticks that pierced the apples core. In the other cauldron was boiling oil on top of which were floating a dozen Chichi Fregi, dumplings, which took their name from their shape reminiscent of the human penis in the Marseille slang, and way of cooking fried, or fregi in the Provencal language. As well as the apples, the dumplings were also carefully removed one at a time with a big strainer prior to being rolled in powdered sugar and deposited on a sheet of wax paper. I was always attracted by the dumplings because it was one thing I could never have. My mother had decided they were bad for me. “The oil in which they are cooked is a hundred years old….” She bought Gerard and me a lollipop once in a while, but no candy apple either because she had a similar opinion about the red sugar mixture as she had about the oil of the dumplings. “ It looks like the glue that Riri uses to fix shoes!”

Next to the Russ candy stand was a shooting gallery. Across from it, just at the edge of the sidewalk by a palm tree, stood a music box, 2 ˝ by 2 ˝ feet square, 5 ˝ feet high. The box’s lower part was made of wood, the upper part of glass. It was attached to the tree with a heavy chain. Visible through the cubic glass part of the structure was the upper body of a woman made of celluloid. She had wavy dull brown hair arranged in a 1930’s style. Her complexion was pasty despite her pink cheeks and red lips which looked like they had been refreshed a million times. Her brown eyes made of glass were glance-less with a point of hardness. Her torso was heavy, covered by a dusty looking red velvet top. Her arms were severed at the level of the elbows. With a nickel inserted in a slot located just below the glass box, you could hear her voice and see her lips move. She sang only one old tune in a mechanic melancholic voice. There was something about this robot that caused me to stop and observe her a bit every time I passed by. It awoke mixed and contradictory feelings in me. I could feel all the misery and the sadness of the world in this glass box. At the same time there was something a little creepy that emerged from it. To a kid like me who loved epic movies, books and storytelling, it evoked the wretched ambience of the street performers’ world as it appeared in some of the French populist literature of the 19th Century and the adaptations of those stories in black and white film. It took my imagination to the harrowing childhood of characters such as Gwynplaine in Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, that our teacher had read to us a couple of chapters at a time on Friday afternoons during the previous school year. Gwynplaine was one of many abandoned children who was kidnapped by a carnival and mutilated to be shown as a freak. His face was disfigured as to give the impression of a permanent smile.
Around the age of ten, I developed a fascination for the airplanes ride. The red airplanes ride stood at the beginning of the carnival row, right next to the bumper cars. The planes were mounted on heavy supports attached to a central axis; the whole gear lit by white fluorescents set along the supports. When the carousel started, the planes slowly went up. Once at their highest, they got in motion and now could be manually maneuvered up and down. I had been watching those planes and lobbying heavily every time the carnival was in town when my parents finally agreed to let me ride. I sat in one plane with my father. The plane went up and started gaining speed. Suddenly, in the plane, up there in the air, at great speed, it hit me. I could not breathe. I felt like a ton of led was crushing my chest. Paralyzed by fear, I had no idea what was happening to me. My father cuddled me under his right arm, reassuring me at low voice while releasing the steering wheel with his left hand, lowering the plane as much as he could to the point of almost touching the wooden board at the base of the ride. After ten minutes that felt like a century, the ride ended and I finally got out of the plane to my relief. Disoriented and ashamed of myself, with a few adults and children that I perceived as a crowd looking at me, I apprehended future taunts for having chickened out in what I considered a personal failure. The only positive part of that episode if there was one is that my mother bought me a Chichi for the first and last time to console me.

The last event of the day, the Bastille Day Ball tradition dates back to 1790, when a dance took place among the ruins of the Bastille, which had been demolished after the attack. La Ciotat’s Great Ball Plaza, which had been especially built to host that tradition in 1850, has survived time, bad weathers and three wars, including the allieds’ bombings during World War 2. It is a structure made of stone, which stands at the foot of a hill facing the Mediterranean, on the land side of the coast road, opposite the end tail of the carnival site. At the bottom of the hill, the dance floor is paved with large stone slabs that have been smoothed by time. At the top of the hill, overhanging, stands the Chapel of the Blue Penitents built in 1612 by a Catholic seaman brotherhood, today an art gallery. On the hill’s flank are rows of bleachers made of stone.
On ball nights the whole area was lit by a garland of light bulbs that ran along the periphery, side to side and top to bottom from the Chapel to the road. A small orchestra stood on a stage set on the hill flank halfway between its top and bottom. The more senior Ciotadins and other watchers settled in the bleachers, the youth and the dancers down on and around the esplanade. The watchers who could not find room on the bleachers would bring a chair from home and settled at the edge of the esplanade. Back in the days when TV sets were rare and air conditioning non-existent, any opportunity for people to get out of their house was always welcome in the hottest month of the year. Besides, Bastille Day was a unique annual event, patriotism and national pride prevailing. Some people would miss the fireworks in order to arrive early and find room on the bleachers. They brought food in picnic baskets: wine and trays of stuffed tomatoes, zucchini and eggplants, summer fruit, peaches and apricots, melon and watermelon. They settled comfortably on pillows brought from home, commenting extensively on the dancing below. Some of the bleacher people were of the guardian and chaperone category. They were a mothers or fathers, or both who had taken charge of a group of girls from their neighborhood to make sure that the action stayed on the dance floor. In case of a stray, an alert was given. One of these watchers, a Sardinian resident of Merlet Street, nicknamed Rabbit Snout because of her two prominent front teeth, was the La Ciotat’s champion watcher. She could scan the area in record time with piercing eyes. Beware if you got caught disappearing from under her gaze! It might be your last ball….
Down on the dance floor it was all tango, waltz and polka. From the sidelines I watched my parents getting into the action. They were very good dancers, all harmony and coordination. If I start calling up those images of them floating across the dance floor to a waltz or a tango today, I feel a little pinch in my heart. Tears come up to my eyes recalling the pride and emotion I felt watching them. A hunk and a fairy! Not so harmonious was my brother’s dancing! He was the only boy in the family. As such he had to take my cousin and me one at a time on the dance floor. Gerard was an unruly and brutal dancer who would take us out in fine form only to leave us with a spinning head, exhausted and nauseous by the time our turn ended. His whirling was forceful. We didn’t look light and elegant like mom and dad their feet barely touching the ground when waltzing. We looked more like a bull dragging a powerless calf along on a crazy spinning rampage.

In these fast days of Globalization, traditions that lasted many generations can die quickly or evolve into episodes I no longer recognize. Bastille Day rituals have not escaped this fate. The Torch Retreat has been extinguished. No carnivals come to La Ciotat anymore. The municipal government leadership found carnivals too populist for what they aim to be the town’s future. Their quintessential vision seems to be another seaside resort devoid of character like most of the towns along the French Riviera today. The Great Ball Plaza has been renamed May 8 Esplanade to commemorate the 1945 World War 2 armistice. Old timers still call it by its original name either because they have a hard time changing, or else because the World War 2 armistice doesn’t mean much to them since France lost the war in 1940 and La Ciotat was liberated by the 7th American Army in August 1944. The Bastille Ball disappeared from the life of the Ciotadins, no traditional live band, no accordion, no tango, no waltz, no polka, no nosey chaperones. All gone! The Republic is now celebrated under strobe lights and disco balls to the repetitive sound of a thumping bass and synthesizers, away from the Great Ball Plaza. It was moved over to the beach by the hotels and restaurants that serve the summer crowds. The magic is gone, there is nothing in the new ritual to bring us together as one united town. There are only Techno and tourists.

Originally from France, I have been living in the United States since 1979. I came to New York as a dancer-choreographer attracted by the tremendous creative energy that animated the downtown scene in those days. A few years ago, I became interested in writing as I witnessed the rapid decline of the local culture, so dear to me, when I visited in my hometown. The evolution of societies toward individualism, as well as Globalization have left little room for such culture and similar ones to survive.

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