I woke up on the Fourth of July and opened the window and there was Paris, six stories down, looking like the movies — that’s one of the things with Paris, it really does look just like the movies. Trees really do rain blossoms at just the right moment and it doesn’t matter what bakery you go to because they are going to serve you the best chouquettes you’ve ever had. Those are all the truths I know about Paris now, but at the time I didn’t know any of that because I’d only lived there for two days.
The French Fete Nationale was coming up on July 14th — in America we call it Bastille Day when we celebrate it, because America has three talents and one of them is “adopting other countries’ national holidays as an excuse to get completely fucking wasted, possibly while wearing culturally insensitive headgear.” (The other two are Broadway musicals and Frank’s RedHot.) I already knew how to do Bastille Day, is what I’m saying, but I had no idea how to do Independence Day so far from home — let alone in an AirBnb, six stories up and decorated entirely in Union Jacks, accompanied only by my husband. Who is British. I spent a jetlagged 45 minutes translating and reciting Bill Pullman’s speech from Independence Day in halting French and then I was completely out of ideas, so I went to the bakery and got the most patriotic-looking eclair I could find. (It was red, because blue eclairs do not exist and it was definitely gauche to ask, so I’d like to apologize to that nice woman at that bakery.)
I had previously spent the Fourth of July eating homemade doughnut muffins on the National Mall; I had spent it on a wooden roof deck, surrounded by whizzing sparks and friends — once, I even spent it in a restored 1960s Thunderbird driven by a man in a cowboy hat. But until last year, I had never spent it outside the United States. I’ve lived outside the U.S. for three years now, but in 2014 I made it back to the U.S. from my home in London for a Portland, Oregon Fourth of July, wearing the most garish sequined Union Jack tank top I could buy at the airport, only to have multiple Portlanders stop me to thank me for “taking a stand against American imperialism” because apparently they don’t teach about British imperialism in Oregon schools.
But when you spend Independence Day abroad, there’s no room for irony like that. Half the French people I meet think I’m British anyway — go ahead, tell me you could really distinguish between English speakers with, say, French and Belgian accents — so if I want to go American, I have to go big. Which is how I ended up wearing an American flag as a cape on the steps of Sacre Coeur. In France it was just another night: Fire dancers, karaoke singers smashing their beer bottles on the steps, everyone complaining about the heat. Nobody knew us, and there was no reason to believe anyone would talk to us, but I decided that today of all days I didn’t want to be a stealth American. So I tied the corners of the flag I’d stashed in my bag just in case around my neck, hoping other kindred Americans would zoom toward me like heat-seeking missiles. Of course that didn’t happen (if you think about it, the kind of Americans that vacation in Paris on July Fourth are likely the kind of Americans who would disdain talking to a girl wearing an American flag as a cape), but at least it gave French people starting conversations with us something to talk about. “BONNE FÊTE NATIONALE!” they roared after us as I took off down Montmartre’s cobbled hills, my makeshift Captain America cape flying behind me. The fireworks would have to wait for July 14.
And the French certainly know their fireworks. It was, supposedly, a French Jesuit priest who popularized fireworks across Europe in the mid-1700s — after traveling to China, he wrote a treatise on their techniques for making the sky light up. Every hour, on the hour, Paris lights up its most iconic symbol, the Eiffel Tower, with flashing disco sparkles — naturally, they also take their fireworks extremely seriously. Red, white and blue; musical soundtracks; smoke billowing over the Champ de Mars until you can barely see the tower. Since November, Paris has been living without fireworks — the traditional New Year’s show was canceled due to the state of emergency in a post-Bataclan world — but, perhaps realizing that if you can’t fill the sky with colored sparks what even is the point, Paris has marked its Fete Nationale spectacle firmly on the calendar for 2016. I’ll be there again this year. But I’m wearing my cape.