JULY 14TH IS A SPECIAL DAY for the French. It celebrates the 1789 storming of the Bastille, a prison fortress in Paris that was known to contain a number of intellectual revolutionaries and a large cache of gunpowder. It turned out that the revolutionaries were somewhere else having a sandwich. But the gunpowder was useful.
This particular July 14th was a special day for the Americans. It was the day I discovered a hole in the roof of our barn. I had opened the door to toss in a bag of recyclables, and found a puddle of water on the floor. A tie beam that holds the walls together had come loose and was now hanging at a precarious angle. Daylight was visible through the roof. The puddle must have come from an overnight rain, allowed in by a shifting gable wall that was pulling the roof tiles apart.
If it’s broke, do you have to fix it right away? This structure had lasted 400 years—another month or two wouldn’t make much difference. I added the barn my mental to-do list and poured a glass of rosé.
Eileen, Sara, and I drove over to Eymet just before eight. The dancing was scheduled for nine, and the fireworks for eleven-thirty. The idea was to enjoy our dinner first so we wouldn’t cut into our dance time waiting in line for food.
Eymet (pronounced AY-may) is a charming bastide town built around a large arcaded square with an octagonal fountain. Fronting the square are restaurants, a wine shop, an antique store, and an English-speaking estate agent. The estate agent does a brisk business—properties in Eymet are catnip for Brits in search of second homes. The statistic we’ve heard is that one third of Eymet’s property owners are British.
Les Américains are drawn to Eymet for a different reason. It has the only good Italian restaurant around for miles. The menu of the Restaurant Italien des Arcades offers 28 kinds of pizza, a wide range of pasta dishes, and ample carafes of good cheap wine. You don’t know how much you miss Italian food until you’ve had a steady diet of duck confit for a month.
The owners are real Italians, not imposteurs. They hire family members to serve customers at a speed that would be unthinkable in French restaurants. Our waiter tonight was a seven-year-old boy with a black apron doubled up around his middle.
“Bonsoir, mesdames et monsieur,” he said, a pencil behind one ear. “I am Vittorio. I can ‘elp you?”
Eileen said: “Une pizza margherita et une pizza caprese, s’il vous plaît.”
“Et un grand pichet de vin rouge,” I added. Nothing says Bastille Day like a pitcher of Pecharmant and pizza.
Vittorio returned with two platters balanced on tiny hands. When we finished, he came back to take our credit card holding la machine. He could barely get his fingers around it. We managed to pay our bill without giggling.
We parked the car in a grassy field across the road from the bandstand. The music was playing and my blood pressure was rising. Sara had predicted that the picnic tables would be filled, so we brought our own accoutrement: picnic blankets, folding chairs, rosé, and wine glasses. These we carried in three large woven bags over our shoulders.
Up the road was a group of surly-looking teenagers, bunched together on the crest of a small bridge, smoking and talking in low tones as we approached. They were blocking the road.
I whispered to Sara and Eileen: “This could be trouble. Better let me handle it.”
A well-muscled kid who appeared to be the ringleader walked up to me. His hair was shaved on the sides and moussed into high curls on top. A tarnished ring hung from his right ear. He wore a faded jeans jacket with the sleeves cut off, revealing several gang-style tattoos.
“Vous êtes Américains?” he said.
I looked at him, not answering.
“Do you know where the picnic area?” he said.
A girl emerged from the group. “Come this way,” she said. “I show.”
A young man with a cigarette and a gauzy mustache joined them. “Oop-la! Let me take the sacks.”
They carried our picnic bags and led us through the park, chattering about Las Vegas and The Simpsons and Taylor Swift. When they were sure we had the best spot on the grass, they went back to help another group.
“Such polite kids,” said Eileen. “Were you surprised?”
“Surprised? I was stunned. I thought they’d steal our bags and leave us lying on the ground with blood pouring from our fatal knife wounds.”
“You wish,” said Sara. “Then you wouldn’t have to dance. Come on.”
The dance floor was already a gyrating mass of humanity. Our favorite band, Les Touristes, blasted music from a raised stage. Thirty or so people, including a few we recognized from the advanced class, were doing a line dance. Sara tried to pull me out onto the floor. I yanked my hand back.
“I’ve never done a line dance!”
“It’s easy!” she said. “Just go out there do what everybody else is doing.”
“But I can’t tell what they’re doing!”
She left her fuddy-duddy dad and merged with the synchronizing dancers.
“This wasn’t what we trained for,” I explained to Eileen. It sounded like whining. The fact is, I was afraid to look foolish in front of my daughter and wife. I watched the dancers as closely as I could but wasn’t able to make heads nor tails of the patterns.
The next song was a waltz. No good. Not our rhythm. I poured a glass of rosé for French courage.
The band struck up a reggae number with an up-tempo beat. Way too fast for West Coast Swing. We had to wait again.
Finally, Les Touristes launched into rousing version of Mustang Sally, complete with a strong bass line and snapping snare drum. Dancers rushed the floor. Eileen turned toward me with raised eyebrows.
I stepped back. “We can’t dance now!” I said. “It’s too crowded!” On stage, the band was cooking with hi-octane.
Ride, Sally, ride . . .
“Oh, come on,” said Eileen, “this is one of the songs we worked on.”
Ride, Sally, ride . . .
“Please? Can we wait for the next one?”
Ride, Sally, ride . . .
Eileen sighed. Les Touristes finished the song with a bang.
One of these lonely days—HUNH!
I’m gonna be wipin’ those weepin’ eyes.
As the last chords died the crowd went wild. The musicians took their bows and unplugged for a break. In the silence that followed, Eileen gazed at me with large, blue, innocent eyes. The corners of her mouth feigned sadness. With the accent of a French Ginger Rogers she sang:
Think of what you’re losing
By constantly refusing to dance with me—
You’d be the idol of France with me!
I answered in voice à la Fred Astaire:
I won’t dance. Don’t ask me.
I won’t dance. Don’t ask me.
She took my hand and swung me around. I sang:
I won’t dance. Why should I?
I won’t dance. How could I?
I won’t dance. Merci beaucoup!
The crowd had moved beyond the dance floor to an open space marked off by cordons. A whistling noise cracked the air. Overhead a thousand stars exploded, sending showers of multicolored sparks down on uplifted faces. The fireworks had begun.
There are times when I look at Eileen and can’t believe my luck. We married so young. There was no dancing, no honeymoon. Just back to work the next day. But we were the happiest people on earth. And as I looked at Eileen and then Sara, their smiling faces lighting up with every flash, I thought once again: I am lucky. Look what I got.
Every American knows the thrill of watching fireworks on the Fourth of July. The Fourteenth of July in France is not very different, but there’s something about the Eymet version that recalls more innocent days. Suddenly we were seven years old—wide-eyed kids eating hot dogs and drinking lemonade in the park with our parents. It was lovely.
My only regret was that I couldn’t bring myself to dance. My inner trooper had deserted me. Disappeared. Vanished. AWOL on the eve of battle.
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