The First Clear Day of the Year

photo: scare coeur, 1 jan 99
Thousands try to get as close to the sky as possible today.

On Top of High Places and
Montmartre's New Year's Day Parade

Paris:- Friday, 1 January 1999:- What a start to the new year! Bright sunlight is pouring over my breakfast - something it doesn't do in midsummer because it is too high in the sky.

This winter sun can be piercing. It can also be fleeting, because by the time I'm ready to ride the rails into town, there is a fair amount of high cloud. Still, it was a good start.

Not so for the lady with the baby in the stroller, who got all the way out to my village station instead of getting to Versailles. Like Monopoly, she has to back to Saint-Cloud without passing 'go' and take the other train. Late she is; heartbroken she's not.

A fair number of Paris fans get on the train for town. On the heights over Suresnes, I see the lights of the number on the Tour Eiffel. Yes! I alter my plan: first to Trocadéro. To see the tower for the first time on a New Year's Day - to see it one time only, signalling '365 days to the year 2000.'

Some other tens of thousands have got to Trocadéro with and before me; as if attracted to a magnet. Everybody is taking photos of everybody else, with the big number for a background. I do the same for fifteen minutes and then plunge back into the métro.

At Blanche I head straight up Rue Lepic to the Rue des Abbesses. At first I think photo: parade, yellow, rue lepic the parade must be over because of the numbers of people coming down the hill, but at the top there are a couple of policemen and a couple of portable barricades. Not many of either though.

One of the leading groups of marchers in the parade.

This corner, where the Rue Lepic pulls its uphill left, cutting off Abbesses, looks like a good spot to see the annual New Year's 'Grand Parade de Paris' come marching up from where it starts down at the Boulevard de Rochechouart and Rue des Martyrs. The sky is getting brighter again too.

Montmartre is justly famous for its oddball fêtes and I've wanted to see this parade for years, but it was never on the right day for me. I don't remember New Year's Day ever being on a Friday before, but I suppose it must have been.

For a 'grand parade' which is to pass, starting within minutes, there are not many spectators. I can stand anywhere I want to get clear shots of the street.

On Wednesday, at Montmartre's 'Syndicat d'Initiative' office in the Place du Tertre, I found they had little information about this parade. No poster, no brochure; just a bound press release, with the route indicated in blue ink.

People taking part in the parade came into the office while I was there and came away just as empty-handed as I did. They wanted a souvenir of it.

According to the city's 'Paris' magazine, this parade is organized by France Parade International. It has therefore a parade permit from the Hôtel de Ville and maybe one from Montmartre's Hôtel de Ville, but is not, strictly speaking, a Montmartre affair.

All the same, I am planted in the Rue Lepic, waiting for it. Drums boom, sirens wail, and the first marchers approach. More drums, more booms and then some very healthy-looking pom-pom girls from the USA. A confetti-cannon comes by and I get a good hosing from it.

I move up Lepic a bit for another angle; at Rue Tourlague the marchersphoto: stiltmen, rue lepic are turning left to take the zig and the zag into the Rue Caulaincourt. Stilt people come by. An insane motorized clock passes. There is a little crowd where they are turning and they applaud each group.

As a reporter, and not a connoisseur of parades, I decide to head up the Butte to Scare Coeur and see some more of it pass by there.

And here are the fabulous 'stiltmen,' from some unknown somewhere.

By the time I get around to the moulin side of the Rue Lepic I realize that there is another parade going on. Thousands, tens of thousands, of Parisians, suburbanites, visitors - and Italians especially - are all going up, up alleys, up streets, up stairs, up to the top of the Butte. It looks like the workers on the Great Wall of China heading for the first shift.

I quit climbing and look for a café instead. There is just so much space on the 'top' of the Butte, and if I don't get a café before I get there, I'll be out of luck for certain.

The café is a simple Montmartre affair; not much more than a watering hole for thirsty climbers, but some Germans have taken a table and look like they've made it as far as they intend going today. They are not rowdy, they are just at ease.

Outside, instead of rats leaving the ship, it looks like rats climbing the mountain. Rivers of them, flowing uphill. Does Montmartre have a special pull? Didn't Saint-Denis get offed up here? Is it pagan? Some special rite?

There is a wall-to-wall mob in the Rue Norvins at the Rue des Saules corner. Going to the right leads into the Place du Tertre which will be like a cork in a bottle, so I take the alley on the left, called the Rue Saint-Rustique.

It is nearly impossible to get out of this into the Rue Mont Cenisphoto: old man, paraders, rue lepic because of a cluster of portrait artists where the streets join. Mont Cenis itself is like the changing of crews at the maze. I get down Rue Saint-Eleuthère a bit and realize the parade is coming up it and turning into the Rue Azais, and it must be plugged tight.

Some of the local paraders are not 'in costume' byt nobody seems to care.

So I go back and take the Rue du Chevalier de la Barre, past all its postcard shops, to get to the west side of Sacre Coeur. To find the parade is coming along here, and here are the pom-pom girls from the USA again.

The sun is blasting the front of the church full-face and the steps are crowded with people gazing over Paris; which looks a bit like shattered glass below, with tiny pinpoints of reflected sunlight.

There is a white tent of unknown purpose below the church's steps, and a great crowd is along the railings, looking down below. At what? From the top of the church steps it's impossible to tell.

I know a side way down, down a long set of stairs called the Rue Maurice Utrillo. A lot of people know this way and they are coming up it and some of them are in a bad temper. One step at a time does it, slowly.

Without going all the way down the Rue Ronsard, I cut back into the fore-garden below Sacre Coeur. When I look up to see what the people up there are looking down at, I see nothing in particular, except two crawling lines of ants marching up the paired set of stairs. It must be getting a bit tight up on top.

The Square Willette is in its usual winter shadow and one look at the Rue de Steinkerque tells me I'm not going down it. I get down to the flatlands via the Rue Seveste instead.

Near where the parade started, I see the first marchers I saw in the Rue Lepic, now packing their stuff into a bus with UK plates. Seems odd. The New Year's Day Parade and Montmartre Trophy-Dash? A real 'Montmartre' parade would have lasted a couple of days. This 'International' one is over in 120 minutes.

Except for all the tour buses parked along the Boulevard de Rochechouart, there isn't anything or anybody around except for a handful of ex-paraders. I wonder what it would be like if everybody tried to leave to Butte at once.

This makes me think I should get into the métro quickly, but I pass Anvers instead and find an open newspaper kiosk at Pigalle, where I buy the New Year's number of 'Nova' for something to read.

There are a lot of people in the métro and I don't try to squeeze into the first train. As it zips out of the station I notice its rearphoto: pom pom girls, sacre coeur cars are not full, so I walk to the back end of the platform. I get a seat on the next train when it comes.

When the Pom-Pom girls got to Sacre Coeur, they had a two-minute look at it before they were off again.

I miss my connection at La Défense by four minutes, so I go upstairs to see how the Grande Arche is handling itself today.

The Noël village is cutting off the runway for the skaters, who have a fair audience all the same. Spoken French isn't foreign to me, so I do notice the murmur of Italian, which I've been hearing all day.

The stairs in afternoon shade, leading up to the plateau of the Grande Arche, are dark with Italians. They are all looking over the Noël village, towards the Arc de Triomphe and the Obelisk at Concorde.

I don't have to go up to know they can see them both from here. It is a clear day with a high sky, this 1. January 1999.

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