Diary of a Fête

photo: show boat en fete

The Fête de la Seine brings out jazz on a carnival boat.

Paris River Party Report

Paris:- September 1999:- Despite a long buildup for a former weekend event, stretched this year to four days, details of the program and the location of various events for 'Les Fêtes de la Seine' are only published in Le Parisien's Saturday edition.

This is not exactly true, because I got a brochure for it last week. At the time, I glanced at it, and it just seemed to be a sort of jumble. The first two pages sketch out the events and their locations but do not include dates and times.

The following two pages are pure flackery. On about page six I learn that the World Fireworks Festival is part of the show, with displays from Friday to Sunday. On Friday, I hear the booms from the Ile de la Cité clearly in Montparnasse.

On Sunday, there is to be a 'Venetian Carnival' parade, with the cruiser and barge inhabitants of the Port de l'Arsenal parading from there to Bercy and Javel - and according to Le Parisien - to the Quai de la Gare.

There are boat races too: sailing, canoes or kayaks, rowing racers, flying racers, speedboats, water-skiing. There is a triathalon too, which includes a 500-metre swim in the 'pure' Seine waters across from Bercy.

Since the brochure is a bit unclear - no calendar, no map - it's hard to grasp it all. So, in anticipation of not being able to be everywhere at once, I started Metropole's coverage of 'Les Fêtes de la Seine' on Wednesday - a day early.

Wednesday, 1. September:- Sometime during the 'Fêtes,' Paris' version of the Statue of Liberty, returned after 18 months' holiday in Tokyo Bay, is to be coronated or something on Sunday.

The statute stands on a long sliver of an island in the Seine, called the Allée des Cygnes. There is no métro station closephoto: paris statue liberte to where it is beside the Pont de Grenelle between the 15th and 16th arrondissements - nominally facing downstream towards its larger sister in New York City.

Mlle Liberté, at the south end of the Allée des Cygnes, by the Pont de Grenelle.

Although I have an invitation of a sort to attend the ceremony, Kathleen Bouvier has no date or time. Kathleen knows 'somebody' - she hasn't been in Paris long and already she 'knows somebody!' - and the 'somebody' is out of town.

For big events, there are places to see them and there are places where you see nothing; so today I am 'scouting' the statue, to make sure I don't get to see nothing if the invitation comes through.

Mlle Liberté is in a bad location. If you look quickly while speeding along the right bank speedway, you'll see her in the middle of the river. On the other side, I go down to some industrial port beside the bridge and get a clear shot.

On the Pont de Grenelle, I can the back of her head, behind a nice looking tree. Down on the island itself, I see nothing because the bridge is in the way. Anyhow, I've got my shot - just in case I don't get back this way on whatever day the ceremony will be.

I walk upstream on the Allée des Cygnes. There is a wide path on a narrow island, flanked by trees above the river's banks. There are lots of benches and trash cans, a few joggers and a couple of people having picnic lunches - and the cars roaring along both river banks are somewhat muted. A RER line passes over the island's path

The Allée des Cygnes is the Seine's only island which has no ice cream kiosk. At its northern end, it is crossed by the Pont de Bir-Hakeim. This is the double-decker bridge which carries the métro line six on top, from Passy to the 15th.

Hanging off the bridge below the overhead métro, are a good dozen billboard-sized cartoons by Jean Pattou. He has imagined various Seine locations as if they were home to his own particular view of an Universal Exhibition, of 2003.

All of them are very funny, and if they were turned into reality, Paris would be the world's number one theme park - if a slightly deranged one. The palms at Trocadéro are exactly right.

Thursday, 2. September:- On the official opening day of the 'Fêtes de la Seine,' after I finish taking photos in the Passage du Caire for Kathleen Bouvier'sphoto: 38th bridge tower, quai de la gare article 'Nearly Naked in Paris,' I make a snap decision to go to Bercy - figuring it is out of the way and I am unlikely to get back to it during the 'Fêtes.'

Things are looking better than they were last winter, and the Village Bercy is in full swing - now with many wine restaurants in its renovated wine warehouses. Today the weather is spectacular, so many are sitting outside on the bricked terraces. And oh! the smells - bread, wine, garlic; everywhere.

The observation tower for Paris' new - but as yet unbuilt - 38th bridge.

The Bercy park's grass is a bit burnt, but the park is full of picnicking office workers - maybe ones who do not like the smell of garlic. The park's maison has a exhibition showing 50 years of Paris park posters, but I don't feel like going inside.

Without finding the direct exit from the park, I still find the Pont de Tolbiac, to cross over to the Quai François Mauriac. This is the official name of the new Bibliothèque Nationale's address, but I suspect people call it 'Quai de la Gare' - which is what it is at the Pont de Bercy end.

Along the quay are seven or eight café-concert boats and barges - mentioned in this week's Café column. On this quay, there are supposed to be watersports. At about mid-quay the city has set up a tower, which gives a view of a to-be-built footbridge. It will link the plateau of the Bibliothèque Nationale' to the Parc de Bercy on the other side of the Seine.

The view from the tower of the spot where the bridge will be is an amazing void. Below is the quay with its line of barges. Across the river, besides the cement works and the ministry of finance, there is the tree line of the Bercy park. The multi-sports palace of Bercy is a lopped-off pyramid.

Once the bridge is built, planners will be forced to erect a cathedral to give it a reason. The towers of the bibliothèque are oppressively overwhelming as well as dull.

Friday, 3. September:- I'm trying to advance this issue so I'll be ready to see the Liberté light up - when? Work is planned for the day, until dentist time, and then I'll try to get to the floating marché across from Notre Dame, if I survive.

At the appointed time, the good lady - 'arracher': to tear out - tears a tooth out of my head. I sign a cheque for the pleasure. The dope prolongs the pleasure.

I call a reader who is in town and he has a 'bug.' But we agree to meet; with me thinking it will bephoto: seine fishing, quai de la gare on the way to the marché. With the usual slippage, my hoped-for 90-minute siesta, lasts 35 minutes. Going out, I forget to take something to fill a new hole in my head.

A competitor in the Fêtes de la Seine fishing contest.

We are bang-on time at the Café Orbital near Luxembourg. Bob Bauer is a photographer from California, who has been down at the 'Visa Pour l'Image' in Perpignan. After he logs off the Web, we go across to the gardens and meet Charlene Iusi, who is filming a secret documentary with a mini-digital video camera.

It is sublime sitting under the trees in the Luxembourg, with the golden afternoon sun slanting in from the west through the still-green leaves. When we are chased out of the park by policemen at closing time it is not annoying because we've had more than two hours of it.

After having a café on the terrace across the street, it is too late for the floating marché. I take the 38 bus straight back to Denfert-Rochereau. It's my new shortcut to the Boulevard Saint-Michel.

Saturday, 4. September:- Late working means a late start for the floating marché, but my newfound 38 bus takes me straight to the Ile de la Cité much quicker than the métro.

In front of Notre-Dame, France Télécom's 'Ola' portable phone service has 1000 bikes for rent. Their man says they usually rent 800 of them a day, whenever they are set up for occasions like 'Les Fêtes de la Seine.'

I have been startled at times when walking along the street behind people who appear to be talking to themselves. I don't always immediately think they may be making dentist appointments on portable phones instead of being mildly gaga.

The marché flottant is on the Quai de Montebello, opposite Notre-Dame. It consists of two barges and a row of pointy-top desert tents filled with regional specialties. There is also a stand-up band on the quay, surrounded by a large number of locals and visitors. It looks like a good-time affair and herds of bateaux-mouches seem to be trying to barge in on it.

It looks like something that should go on all the time and if it looks this way to me, somebody else has probably thought of it too. It is another beautiful day and it is a pain to take the 38 bus back to the keyboard.

Sunday, 5. September:- I have not enough bread for Monday morning so I zip out for some croissants. On the way I see the weather has changed overnight. It is not cold, but the bright sun is above the clouds instead of on my head.

After a long session with words and pictures, I get my marching orders to see the illuminating of Liberté. I squeeze in half a siesta before my new landlord arrives to show me my 'cave.' Normally this is a basement lockup that is part of an apartment rental.

This is true for mine too, except it was constructed in 1906 and the crude door's lock has a key to match. The floor is dirt as I suspected, so it means if I want to sneak into the catacombs some dark night, all I need is a shovel. It is dry though, the landlord tells me, while giving an invitation for drinks and chitchat.

I arrive at the meeting point 15 minutes early. This is like an excessive thousand extra points of 'on-time' in Paris and I kill it by giving République a good look-over. There is no parade or demo today, so the report about it stops here.

The Bouviers and Chantal arrive and we go on a métro odyssey to Javel. After some confusion we simply walk up the quay to the Pont de Grenelle where our passes get us through the police barrier to the bridge.

We get through the private guard barrier and past their fierce dogs to get down to the island, which seems like a concentration camp on account of the fireworks on it waiting to go off. Under the bridge it is dark and we stumble along to the metal door that lets us on to the island's tip, where the statue is pointing at the gloomy sky.

There are cables all over the place under the trees, and a tent is lit in which technicians are fiddling with lasers. Chantal's husband explains how everything will work if everything is 'normal.' He says no show is ever 'normal,' but is it something to try for.

For the effects, there is a generator supplying 400 kilowatts for the lasers and the pumps installed for the water jets. They are pulling up water from the Seine, and the filters only last about two days. There are 200 spotlights too. If it all works, and the wind is right, a computer program will set the statue's water and light show off every hour for months to come.

Tonight's program calls for fireworks at Trocadéro, starting at 22:00, followed by fireworks from this island at 22:15. At 22:30, the mayor's barge 'Evasion' is supposed to be in place facing upstream, just downstream from the statue.

We leave to get up on the bridge to see the fireworks and the police chase us off it despite our passes. A couple of blasts come from Trocadéro and a couple of rockets go up from the Allée des Cygnes - not programmed - which convince us we may be too close.

At an end of the bridge, the rocket bursts are right over our heads and the explosions are like war. The police leavephoto: marche flottant, quai montebello me alone where I am on their side of the barrier, which they only put in place after a lot of people showed up to see the show. Spectators slip through and the police herd them back.

At the Marché Flottant on Saturday morning.

With the final whop-bop- a-boom-bam from the island's pyrotechnics, the crowd hesitates then surges forward so fast I don't exactly make it to my chosen bridge spot even though I've got a head-start. But close enough.

I already know I need a tripod for night shots. What I don't know is if this camera is going to see any of these - dim - lights, as bright as they may seem. The shutter-release needs a lot of practice too, as it seems to let go - not on push down, but on lift-off.

Shoot I do, even the fireworks. The mayor's barge is in place in the Seine. The Statue of Liberty lights up, the water jets surge into the air, the lights switch colors on the sprays, the laser lights twinkle around the base of the flame on the upheld torch.

The onlookers 'ooh' and 'ahh' for ten minutes, before it starts to rain. Deadline waiting, I say the goodbyes and head for the métro while much of the crowd heads for the bright lights of the Grenelle complex of cafés and cinemas.

Chantal's husband said the lights would be kept going until about 01:00. I hope Mayor Tiberi liked the show from his vantage point in the middle of the Seine. I thought it was fine from mine.

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