Brace yourself. Overly Vast Generalization Alert. Out it comes: “The French know how to enjoy themselves and generally have a better time than Americans.” That’s our story and we’re sticking to it. And here, Your Honors, is Exhibit A in support of that proposition.
Yesterday was the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year. We’ll bet that if you happened to be in the U. S. of A., the event passed with nary a fanfare, probably unnoticed, nothing special. Did you have loads of fun that day? Do you even remember what you did? Well, we had a blast, so good a time that while we usually pop awake at 6:00 a.m., we both slept until 9:00 the next morning, truly teenage waking times.
We had a blast because so did most everybody else in France. June 21, the longest day of the year, is celebrated in every French village, town, commune and city with the Fete de la Musique, a national musical extravaganza in which anything goes – musically that is – and every musical instrument in France is expected to toot, strum, pluck, roll, pick, pound, tap, jingle and otherwise do its resonating thing. Last year we were in Reins (the Capital of Champagne, see May’s entry for Floating Through Champagne) on our way to check out a barge called Hoop Doet Leven. We pooped out early, after overdosing on enthusiastic garage bands so loud they’d been evicted from their garages. This year we’re in Joigny, a large town on the River Yonne at the northern edge of Burgundy. It has a medieval feel to it. The new buildings – with ornate carved wood facades on the houses – were built after a great 16th Century fire.
Best of all, the town seal features crossed wooden mallets, which were used by the wine harvesters. This celebrates the 1438 rebellion of the town’s Maillotins – the maul-bearers – who used their mauls to, well, to maul the lord of the manor to death. We have a beautiful mooring next to a park across the river from the town. Here’s our view of the town from the barge.
Off to the left of the boat is the hill of St. Jacques, covered with the vineyards of the Vignoble de la Cote Saint-Jacques, the local wine. A couple of bottles, a white and a gris – grey – have snuck on board the barge.
The entire town turned out for the Fete de la Musique last night. We joined in. Walking over the arched bridge we first met the local ladies’ choir, young women, old women, in-between women, all having a blast singing French folk songs to the folks sitting at tables on the plaza or wandering by.
Walking up through the packed streets, we encountered a rock band competing with two women playing accordions. The rockers were far louder, and well-amplified. The women outlasted them, however, and, in the end, prevailed, displaying rather smug smiles at their victory.
People wandered the streets with instrument cases on their backs. A blues band played in front of the covered market building. Sidewalks were packed with tables from the cafes, bars and restaurants. Children danced. Old men danced. Drunks danced. Even one American tourist couple, who, after an accordion woman insisted they looked like they came from Ireland, loudly declared – with volume compensating for their absolute lack of a single syllable of French – that “no, we’re from New Jersey,” even they waltzed to an accordion tune. A man who Sandra said looked quintessentially French played his flugelhorn.
In front of him sat a family at a table. The young girl took his microphone and sang along with made-up lyrics, French scat singing.
Just as we thought the musical spectrum was exhausted, from up the street, in front of the town’s cultural center came, once again those fundamentally French rhythms we hadn’t heard since the brocant we’d shopped at on the River Marne. Wandering up the hill past a row of 16th Century wooden houses, down another hill from the 12th Century church in front of which the lord of the manor was mauled, were the local ladies wearing swirly skirts, cowboy boots and Stetson hats. The local line dancing society. And they had the largest crowd of all.
Western country line dancing. Can it get any weirder than that? perhaps. The ZZ Top tribute band played last month.
The French have a good time. So how did you welcome the Summer Solstice?