Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Paris, France
December 31
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out


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JULY 15, 2011 10:14AM

Burnt Cars and Distant Fireworks

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The fireworks display near the Eiffel Tower is a wonder to behold. But it’s also a very, very crowded event. Between threading your way through masses of people, and trying to find a Metro station (the ones close to the Champ de Mars and other key viewing points are closed for safety reasons), it takes longer to get home afterwards than it does to watch the show.

Whenever we’ve been in Paris for July 14, we’ve made that sacrifice.  But last night, we just didn’t feel up to it.

Luckily, the Eiffel Tower is visible from lots of places in this city of generally low buildings – even places you least expect to see it.  So we decided the best thing to do was think about and research vantage points where there probably wouldn’t be a crowd. 

After a while, I remembered a view of the Tower from a street in the 20th arrondissement.  As you walk, surrounded by drab architecture, it comes up suddenly to greet you on the clear horizon.  When I first discovered it last Fall, the view delighted me so much that I wrote a post about it.

Like the neighboring 19th arrondissement, the 20th is mostly built on high hills in northeast Paris.  Belleville is a neighborhood that sprawls over parts of both areas.

The 20th arrondissement is full of contrasts. For example, since it was a series of villages on the outskirts of the city for such a long time, many individual houses still remain among newer apartment buildings.  There’s also the Campagne à Paris (“Countryside of Paris”), a series of streets filled with beautiful early 20th century homes that were built when Paris’ last city wall was being demolished just a few hundred meters away.  Walking here feels like a stroll through a quiet, well-to-do suburb; it’s easy to forget the bustling metropolis you’re in.  These are some of the most coveted residences in the city, and so the arrondissement has its share of artists, musicians, actors, and other famous inhabitants.  The most notable are probably Vincent Cassell and Monica Belluci, who have a home on the nearby Boulevard Ménilmontant.

Paris, 20th arrondissement, near the Rue Pelleport: A house in the midst of apartment buildings (personal photo)

But the 20th arrondissement is more commonly known as a working class area with a large immigrant population and many housing projects.  Belleville is famous for its diversity: besides native Parisians (like Edith Piaf, who claimed to be born on the streets of Belleville itself, but was apparently delivered in the neighborhood hospital), there are large Chinese and African populations.  Muslim and Jewish families and businesses coexist peacefully side-by-side.

Unfortunately, it’s not all happiness and unity.  For example, there have recently been huge protest demonstrations by the Chinese population against some of the younger generations of Africans, who have been attacking and robbing them.  The protests can escalate into violence, with the people’s anger at what they perceive as the apathy of the police force manifesting itself in extreme reactions like the burning of cars.  Burning cars, in fact, is a quintessential show of rage and rebellion among many disenfranchised-feeling populations here – and especially in the troubled northern suburbs outside Paris.  

The street where we went to see the fireworks turned out to be a perfect microcosm of the area’s diversity.  Leaving the Saint-Fargeau Metro station, we emerged into a wealthy area of traditional cafes and over-priced shops.  Walking down the rue Saint-Fargeau, we passed a modern fire station, some pretty apartment buildings, and a street where there was a quiet public library.  Gradually, the Beaux-Arts and Haussmannian facades gave way to 1960’s and ‘70’s structures.  Beauty is a matter of opinion, but very few people consider this latter the best style of residential architecture in Paris, and we aren’t among them. 

Suddenly, the smell of something burning - not food, but something heavier, chemical, came to my nose.  “Look,” my boyfriend muttered.  From the back, the parked car seemed normal.  But once you passed the trunk, you could see that its windows were shattered, its interior blackened and broken, its paint discolored or seered off in places: 

This isn’t a rare sight in many areas of Paris, especially not on the Fourteenth of July.  It’s one of the busiest nights of the year for firefighters, not only because of the expected fireworks-related accidents, but also because of that aforementioned idea of people delivering a message of discontent with a burning vehicle. 

As we drew closer, a forty-something guy with spacers in his ears and punk-style clothes came beside us and shook his head ruefully.  “It’s a damn shame,” he said.  “I mean, there’s insurance and all, but still…”  An anti-anarchy punk.  Yet another Belleville contradiction.

We continued down the street and arrived at a housing project whose architecture was much nicer than the rest of the buildings around us.  On a small side street, a group of lean guys with the hoods of their sweatshirts pulled up – the classic “uniform” of delinquents (“regular” people here wear their hoods down, unless it’s raining) – were lingering in the midst of a nearly constant coming and going of cars.  The passengers would casually get out, go up to one of the hooded figures, and exchanges would be made, money and drugs sliding from palm to palm. Meanwhile, on a street parallel to the one where we were walking, a small courtyard of multi-million dollar houses sat quietly behind picturesque ivy-covered fences.

We kept going, eyes searching the horizon.  Suddenly, there it was: as the hilly street sloped down below us, we could see the distant Eiffel Tower, like a large, person-sized model.  From here, it was about 6 miles away, at least 45 minutes on the Metro, but it seemed close enough to touch.

We’d thought it would be interesting to see fireworks from above and from a distance.  Unfortunately, the view wasn’t as clear as I'd figured.  Some rooftops and leafy trees were in the way.  We could only see from the Tower’s second floor, up.  Still, we found a good viewing spot and stood there, hoping we’d get an amazing show without the crowds and long ride home.  Already a few other people had gathered on the sidewalks with the same idea.

The view from where we stood.  Every hour on the hour, thousands of lights shimmer on the Tower.  It's 11:00. 

These were neighborhood people: young bourgeois-bohemian couples with lively toddlers; eccentric fifty-somethings (known often as “soixante-huitards,” (“sixty-eighters”) since many of their generation participated in the 1968 student riots – they’re basically the equivalent of people who took part in anti-war rallies in the States); several immigrants (one from South America, and a few from Central Africa…and me).  An old woman dressed in the classic French old woman summer ensemble of a discreet, short-sleeved knit top, knee-length light skirt, and espadrilles, kept shooing a cat away from the busy street. The small crowd was friendly and talkative.  A girl passed by on a bike and asked for directions.  The ambiance was convivial; most of the people there believed like us that we’d be able to see the fireworks, but no one seemed to be sure.

Behind us, we could hear the delinquents’ occasional arguments, and several of their acquaintances revved their motorcycles and set their shoulders square as they roared down the street.  I wondered if there would be trouble. We’d brought nothing with us but our house keys and jackets (as my boyfriend remarked, July 14th is always chilly) – and the camera, which I clutched tightly. 

The fireworks started late, as they always do.  It takes a very long time for the sky to turn black in Paris in July.  A little after 11pm, the Eiffel Tower shut off its lights.  Everyone gave a collective gasp of anticipation.  The show was about to begin.

From where we were, we were able to see a lot – but we knew there were things going on at ground level that weren't visible to us. And since, from our vantage point, the fireworks didn’t appear to be directly behind the Tower, some of the majesty of the display was lost.

But fireworks are fireworks.  We all watched and made our comments, annoyed when there didn’t seem to be enough going on (during these long pauses there were probably pyrotechnic displays closer to the ground), and awed when lovely lights sparkled in that little patch of sky.  The fireworks were high-quality, and some were very unique, like a bouquet of heart shapes, and multicolored sparks that lingered in the sky so long, my boyfriend remarked you’d think they were Christmas lights.
The crowd watches the fireworks, which from this vantage point are to the right of the Tower.
Fireworks explode in the distance. Closer to us, a bakery's red sign juts out into the sky.

In the end, everyone left happy, if a little disappointed that the view wasn’t better.  Some of the delinquents and dealers had come over to the edge of the crowd to catch a glimpse of the display, but most of them had stayed on their busy street corner.  I was relieved, but not totally surprised.  I used to live across the street from a place like that, and I was never hassled.  I guess you could say it’s a sort of peace, the peace of the city, where all sorts of people and lifestyles are crammed together.

In my post about Bastille Day, I wrote, “Things have changed, though there are still changes that need to be made.” The burnt car, the threat (perceived or real) of the thugs nearby,  show clear evidence that, like any country, France has its problems.  But on that street, and on many others, everyone was allowed to come and go peacefully.  It may not seem like an ideal world if vandalism, drug dealing, and discontent are involved, but you could say that despite these problems, with everyone present allowed to do what they wanted and be themselves, last night that little spot in Belleville was the embodiment of freedom. 

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This sounds just like Ste. Jean Baptiste in Quebec.
A little glimpse that the underbelly of Paris. This business of the assimilation of immigrant populations into the traditional cultures of European countries is becoming a huge one. The United Kingdom and certainly Germany are struggling with it, too, as you know. The Netherlands, obviously. Now some of the Scandinavian countries. I have been reading about it, and it is an intractable problem it seems.

We can forgive Edith Piaf for embellishing her story a little. Hell, people around here do it all the time.
Fascinating, Alysa. Our 4th of July fireworks this year were rained out. We still have some Roman candles we'd been planning to shoot off in the back yard. As I read your fascinating account of finding a vantage to see the tower, I was wondering how the view might be from Montmartre, maybe up on the Sacré Cœur. As I recall it was one of the highest places in all of Paris. Maybe too far away, tho?
Linda - I don't know Quebec at all, but I will be looking up that area.

Brassawe - Yes, the immigration issue has been a complicated affair for years. The problem in France is that many people of the second generation feel disenfranchised and discriminated against. It's something so complex that I don't know as I'd ever be able to write a post about it, or explain it. I do often wonder if European countries shouldn't look at US immigration in the 19th adn 20th centuries. There was of course discrimination then, too (sadly, it seems immigration and discrimination go hand in hand), but the people themselves wanted to be integrated and take part in society. They felt there was hope for them to make America their home. I don't mean to wave the Stars and Stripes, but it does seem to have generally turned out much better than immigration in Europe. As for Piaf, oh, I'll forgive her anything. What a voice!

Matt - I'm sorry your fourth got rained out. We'd thought about Montmartre, but there were two potential problems: 1. because it's such a high point, and one where it's popular to gather in other festive times, like New Year's, we thought there might be a big crowd. 2. even if there wasn't a big crowd, there is only a small area where you can see the Eiffel Tower from the top of the Butte. We were afraid there'd already be too much of a crowd there. I think the view might be really cool, though.
I haven't been in that area of Paris. Are tourists allowed to torch one car in protest of VAT?
I love it when you invite us along on your Parisian experience.
A side of Paris that tourists would not see. Thanks for taking me along. I always have a good time with you.
I love visiting you in Paris! ~r
Always enjoy these wonderful little trips, Alysa.
great blog - i was on a flight from london to lyon on the evening of the 14th of july many years ago (approx. 20), upon crossing the channel and all the way to landing it was a continuous display of fireworks...all the towns, large and small, villages and hamlets seemed involved and, from up high, it was beautiful and heavenly and silently peaceful....rather different from being on the ground....
You paint such a great picture, Alysa.
The world is not often a pretty place, sometimes it is dressed up with sentiment, fireworks and good intentions. We live in those moments and sigh when they go well and we can go on with our own lives. Well done.
Thinking of our 4th this year with over 100,000 watching fireworks over the river. There too, it takes longer to leave than the fireworks last. I loved your description...

My daughter Mandi was in Paris in 2000 for Bastille Day and got her tongue pierced. Hum.
You witnessed a French car-b-que.
The mixed blessings of July 14th in Paris sound similar to those of July 4th in New York. Lady Lucia and I have watched fireworks on TV the last two years because it was too much of a pain to get to and from good vantage points.
The other similarity is the study in contrasts that can exist within a single neighborhood. Thanks for this interesting peek!
I'm glad it turned out mostly well, despite the "ethnic" and class tensions. This year "La St. Jean" (St. Jean Baptiste), or la fête nationale, as it's now known here in Quebec, was completely rained out. I remember some really good times on St. Jean when I was in my twenties. Congrats on the EP! Not an easy topic.
You have really lived and experienced the real France, warts and all. I was fortunate to live for a while right by Trocadero (I was subletting an apartment from a friend of a friend who was studying aboard), and I used to walk over to the Trocadero metro stop after parties at our place and just look at the tower. Every time I saw it lit up at night, I realized how lucky I was to be there. There's a lot of cool stuff in the 20th and other less-appreciated areas that most tourists never see, either. Thanks for the memories!
So true: Fireworks are fireworks. It really is such a treat to read your dispatches from Paris. I was in Paris for a week and am dreaming of the day I can go again. It was a magical place.
Alysa ~ wow, what a great story and I wanted to add how it would have been fitting if the car with the burned paint had been a Pontiac Firebird!!
The neighborhood scene sounds just like Chicago's north side. The diversity and bustling streets (with much of what you described minus burning cars) actually made me feel safer than I often do where I live now. Not sure why, but 11 years later, that's still the case. Your description of the fireworks was almost identical to our show on the 4th.
I'm glad you came back to post more info on this holiday. I also appreciate your insight into the general milieu of Paris, which when it's portrayed here, seems almost a Disneyworld of haughty performers, overachieved foods and unreachable panache. While I hate to hear that they are experiencing some of the same unrest as everywhere else, I think it is important that that view be punctured so that we can see the French people as real people.
That was such an annoying scenario for that car. I know paris is one of the most visited cities in the world but then, people should look for safety first. The wheel hasn't yet affected but guess, the owner just need a makeover to bring back the appearance of that vehicle. Not actually, fond of fireworks but it's really a cool ambiance....