There I was on a weeknight in Paris’s 18th arrondissement, standing under multicolored tea lights strung from what seemed like the sky. Around me, hundreds of Parisians were jumping up and down to a live band performing “Le Freak.” Handsome men and a few women in uniform wove through the sweaty crowd in a conga line. It may have felt like a New York bar mitzvah circa 1998, but it was the annual Bal des Pompiers: the French firemen’s ball.
Bastille Day — which commemorates the storming of the famous fortress during the French Revolution in 1789 — is celebrated in French communities around the world on July 14. But the day before is when the real celebration begins in France.
Each year, on July 13, fire stations around the country open their massive red garage doors to the public. In Paris, several of the 20 arrondissements have a participating firehouse, though some pump it up more than others. There’s live music and cheap beer, food trucks and Champagne by the bottle. The festivities begin around 9 p.m., when it’s still light out, and last nearly until the sun rises the following day.
Like many women, I can appreciate the allure of a fireman. In fact, “Fireman Richie” is still listed as such in my phone, and while our fling was back in New York many years ago, I had to see what the fuss was about now that I was an ex-pat in France.
My friends and I approached the station around 9:30 p.m. There was no cover charge, only a man in uniform with puppy-dog eyes asking for donations to be dropped into a huge wine barrel. Inside, we found a beer bar in the garage, a Champagne bar just outside, a food truck by the entrance, and about five port-a-potties with an unzip-and-pee urinal stand to the left of the stage. We went straight to the beer bar and got our first €3 “Kro” — Kronenberg, the Budweiser of France — from a fireman who flirted with us like it was his job (which, that night, it was).
Before we knew it, the crowd filled up with all ages and types, from ponytailed kids with balloons to aging grand-mères with canes. Sure enough, there was an abundance of very hot French men, all of whom seemed keenly aware there’d be an equal abundance of very hot women.
The energy level soared when the six-piece band started playing songs like “Despacito” and “24K Magic.” It seemed like only a matter of time before we’d break into the “Electric Slide,” but instead, we learned some new hand gestures to Michael Jackson’s “Blame It on the Boogie.” (Key words: Sunshine, Moonlight, Good Times, Boogie.)
Eventually, at about 1:30 a.m., we decided to search for a slightly less public bathroom. As we exited, we noticed that the line to enter now stretched around the block. Those who wanted to reenter were being marked with a red Sharpie. My friends got hearts on the palm of their hands. I, on the other hand, got a wink and a heart drawn just below my neckline. My French may be improving daily, but this left me at a loss for words.
By the time we returned, it was packed and all the cigarette smoke had created an unpleasant fog-machine effect that even les pompiers couldn’t extinguish. When the band started performing French songs, we took that as our cue to order a juicy “burger du pompier” from the food truck and head for the exit. Outside, one of the trucks was racing off toward an emergency. It seemed unfair that some of the firefighters had to work that night, but there would still be a fire burning on the dance floor when they returned.