It was like a French Bar Mitzvah with the actual Village People. At least, the members in fireman uniform.
There I was, on a Monday night in Paris’ 18th arrondissement, standing under red, white and blue tea lights strung from what seemed like the sky. Around me, hundreds of Parisians were jumping up and down and singing along to a live band performing “Le Freak.”
Among them, handsome men (and a few women) in navy pants and denim-blue collared shirts with patches on them wove through the sweaty crowd in a conga line.
None of them had just recited their Haftorah or been tossed in the air on a chair. Rather, these guests of honor were French firemen, and this was the annual Bal des Pompiers, which awesomely translates to: Ball of Fire.
While most people are familiar with Bastille Day on July 14, which commemorates the storming of the Bastille after the start of the French Revolution in 1789 and is celebrated, appropriately, with fireworks and parades and flag-flying, the day before is when the real party begins.
Each year, on July 13, many of the fire stations in Paris open their massive garage doors to the public for a celebration of their services. Most of the 20 arrondissements have at least one participating firehouse and some pump it up more than others. There’s live music and cheap beer; champagne by the bottle and food truck bites to nibble on. The festivities begin around 9p.m., when it’s still light out, and last nearly until the sun rises again the following day.
My friends and I approached the station near my house early, around 9:30p.m., in effort to combat a long wait to get in. While there was a small queue, it moved quickly and was likely due to the one fireman waving a security wand over every Aurelie, Sylvie and Cécile who came through. There was no cover charge though, only a man in uniform with puppy dog eyes asking for donations to be dropped into what appeared to be a huge wine barrel.
Inside, things seemed to be off to a slow start so we familiarized ourselves with the space: beer bar in the garages, champagne bar just outside them, food truck serving a “burger du pompier” by the entrance and about five port-o-potties and an un-zip-and-pee urinal stand for les hommes to the left of the stage. We went straight to the beer bar and got our first €3 “Kro”—that’s short for Kronenberg, the Budweiser of France—from a fireman who flirted with us like it was his job. That night it very well may have been.
Before we knew it, the crowd filled up with all types and ages, from kids in ponytails with balloons to aging grand meres with canes and an abundance of very, very hot French men all of whom were keenly aware there’d be a lot of women in attendance.
As soon as the band started, the energy level climbed higher than any engine ladder could. Spanning all decades and timezones, the 6-piece group sang every classic pop song you could think of: Carly Rae’s “Call Me Maybe”, Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” and Mr. Thicke’s ”Blurred Lines,” to name a few.
Despite the fact that no one was wearing yarmulkes and there wasn’t a candle lighting ceremony, it really did feel like a celebration of manhood in suburban Long Island. At any given moment, I honestly thought we’d break into the Electric Slide. 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 1:30a.m., we decided to get some air and search for a bathroom that didn’t have 100 people clamoring for a door that may or may not lock. As we exited, we noticed that the line now stretched around the block. We wouldn’t have to wait to come back in, though, since those who wanted to re-enter were being marked with a red Sharpie. My friends got hearts on their hands, while I got one just below my neckline. My French may have improved since arriving in November, but this left me at a loss for words in any language so I let my flushed cheeks respond for me.
By the time we returned, it was packed and all the cigarette smoke created an unpleasant fog machine effect that, sadly, les pompiers couldn’t put out. Eventually, the band started performing French songs and we took that as our cue to order a juicy “burger du pompier” and head for the exit.
Once outside, we sat on the curb, passing the burger back and forth between the three of us, watching in awe as one of the fire trucks revved up its engine and turned on its lights in preparation to go put out some legit fiery action. It seemed unfair that some of them were on-duty that night, but it appeared there’d still be a fire burning on the dance floor when they returned.
As for us, our flame had gone out—until next year.