Saturday, July 18, 2009

Grand bal des sapeurs-pompiers

Those who know me well can easily imagine the mixture of pleasure and excitement I experienced last week upon checking into my little hotel in the Marais and discovering that my third floor window faced directly onto the façade of the 11ème Cie. des Sapeurs-Pompiers. This estimable local branch of the Paris fire department occupies a large, elegant, but unpretentious seventeenth-century hôtel on the other side of the rue de Sévigné, a mere stone’s throw from the rue Saint-Antoine.

However, what launched me into the upper stratosphere of delight was the discovery on Monday evening that, to mark the Fête Nationale, the self-same sapeurs-pompiers were preparing to stage their annual open-house “grand bal,” a come-one-come-all évènement (entrée €4) to which in due course, from nine o’clock, tens of thousands of chirruping local people presented themselves at the metal-detectors, mostly queueing patiently about two hundred metres down the street, and right around the corner, almost to the rue de Rivoli.

From my window I observed all the preparations, including the meticulous rearrangement along the street of the various pint-sized glossy-red Renault fire-engines so as to open up the necessary space inside the cour; the stocking of large ice-boxes with mountains of refraichements; the watering of the geraniums in the window-boxes; the house-proud sweeping, primping, buffing, and tidying that distinguishes the corporate pride of this small army of efficient, exceptionally handsome young men.

Perhaps you are beginning to see my point.

Firemen in America tend to cleave to the heroic, not to say pumped-up model of body shape and general deportment. As far as I can tell the same generally applies to their cousins in Australia, and the United Kingdom. There is a faint note of over-emphasis in all of this, as well as plainly excessive machismo, much encouraged by the publishers of cheesy semi-nude fire department calendars and other forms of sex-driven merchandise, to say nothing of the post-9/11 environment.

Parisian sapeurs-pompiers, by contrast, as if by some outrageous process of admittedly no less fetishistic typecasting, are mostly lithe, elegant, sinuous, and beautiful. They are the concorde to the Airbus A380 so loudly proferred by the portly swains of the N.Y.F.D. The blond ones are the epitome of all things youthfully blond: with not an ounce of excess fat or muscle, finely chiseled features, and a perfect tan—from the same firm, I suspect, that did the Kritios Boy. And setting aside the demands of their vocation, the darker, olive-skinned, almost imperceptibly stockier ones (Marseille? Corsica? Heaven?) smolder out of some erogenous zone of hotness against which I challenge any reasonable person other than your average straight man to erect and sustain an effective psychic barrier.

During the later stages of the grand bal—not a single drunk, tart, or slapper to be seen or heard; please pay close attention, bibulous, messy old England!—I watched the apparently endless supply of sapeurs-pompiers pausing for quiet, sociable Gauloises on the street; chatting with colleagues; dallying with pretty girls; flirting with exceedingly attractive much older women; tossing excitable fire-engine-mad toddlers on their shoulders, and greeting with much friendliness the proprietors of local shops, and, incidentally, displaying with complete nonchalance the red piping that runs up the outside leg of their navy-blue dress uniforms, apparently professing to be wholly unaware that in this respect they trace slender lines of immoderate appeal, the scarlet satin-lined kepi held in the crook of the elbow, just comme ça, the épaulettes drawing attention to compact, but perfectly wrought shoulders.

In my feverish state, I seriously contemplated setting fire to my room just for the pure bliss of being rescued by one or all of them—although though my handy Zeiss binoculars I see that the majority wear a gold band on the ring finger of their left hand. Merde!

At my advanced age these stunning foot-soldiers of the sapeurs-pompiers in the Marais are thankfully (I suppose) out of reach, but when, out on the street, in the early morning of the quatorze, I came face to face with the person who could only be their commandant, supervising the brisk clean-up operation—a man in his late forties or early fifties, salt-and-peppery, but as swarthy, slim, fit, and now as devastatingly handsome as he was obviously once beautiful when he started out maybe twenty-five years ago—it was as much as I could do to prevent my jaw from dropping.

Moreover, I recognized him. Early the previous evening he and his wife were enjoying a glass of rosé with our friendly concierge in the modest hotel lobby.

With luck into every life come occasional moments of pure joy, but when, in the warm early sun over Paris last Tuesday morning, between issuing snappy orders to his compagnie of busy, stalwart sapeurs-pompiers, that beautiful leader of men looked up, and, smiling the faint smile of “mine host,” nodded affably, shook my hand, and addressed me with unselfconscious good cheer («Bonjour, monsieur»), I confess I nearly fainted.

Who said anything about Parisians being rude?

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