It’s the time of the month when our red, white, and blues turn into bleu, blanc, et rouge. At least in this city.
No matter the Spanish of our Vieux Carre architecture, French always seems more at home in these parts. The country did win the Quarter naming rights, after all.
Le tricolor will be flying today, reminding of crispy baguettes, terroir wines, and the seven prisoners actually freed from the Bastille b&e. I know, I know, seven more than Orleans Parish put away last month, but leave the jokes to me next time.
One thing maybe not to celebrate in the 3rd Estate escape? The destruction of the 1st Estate. Or, rather, the murder of 1st Estate members (don’t let anyone tell you this blog is pro-theocracy, dear reader; history – and Game of Thrones – counsels against all that).
Were there corrupt clergy in late-18th century France? Oui, oui, as those 1st-Estaters would tell our current generation, “Excusez-moi, but hold moi pet-nat.”
An overly comfortable relationship between aristocracy and religion? To be sure. I’m always tickled by the (perhaps apocryphal) story of the power-wielding Cardinal Richelieu. His Red Eminence—officially the chief minister of Louis XIII—would lock himself in his room for a week to pray the entirety of his annual breviary, the daily prayers clergy commit to. Why? He had a country to run the other 51 weeks.
How much fear did religious know in the aftermath of the French Revolution? A world away, most of the Ursulines left New Orleans for the safety of Havana. Sixteen of the twenty-five sisters gone for fear of revolutionary tremors in French New Orleans; nine left to handle the city’s education and healthcare.
As the old saying goes: one person’s revolution, another’s reign of terror.
But back to our liberté, egalité, fraternité. There’s much to champagne over in Nouvelle Orléans today, as you can find on our website.
My favorite Francophile pilgrimage of the day is to Joanie on a Pony. St. Joan of Arc glistening on that triangular neutral ground brings me back in time.
But not as far back as you might think.
The statue—and its six or so sisters—came to life about a hundred years after the French Revolution, the greatest work of sculptor Emmanuel Frémiet. The original in Paris has sorta-kinda been co-opted by the French far-right, but we’ve been negative enough about French politics, sooo…I’d simply add…the statue’s in Portland, too!
Appropriately, Frémiet chose for his model Aimée Girod, a young girl from Joan’s hometown of Domrémy – which didn’t have to pay taxes thanks to Joan (until, ahem, the French Revolution). Tragically, Girod suffered a fate similar to her inspiration, dying in an apartment building fire.
But enough about the surprisingly sad stuff; back to the expectedly sad. Our Joan replica sat for years in and out of warehouses, first in Paris, then, in the late 1950s, in New Orleans. You see, she was on Louisiana layaway, and we could never afford the bill (this was back before Ms. Gayle had a Walmart card, mind you). Finally, in 1964 Charles de Gaulle flew to our rescue, paying the $36,5000 sticker price.
Joan, however, didn’t make it out of inventoried imprisonment so easily. Something about the city not being able to agree on a spot for her. Or able to afford her pedestal. You know, expected.
Finally, out she came in 1972, first by the Moonwalk and then in 1999 to her current location, having made way for Harrah’s. Trading a saint for a casino—as if you didn’t know we were a tourist economy.
To be fair, Joan’s cannonball-heavy military strategy was always a bit aggressive. A gamble, even? I’ll show myself out.
I don’t travel that far back, though. Joan and I had our most memorable date as recently as 2014. It was a Monday—the typical day off for the remanent of the 1st Estate—which meant I was staying with my grandfather. Especially after my grandmother’s death, whenever my Sunday rest finally came, I would spend it at my grandfather’s house. Coincidentally, this arrangement continued until one Monday morning he decided to walk me to the front door in his boxers (and only in his boxers)—and then, after I drove off, spent the late morning on the porch swing.
On Monday, July 14, 2014 we weren’t being that kind of neighbor just yet. We were walking through his old neighborhood. To say hello to a statue he had no real connection to. On a terribly hot day. When he was suddenly struggling to just get down the block.
In hindsight, maybe you audible there.
We went to see something of the triumph of Joan, and I was struck by slowing of my grandfather.
These years later I still remember the shock of that moment, the deep realization that my grandfather was far down the road from Domrémy. Shock is not a bad revolutionary-day feeling, right?
I remember, too, his kindness, letting me drag him to some plastic-flute-champagne, wreath-laying event. We’re not even French!
But today, we are. We all are in this Frenchified city, whether our grandparents spoke some Cajun dialect or just took shade under a Frenchy statue.
So, vive la France! Vive Nouvelle Orléans! Vive that sense of shock and kindness—lessons worth translating this independence day.
How does France celebrate today? Parade, flyover, fireworks. Who says we’re that different?
All that Reign of Terror talk got me thinking of Dialogues des Carmélites, the opera with a curtain-closer like no other. Based on a true story (as my mother loves to say), a community of Carmelites sings their way to the scaffold, until the choir has lost all its voices. I can’t possibly post the closing movie scene due to its realism, but the theater version artistically gets to the reality.