The permanent population of our village is 2,633, but every year from August 14-18 it swells to a hundred thousand for Les Fêtes de St. Vincent, a full-on rave of concerts, dances, pageants, street performers, processionals by land and by sea, culminating in a huge firework show, famous throughout the region, celebrating St. Vincent, our patron saint. Vincent was a Christian living among pagans when, in 303, he was told he was behind on his sacrifices. He refused to comply and was flogged, hung on iron hooks, dropped onto boulders, then tossed into a cell. In the morning he emerged, looking refreshed, his wounds completely healed. This naturally required he be burned at the stake for practicing magic. Then he was beatified, and his remains were whisked off to Rome. But on August 16, 1701, St. Vincent’s relics were returned to the village, and that’s what all the hubbub is about.
What does this mean for people – us — who live in apartments over the shops and cafes of rue Pasteur, one of the village’s main thoroughfares?
In May, when we moved here, our street was dead quiet after eight p.m. The shops were shuttered and dark. Mourning doves, magpies, and seagull calls were the first sounds of the dawn, followed by the burble of French as the boulangerie came to life. At 7:00 the street sweeper moseyed on down our cobblestone street, and that would herald the beginning of the day.
This morning at 4:20 am, one day before the opening ceremony, it was so ridiculously loud we both burst out laughing in the dark. Imagine the hottest, loudest summer night on Manhattan’s lower east side, only in French, accompanied by screaming toddlers with the most developed lungs in the western world.
Sidebar: We all have come to admire French parents for their ability to raise polite children who ace their exams and eat green salad without coercion, but they’re terrible at putting their kids to bed. When French parents go on vacation, they really go on vacation. Walking home from a party at midnight last Saturday we passed dozens of kids running around, lunatics high on sugar and no sleep, babies still awake with pinwheel eyes. The next day, in the rue it’s one non-stop collective temper tantrum, because that’s what sleep deprivation does to a two-year-old.
Our rue is narrow, not suitable for the large delivery truck that nevertheless — beep beep beep beep beep beep – slowly backed down and stopped right beneath our window. Our old windows shook in their frames. We heard the tear of sheet metal — there went the side mirror. Some angry very fast French flew back and forth. Then, with an ear ringing clang the metal ramp dropped to the cobblestones. What were they doing in the pre-dawn darkness? We expected the Ocean’s 11 team to leap out and commence an epic heist. Instead, they were delivering large wheels of nougat (new-gaa, as it is pronounced) to the nougat shop below us, in anticipation of the increased demand for nougat over the coming days.
At that moment, a thunderstorm rolled in, and between claps of thunder, one of the nougat delivery guys started rapping in French. A moment later, a toddler – was he is the cab of the truck? Part of the Ocean’s 11 nougat delivery squad? – started howling. We never knew what the deal was because that’s life in another country. Most of the time, you just survive the experience with no idea what just happened. We dozed off eventually, and in the morning, were awakened and like St. Vincent, our wounds were healed.