What, you don't know about Bastille Day?
For the sake of not boring each other, let's just assume it's the French version of the Fourth of July and move on to the part where Kurt Cobain's ghost taught me a life lesson. Shall we?
Back in 1995, I was in France for Bastille Day. I was staying in Toulouse as part of a student exchange program, playing the fourth sister of wonderful, wonderful family who used a guinea pig named Scooby-Doo as a crumb catcher/vacuum cleaner. For reasons I can't go into here, I was severely depressed, and although some of the best and clearest moments and epiphanies of my life happened there, so did some of the darkest.
Anyway, cut to Bastille Day, July 14, 1995. We took the tube downtown for the festivities, which included some sort of French Nirvana cover band shredding on a small stage. Every single French girl over the age of three was obsessed with Kurt Cobain, wearing cheap shirts with his face on them and murmuring, "Oh, qu'il etait beau," whenever he was mentioned, which was every three seconds. So there I was, the underdressed American in a sea of obsessed French girls, trying to explain the lyrics to Smells Like Teen Spirit.
I had a surreal, David Lynchesque feeling, a seeping feeling, which washed over me like a storm cloud. I am utterly alone, it said. None of these people are my people, and home is a thousand miles away.
And then something landed on my face. No, it wasn't the panties the French chicks were throwing on stage. It was a big, fat drop of rain. The storm cloud of feeling had in fact been a real storm cloud, so low and thick you could almost poke it in the belly. The rain came hard and fast, and the band kept playing, and the French girls kept swaying and crying and exclaiming over the beauty of a dead man's blue eyes.
And then the first lightning bolt struck.
It slammed into the stage in a burst of sparks, and the band dove for cover. The audience started shrieking and panicking. I looked for my foster sisters, and they were gone.
I really was alone.
The second bolt of lightning hit a building, jolting the awning into a fireball. Everyone screamed and stampeded for, oddly enough, the other awnings. For any sort of cover. I was driven among them, out of the square and under the overhang of a restaurant.
The third bolt of lightning cracked in the middle of the square we'd recently vacated. The rain was so thick by then that we could barely see the black smudge it left behind. The awning was still burning, and sirens began to wail. I remember noting how strange it was that French fire alarms, like French telephones and French cats, sounded entirely unlike those in America.
So there I was, soaked, scared, alone, foreign, cowering under an overhang while curious and annoyed diners stared through plate glass windows, muttering into their wine about how silly teen girls are. But for some reason, I was calm. There was an odd, surreal beauty to the experience, and I felt like an observer looking at a painting.
That's when it struck me that being alone was an internal construct, not an external one. In the crowd, next to my friends, listening to music I understood and liked, I had felt entirely alone and utterly alien because I didn't feel what they were feeling.
I was there. But I wasn't there.
Now, rattled by fear, overcome by strangeness and beauty, I was lifted out of my misery and into a bizarre tranquility. Transported. I was alone, but I felt like I belonged there, in that moment. And I had a sense that everything would be fine.
Then the rain quit. My friends found me. We walked home along glistening clean streets, talking about how it was the strangest Bastille Day ever and hypothesizing that the entire experience was an act of a God who missed Kurt Cobain as much as the French.
And that's why July 14 stands out to me. It's not something we celebrate here, but it's no longer just a number in the middle of my least favorite month. It's a day to remember.
It's the day I learned how to be alone.