20 July 2009

Penitentiary Life, Week 16

In which I talk about Bastille Day ...

As you may know, Bastille Day is July 14, and it commemorates the day in 1789 when the Bastille Prison in Paris was stormed by revolutionaries, and the French Revolution started.

The neighborhood where Eastern State is located is the Fairmount neighborhood in Philadelphia. It is not far from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum, and various other places in the city worth seeing. From what I can tell, the neighborhood association is very active, and the businesses in the area contribute to the life there in a very positive way. Every year, on a weekend near the actual date of Bastille Day, they have the Fairmount Bastille Day Festival. This year was the first time I was actually in the area during that time, and it's truly an event - there were hundreds of people there, even at 10:00 a.m. when the penitentiary opened!

Eastern State plays a big part in the Festival, and those of us who work there participate in the grand finale event, the storming of the Bastille and the beheading of Marie Antoinette. There is a "roof crew" and a "street crew." After closing time, we changed into white shirts (plain white shirts for the roof crew, costume-y white shirts for the street crew, so we would look like French peasants), and the street crew had red caps (les chapeaux!) to wear as well.

The French flag is flown outside the prison all day. The re-enactments begin, "La Marseillaise" is sung, and the crowd storms the Bastille (Eastern State). Marie Antoinette is captured, and the crowd turns against her. When she is told that the people have no bread to eat, and she responds, "Let them eat cake," the roof crew catapults Twinkies from snow shovels onto the crowd! Then those of us who are on the street crew (i.e., peasants) bring out the "prisoner" on a pallet for the crowd. Usually, the prisoner is then freed, but this year, it was "Bernie Madoff," so he was pelted with Twinkies, and we took him back inside the prison. Marie Antoinette, of course, meets her fate at the guillotine. (This year, in an homage to Michael Jackson, she dangled a baby from the platform ...)

It was so much fun! People really get into it, and they seem to have so much fun. The re-enactors of course are all dressed in period appropriate costumes, with muskets and swords. Poor "Bernie Madoff" had Twinkie filling all over him! (And trust me, you haven't lived until you are holding another human being, on a pallet, on your shoulder, as Twinkies whiz past your face, missing by only the smallest of margins ...)

Once the celebrations were officially ended, we opened up again for "quick" tours, and in the first half-hour, 170 people came through the gates! For the most part, people were in a good mood, and sober, and many of them had never visited before, so they were excited to see what was behind the walls.

So in conclusion, I can say that it was a more elaborate celebration of Bastille Day than I've ever been part of before. (Our celebration usually includes pastry, wine, and a toast to "Liberte, egalite, fraternite," and that's about it.) It was fun, even though it was a long day, and I was really tired by the time I was heading home. If you are in the Philadelphia area, or visiting next year, I would encourage you to come to the Festival, and do your part to overthrow the royalist government of France!

(Pictures from last year's event are here, if you want to get an idea what the day is like.)
(OK some of this may be out of order, but I was inside the prison and only heard the outside events. So sue me.)


Quilting Mama said...

What fun and they do get into the whole excitement of the day.

Tossing Tastykakes too. Hope no one was injured by an errant toss.

yoko said...

Ah, how I miss Bastille Day at the Penitentiary. Always a hoot. Love the beheading of the watermelon-- I mean, Marie Antoinette.

teabird said...

Twinkies. The Horror!

Lorraine said...

Bridget- Geez- I forgot all about Twinkies!

Channon said...

SNOL... I threw a twinkie from a dorm room window in college. Twinkies must like to fly.

Carrie K said...

That sounds like so much fun! Not much notice of Bastille Day around these parts.

Marie said...

I'll bet all those French revolutionaries were spinning in their graves. It does sound like a lot of fun, though.

knitseashore said...

What a fun day! Thank you for sharing it with us.

I love your eyelet cardigan so far!

Rebecca in CO said...

Can't say that is a holiday we celebrate here! It sounds like fun, though! I'm sure you have lots of exciting celebrations with all the cultural history in Philly!