Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Merci Beaucoup, Milwaukee!

I don't know much French beyond "Guy LaFleur", "Milles Bornes", and "German people - rubbish!" (That last one technically isn't French, but it is a direct quote from a Parisian bartender in 1978.) This doesn't stop me from thoroughly appreciating Milwaukee's Bastille Days, a French-themed street fair and cultural celebration held annually in mid-July.

Milwaukee's ethnic festivals, most of which follow the renowned Summerfest music festival on successive summer weekends, are themselves famous. Unlike its better-known fréres like Irishfest and Indian Summer, held at the controlled-access festival grounds on the lakefront, however, Bastille Days draws people to the open streets of East Town, an upscale area near Cathedral Square and the Milwaukee School of Engineering. (Cathedral Square also hosts the Thursday night Jazz in the Park series.)

A miniature, yet imposing, two-story Eiffel Tower stands on Kilbourn Avenue, the hub of the festivities. The music, the street performers, the food -- the food! -- and the arts and crafts in vendor booths are all present in abundance, but the real draw is the people-watching. From the lunchtime businessmen and women enjoying a French Caribbean specialty off the grill to the Saturday night party-goers, everyone observes and participates in the promenade as the casual, often-stylish crowd circulates around the streets. A true exercise in your basic Liberté, not to mention your Egalité and your Fraternité.

Chanteuse Robin Pluer's Edith Piaf-inspired performance and the hilarious French Waiter/Waitress Race top off the Bastille Days experience. It's the most relaxed and cheerful festival of the year, lending its joie de vivre to your esprit de corps. The perfect antidote for a case of Parisian bartender malaise. Vive la fête!

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