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By Jeannine Sherman
Director of Public Relations
VISIT Milwaukee

A people in a state of revolution is invincible.
Maximin Isnard, French Revolutionary, France, 1791

A people in a state of celebration is a party.
Jeannine Sherman, Tourism Gal, Milwaukee, 2011

The City of Beer does a pretty good imitation of the City of Love every year in July. That’s when we turn Cathedral Square Park in Milwaukee’s East Town neighborhood into Bastille Days, North America’s largest, outdoor, French-themed festival.

This year the fest turns 30 and to celebrate organizers are inviting everyone down for a French toast. Literally. They’ll be handing out 3,030 sticks of French toast to “toast” three Francophile-filled decades.

I love everything about Bastille Days, beginning with the Storm the Bastille fun run that kicks off the festival’s opening night. The run commemorates the event that became a flashpoint in the French revolution when peasants rioted and took over the infamous prison.

It’s different because it’s a night run with a 9 p.m. start. I leave my iPod at home and enjoy the rhythm of thousands of pairs of running shoes hitting the streets. The run takes you through several of downtown’s historic neighborhoods, past sidewalk cafes and local watering holes. Don’t be surprised by the loud and frequent cheers of support along the way – it’s crowd participation at its best!

The icon of Bastille Days is a 43-foot-tall Eiffel Tower replica. It serves as a meeting spot, a photo opportunity and the perfect place to steal a kiss or two. Hey, when in France……

When you’re not busy munching on beignets or sipping Chardonnay, you can enjoy the exploits of roaming street performers, shop the marketplace and listen to local, regional and national bands on four stages. 2011 headliners include Grammy-award-winning Cajun band Beausoleil with Michael Doucet.

What else is fun to do at Bastille Days? Last year I took advantage of the mini French lessons offered at the fest and 15 minutes later I parlayed my newfound knowledge into a clever and slightly risqué comment – in Francais, mais oui! - during the French Can Can performance.

I had my picture taken in front of a French back drop so I could fool all my Facebook friends. “Thinking of you….from Provence.” I checked out the Chef’s Wine and Cheese demos for the perfect pairings of some of my favorite French imports. I cheered on the participants in the Waiter/Waitress Race while they ran through a crazy obstacle course carrying full glasses of wine! Quelle horreur!

Did I mention the cute beret I bought at the marketplace? C’est si bon!  

I stuffed myself with Steak Frites and toasted Solomon Juneau, a French Canadian fur trader who helped found Milwaukee and became our first Mayor (with champagne, not toast – a girl’s gotta watch her carbs).  Moved by the spirit of equality embodied in the Democratic ideals of the French Revolution, I also toasted the Jesuit missionary and explorer Pere Marquette, who left his mark here as well.

He deserved it.  And quite frankly, I needed an excuse to sample the Pinot Noir.

I’m going to confess something. I couldn’t leave without sticking my tongue out at a mime. It’s okay. He wasn’t able to chase me because he was really busy trying to get out of the imaginary box he had drawn himself into. I knew I could atone by attending the authentic French Mass held in St. John the Evangelist Cathedral.

Or by convincing Mr. “I Want to be Marcel Marceau” to join me in a raucous Can Can that would put the ladies of the Moulin Rouge to shame.

Which did I choose?

C’est un secret, mais oui.

Details: Bastille Days 2011, July 14 – 17, Cathedral Square in Milwaukee’s East Town. Free admission, street parking.


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