Andrew Gastelum is Howler’s man on the scene for Euro 2016 and will be sharing his experiences in France throughout the tournament. This is his first dispatch.
[P]ARIS — “Aye, we made it. Paris, the city of — “
Sirens from a passing police van interjected, drowning out any utterance along the Avenue de New York.
“What’s that, doll?” a woman in an Ireland shirt said to her companion as I crossed the street behind them. Another maddening two-toned siren crept up again as a police motorbike rushed behind.
“Oh, fuck it, let’s just get on with it,” he yelled back over the siren, bringing the group around them into an uproar.
If only he knew how much his words echoed the current mood of France heading into what is easily one of the largest security operations in sports: 51 games squeezed into one month and spread across 10 stadiums from Lille, bordering Belgium in the northeast, to the wine countries of Bordeaux in the southeast to the French Riviera along the Mediterranean.
Not to mention, Friday’s opening ceremonies will take place in the Stade de France on the outskirts of Paris, the site of three detonations during the November 13 terrorist attacks in which the terrorists were denied entry into the stadium.
There’s a giant target on France’s back and everybody seems to know it. The possibility of facing Germany in the semifinals is the least of the country’s worries.
Amid all the security concerns, a nationwide strike by one of the country’s largest unions continues to flex its muscles as trash collectors, train operators taking the more than two-million visitors to many of the Euro sites and, most recently, Air France have joined the picket line. Student protests raged near the Eurostar platform at the Gare du Nord on Thursday, blocking the arrival of the Euro 2016 trophy in a defense that should make Didier Deschamps reconsider his backline. And to top it all off, once-in-a-century flooding that caused more than €1 billion in damage forced the Louvre to close for days as thousands of paintings were taken two-by-two to higher ground for safe keeping.
Even with more than 90,000 security personnel spread across the host cities (the German national team decided to take matters into its own hands with $900,000 spent on private security), you never get used to seeing automatic rifles. Or getting intimate with triple body checks and TSA-level intrusion at the entrances to landmarks. Or hearing about last week’s mock suicide bombings at a police exercise in Lyon that included volunteers strewn across the stadium ground, covered in fake blood. Let’s just hope Manchester United security officials weren’t in charge of that one.
Despite all the media scares and government travel advisories, the eve of Euro 2016 was jubilant and celebratory. David Guetta’s free opening concert created a party atmosphere at the Champ de Mars near the Eiffel Tower, where lines to enter the Euro Fan Zone were 200 deep at one entrance seven hours before the French Luka Modric lookalike performed the official Euro 2016 anthem (if anything, that’s the anthem that deserved to be preempted by a Pitbull song).
The Pont d’Iena bridge that crosses the Seine leading from the Eiffel Tower to the Jardin de Trocadero had its usual share of traffic but with a twist: close to 50 police vans and at least double that in policemen armed with machine guns and glimmering smiles as tourists held up their one-euro selfie sticks. Impromptu four-a-side games between opposing fans broke out along the blocked-off street in a U-13 preview of the week’s upcoming matches (spoiler alert: Northern Ireland pounds Germany 9–2).
Even the torrential skies that deluged the vibrant city over the past two weeks opened up to reveal three straight sunny days that loitered around the 80-degree mark. Fans draped in flags from Croatia to Turkey to Iceland laid out in the sun next to Lost Generation grandmothers in bikinis at the pristine and manicured parks along the left bank. Meanwhile, England fans remained sun-burnt and took shelter in the shadowy pubs of the Rue St Denis.
Rather than subjecting themselves to eye-of-the-storm silence and closed curtains, Parisians reveled in the atmosphere. Well-coiffed waiters in tuxedos sported French flags painted on their cheeks. Bars and shops lined their windows and walls with European flags. Euro 2016 banners and giant HD video screens were juxtaposed in front of iconic Haussmann marquees.
But more importantly, Paris felt back to its normal self, the tension and anxiety produced by that infamous night for weeks and months to come lifted from the air in a city I often call home.
The terraces of the Avenue de la Republique were buzzing, packed with the very same Parisian youth that drank away the night on that besieged street in the autumn. Crowd chants and pulsating basslines from a public concert attended by thousands flowed down the grand boulevards well after the 10 p.m. sunset and off the cathedrals, towers and monuments that adorn our mind’s image of the city. And tomorrow they will play their tournament at the Stade de France with the whole world, both good guys and bad, looking at more than just the emerald-green stage and its thespians.
After all, this is a city that knows a thing or two about rebellion: A state of emergency became a state of ecstasy. Aye Paris, the city of love, the city of light. And let me tell you, this party was lit.
Follow Andrew Gastelum on Twitter @gastelumEPL.