Back in the city after my trip to Paladru, I notice La Grande Roue being built again in Bellecour. It can only mean one thing and I’m shocked by how quickly events have caught up with me. Can it be a year since I saw the same big wheel being erected from my classroom window? Can it be a year since the last Fête des Lumières.
Every year on 8th December people put candles outside their windows to celebrate the occasion. A charming custom that puts a smile on your face as you wander back home through the freezing December streets. But like all traditional festivals, it has mushroomed into a colossal money-spinning extravaganza. What used to be a small solemn procession to the Fourvière by a few hundred people, is now a four-day bender charming people from all over the world to spend their cash on hot wine and an almost military-sized cache of flares, rockets and fireworks.
An optimist would call it a celebration of all things Lyon. A cynic, a shameless piece of self-promotion. A gigantic sprawling promotional video created by the Lyon Chamber of Commerce to attract big business and a big fat wodge of cash from Europe. In reality, it’s a bit of both. And why not? Enjoy the spectacle, have a few hot wines, and then get on with the Christmas shopping.
Lyon has never been a major European city. Even fifteen years ago, it was considered a narrow-minded snobbish place, full of nostalgic, bigoted bores. The Fête des Lumières, along with Olympique Lyonnais, was the perfect strategy for the city’s marketing division to put the city on the map. Take this traditional day of remembrance and beef it up a bit. Do a ‘Christmas’ on it. Instead of just having a few religious weirdos wandering the streets with candles; find the most talented lighting artists and engineers available, give them a load of lights, a load of cash, and see what happens.
What happens is that four million people turn up in a city that was once considered a provincial backwater to watch a gigantic light show. A city that was used to playing third division football, suddenly finds itself playing in the Premier league and everybody wants to come. Even Parisians, the most snobbish of all the French by a mile, now have a grudging respect for the place. As one of my students, who recently moved here after a lifetime in Paris, put it: ‘It’s alright here, isn’t it?’ His muted tone giving away more about the poor quality of life in the capital than he cared to admit.
So in a few week’s time the cash tills of Lyon will be ringing out. While the city mayor and his minions quietly cream themselves in the Hotel du Ville waiting for their Christmas bonuses to fall out of the illuminated Lyonnais sky.
As for me, I’ll probably be still staring at the big wheel in Bellecour from my classroom window. Was it really a year ago? It’s a wonder time can keep track of itself without spinning off into space, it moves so fast. Did closing my eyes for that brief moment after my lesson a year ago, cost me the bulk of 2012. Have I just woken up, now aged 38, a beard down to my chest? I really must keep awake more. Enjoy each moment. Enjoy the Fête des Lumières. Enjoy Lyon.