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Peace, Parades and Pigeons in France!

Earlier this year I was one of four lucky Australians to be chosen to represent Australia in the Bastille Day Parade in Paris to commemorate the beginning of World War One (WWI). During my two weeks in France I had the opportunity to visit some of Paris’ most beautiful monuments, to commemorate the tragedy of WWI, to meet young people from over 80 countries and to dance with pigeons!

Before I get to my adventures in Paris, I will begin with the interview. Yes, that’s right, you read it correctly! A week before I left, a French television channel (France 24) contacted me to ask if I would be part of an interview about the “Mission Centenaire” with 2 other young people (one from Morocco and one from Mali). My answer was, of course, yes! Who doesn’t want to be on TV?

During the interview I was asked how I felt about representing Australia and my feelings towards going to France. I was also asked to talk about my 5 relatives who were involved in WWI. It was an extremely emotional experience to share their stories and sacrifice on television. However, I also felt honoured that I was able to remember my forebears in this way. (I have included a video link at the bottom to the interview if you would like to find out a bit more).

From the first day the French Government entertained the enthusiastic young delegates with a myriad of cultural activities. We started off our two week sojourn with ice-breaker games led by the Franco-German Youth Office. After having bonded over “scissor, paper, rock” and some fine French fare, it was off to a press conference and reception with the President, François Hollande. The President reminded us all of the importance of honouring the sacrifice of those involved in WWI and the need for peace across our world.

At the Australian Embassy in Paris, at a Press Conference with the president, François Hollande, and with the Australian civilian and military delegations.

The following days proved just as exciting as the first (if that’s possible!) Our other cultural activities ranged from dinner-boat cruises along the Seine as the sun set over Paris, to lively “World Café” discussion forums at UNESCO, to taking part in a ceremony for the Unknown Solider at the Arc de Triomphe. But wait, there’s more! We attended the launch of Ubisoft’s new computer game “Valiant Hearts” (focussing on the WWI experience at the frontline), we watched an impressive air performance and we marvelled at the 360° views of Paris from the top of the Arc de Triomphe!

Our fun continued as we attempted to learn the dance routine for the parade… We rehearsed for several hours each day (including at 5am on the Champs-Élysées every morning), we practised walking and dancing in formation to “La Cucaracha”, we styled Agnès B costumes (affectionately referred to as the “pyjamas”) and we danced with pigeons! Over 300 young people trying to learn an 8 minute dance routine in 2 weeks is quite an undertaking. So you can imagine the squawks and the flurry of feathers that resulted as we all tried to learn the correct technique for holding the white pigeons! In my case, learning the pigeon handling technique was quite a slow process, but as they say in French, “vouloir, c’est pouvoir” (where there’s a will, there’s a way) and it’s true! Several fly-away pigeons and a large amount of bird poo later, we did it! Everyone held his/her pigeon perfectly and danced gracefully for the whole parade! The music, movements, costumes and pigeons were all carefully co-ordinated to promote peace, unity and harmony within our world and to depict the sorrow and loss of WWI. The final moment of the dance routine (where we all released our pigeons and yelled “peace” in our native language) was a beautiful symbol of how love, generosity and harmony can (and must) be shared.

This excitement and adventure did not always run smoothly! It was interspersed with pouring rain, inordinate amounts of time on buses and with rather large amounts of pigeon excrement in our hands. However I think these experiences made our new found friendships more wonderful and the time we spent together more memorable. Through these new friendships I have discovered new places and learnt greetings in countless languages! It was such an enriching and exciting experience to meet young people from around the world who had come to France to commemorate and honour the lives and sacrifice of those involved in WWI.

I hope you have enjoyed my blog post about my amazing time in France, but to finish off I thought I would end with the fireworks at the Trocadéro! This 40 minute display of light, colour and sound demonstrated the beauty humanity is capable of creating and reminded us of the importance of promoting peace in our world.

I would like to say a final big thank you to all those involved in helping me attend and participate in this wonderful event. It was truly a rewarding and enriching experience.

*All photos taken by, and are the sole property of, Anna Gregory

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