Paris – The city of undimmed light

Streets of Paris - Image Getty and wonderlusttravel

Paris is more vibrant than ever. With a typical Gallic shrug, Parisians have gotten over the terrorist attacks of past.

Most Parisians hate Paris. They complain about the weather, the traffic, the pollution, the dirt, the stress, everything. Mostly the weather. They’re inured to its charms and think people who goggle at Belle Époque buildings and hustle through museums are idiots. Given the chance they’d move to Bel Air or Buenos Aires or Barcelona in a heartbeat.

For the most part, they’re right. The Prado in Madrid is a better museum than the Louvre. Chartres is more impressive than Notre Dame. Milan is more stylish. The weather really is cold and damp and gray most of the time. Even the food isn’t as good as it used to be — these days to most Parisians “la gastro” refers to the inevitable yearly outbreak of violent stomach flu and not to anything conventionally gastronomic. But these uncomfortable facts are irrelevant to the Paris that matters to most of us — an imaginary Paris, a Paris of the mind, in which Picasso gambols with Cocteau backstage at a Diaghilev production of a Stravinsky ballet. A Paris that never existed, where art and music and film and literature and fashion and romance commingle in smoke-ringed bliss in dingy basement bars; where wild-eyed poets freeze in garrets, drink absinthe and die a thousand times over for their art. An idea of Paris, rather than a prosaic place.

It’s the idea of Paris that a gang of drugged-up thugs tried to destroy nearly two years ago, on Friday, November 13th, 2015. The story of the attacks is as well-known as it is horrific, and requires no synopsis here. The attacks were coordinated and wide-spread within the city. People died eating, drinking, smoking, living. There were the usual hope-sustaining acts of heroism. There was blood and gore and death. There was fear. There was defiance. There was, and still is, the lasting sadness that’s the byproduct of inexplicable violence.

The attack people remember most clearly is the one that took place at the Bataclan in the 11th arrondissement. You know the story. The Eagles of Death Metal were playing to a packed house — the Bataclan holds about 1500 people — when three men with AKM assault rifles entered, took up positions in the mezzanine, and began shooting. When they were done, and dead, by their own hand or by police bullets, 89 people lay dead on the floor of the Bataclan, with another 350 or so injured. The full horror of the scene is unimaginable to anyone who wasn’t there.

One way of dealing with the unimaginable is to ignore it. A year and three quarters on from the November attacks, it’s hard to find anyone in Paris who brings them up unprompted. Completely understandable: after you’ve processed your grief, you don’t want to talk about tragedy unless you have to. On the first anniversary, the mood in the city was a kind of defiant fatalism, which is scarcely distinguishable from the famous Gallic shrug. If you didn’t know what had happened a year earlier, you wouldn’t know (except for a few hollow official ceremonies held for the benefit of a government whose response to the attacks has ranged from incompetent to Orwellian). It’s not that Parisians are possessed of any special powers of composure. It’s that Parisians are human beings, and human beings, all of us, are built to survive. When I bring up the attacks, particularly at the Bataclan, a hitherto unremarkable rock club where thousands of bands had played to typically boisterous crowds, everyone has a story. Everyone knows someone who was there, or was supposed to be there themself, or prevented someone else from going there by sheer luck. The nature of horror is that, unlike justice, it’s impartial.

I have a tenuous personal connection to the Bataclan. In 1995 a band I was in opened for the Foo Fighters and Beck there. At the time, I was afflicted with panic attacks every time we played, and one of the ways I dealt with my anxiety was to scope the exits before we went on, in case the need to escape overwhelmed the need not to seem like a crazy person during our set. So I know that there is an exit to the street just a few feet past stage right at the Bataclan, and I’m almost certain that that stage right exit is how most of the Eagles of Death Metal (and those fortunate fans and crew that were able to follow them) got out. I’ve played thousands of shows over the years, and I tend not to remember the names or salient characteristics of any of the venues I’ve played. But I remembered that exit at the Bataclan, because it was burned into my brain. And now it’s burned into my brain for a different, terrible, reason.

I was back in Paris almost exactly a year after the November attacks because I’m in another band, and we were playing in Paris, as most bands who tour Europe have done and still do. I’d already played there in February of 2017, and noticed no particular tension, but we were playing a small basement club and not the Bataclan, so I’m sure if the idea had crossed anyone’s mind (it didn’t cross mine, neither at the time nor later), it would have been dismissed: we’re simply too small and insignificant a target. Which didn’t prevent my mother from begging me not to tour Europe this past winter — there had been other incidents, and because she mostly gets her news from American cable networks, her view of Europe — not just Paris, not just France, the whole continent — is that it’s a place where people blow themselves and each other up for sport on holidays. I brushed off her concerns — we were far more likely to face danger on the Autobahn than in any concert venue — but there were small signs (border stops where there didn’t used to be borders, more requests for my passport at hotels) that not everything was the way it used to be.

When the attacks happened ....

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