We’ll Always Have Paris

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It was a year ago, on November 13, 2015, that Paris came under attack from Islamic terrorists. At several locations around the city terror reigned, beginning with a suicide bomber at Stade de France, a sports stadium, and continuing with armed terrorists who opened fire into the restaurants Le Petit Cambodge, Le Carillon, Café Bonne Biere and La Belle Equipe and Comptoir Voltaire, before ending with more gunfire at the Bataclan concert hall. By the time the horror was over at least 130 people were dead and hundreds were wounded.  As we mark the anniversary and remember the victims, we look back at Paris-based Canadian ex-pat Louisa McCormick’s personal essay written in the weeks following the tragedy.

I didn’t move to Paris with stars in my eyes; I knew from a stint here in my 20s that I respected and appreciated the city without having a passion for it. “I really like Paris but I don’t love it,” I’d explain, convinced nonetheless that this was the right place at the right time for someone running low on adventure.

Definitely, I admired Paris’s prioritization of pleasure, be that from food, wine, beauty, unbridled intellectual freedom or affairs of the heart. I came here to be seduced and seduce: to live as my most stylish, most romantic, most worldly self on as much of an everyday basis as I could manage.

In my imagination, many of my frolics and flirtations would take place at one of those classic street-side Paris cafés where all the patio chairs face outward, patrons and passersby serving as each other’s audience and/or theatre. Those terraces don’t shut down, I discovered. Come autumn, every awning beams down heat lamps, so there’s no need to retreat indoors.

Unless there are jihadi assassins targeting cosmopolitan hang-outs at seeming ghastly random to slaughter innocent Parisians up to their gracious, sexy, timeless Paris fun. The capital of abominations and perversity, ISIS calls this city. Jealous, twisted morons.

“Are you okay?” my best Paris girlfriend texted late Friday, Nov. 13, as I sat in my pyjamas watching TV.

“Totally,” I replied, thinking she was referring to my latest man troubles. She called. Twenty dead. Multiple attacks ongoing. I clicked to a French news stream and remained glued there until 4 a.m.

An aunt emailed first. Mid-morning on 9-11, I’d called her, desperate for news of her banker son who, for all I knew, was near the World Trade Center. That worry felt logical and warranted, but this wasn’t a role reversal with me in the danger seat. Right away, I insisted on that. I was snuggled in my Left Bank fifth floor apartment far enough from the carnage across the river that anxiety about me, although unforgettably kind, seemed misguided.

“It’s not about me,” I replied until dawn to cousins, friends, ex-bosses and acquaintances, by email, texts, comments on my timeline, as we waited to find out what was happening to the hostages at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris’s funky, fun-loving 11th arrondissement.

I was sent a link to Facebook’s safety button that I couldn’t bring myself to click. Compared to the poor souls in my beloved 11th, where I lived 30 years ago and still miss because my current neighbourhood is so stolid and bourgeois, compared to the swarms of polyglot hipsters in and around the Bataclan – the neighbourhood I invariably recommend to visiting friends and family because it’s more fun than anywhere else – compared to those victims I was much too safe for that button.

Even if Paris was in lockdown, the president had declared a state of emergency and the borders were closed, to be frightened for myself struck me as narcissism. Either that or the French talent for discretion is rubbing off on me. Then again it might have been growing up in 1970s London during the worst of the IRA bombings that’s inured me to public threat. Même pas peur, new blood-red Paris graffiti soon announced – Not even scared.

My daily jog is part of what keeps me strong. Saturday after the attack, the mayor was asking us to stay home.

Seriously? With only one window overlooking a rear light well, I couldn’t check on my street. I donned my running shoes and poked my head out the downstairs door.

Ça va?” I asked young neighbour Roman having a smoke on the sidewalk as usual. Roman’s pals were all accounted for. Our street, nicknamed Thirsty Street because of its many bars, wasn’t empty.

“I’m going for a run,” I said. “They can kill a middle-aged lady jogging if they have to.”

“I don’t think they distinguish,” Roman said.

I ran to the Eiffel Tower, then over to Place de la Concorde, past the Louvre, the Hotel de Ville, to Place de la Bastille. The streets were subdued but far from a standstill despite what newspapers claimed.

I jogged back over Isle St. Louis and ran past Notre Dame cathedral, where I spotted my first police officers, two baby-faced recruits wearing grim expressions with their fingers on their rifle triggers. Through the art gallery district behind the École des Beaux-Arts, and I was home.

In the end, I ran for two-and-a-half hours. Sometimes you take back the night; sometimes you take back the city you were conceived in on your parents’ honeymoon as I was – I never get lost here as I do in London. If I have a soul, it’s likely Parisian.

Saturday afternoon, a London friend burst into grief on Facebook. I followed a link to a Facebook page where, at 8:45 p.m. the night before, her good friend had posted Rock! under a picture of the Bataclan marquee on his way into the Eagles of Death Metal show.

Within an hour, he was killed. I’m a devout atheist so I don’t get to pray but I can seek balance. As I clicked through Pierro Innocenti’s photos, with reverence few of us are used to, I saw an exceptionally exhilarating life full of smiles, festivals, pretty women and skydiving. It’s obvious from the 750 comments on his last post as they escalate from worried to frantic to mournful that he died much cherished.

When the French president declared war on ISIS, I sympathized with those who wanted to redouble forces versus buckling, but it struck me as one more misbegotten link in a tragic chain of events since colonialism.

I’d prefer a declaration of war on the anomie and delinquency afflicting second- and third-generation immigrant offspring raised in Europe’s desolate housing projects – unemployment among French Muslim youths runs at 40 per cent.

Is the lesson in all this that none of us should take our societies for granted? So then if I volunteered to teach English in one of Paris’s stark socially isolated suburbs, could I keep just one alienated teenager from falling prey to jihadi idiocy, thereby stopping one deluded middle-class kid from tagging along? How depressing to think of spending two hours a week in that kind of deprived, hostile neighbourhood.

Politicians are loath to set their sights on such places, too; absurdly, tragically, it’s easier in some ways to bomb Syria. I did take comfort in the hacker collective Anonymous’s declaration of cyber war on ISIS. Temperamentally, it seemed like more of a match – one self-righteous, myopic, uncontrollable post-adolescent subculture against another.

Sunday after the attacks, my friend and I cancelled our plans to visit the café at the Grand Mosque for mint tea; instead, she made soup. I brought over Poilâne bread and mesclun, and we tucked in and talked.

“Every single ex reached out to me Friday night,” she mentioned.

In my case, the two men I’d vaguely consorted with the year prior and not the man I’d actively flirted with the week before. I was ashamed to conflate tragedy with my latest crush, but my friend understood. Events like this are litmus tests. Sure enough, the man in question disappeared. It was impossible he wanted to date me if he hadn’t needed to know I was okay.

“I’ve planned what I’ll do if gunmen storm my street,” I told my friend. “Scream ‘Cachez-vous,’ beckon in stragglers needing rescue or my conscience couldn’t bear it, then slam the heavy front door to the street and disappear deep inside my building’s 1650 timbers, hoping no one bombs them.”

Not all girl talk then. Walking home, I was proud of myself for hearing a siren as if it was a regular old emergency for a couple of seconds, not part of the eerie chorus of constant sirens that filled that weekend.

The Monday after the attacks, a moment of silence was scheduled for noon. I slipped out to the square in front of stocky Église Saint-Sulpice and waited for its bells to toll.

I started to cry again, as I had on and off Saturday and Sunday night, for the singularly beautiful, bright faces in the lists of the dead, their terror, my friend’s friend, Pierro Innocenti, and his family.

As the first bell struck, I noticed a small group of friends holding hands. Many of the rest of us joined them – in less than a minute, a circle of 70.

I was the only one crying. Sieges, pestilence, the Enlightenment, revolution, occupation and resistance, jazz, existentialism: Parisians have spent centuries refining their reactions to everything from the most subtle to the most brutal events – a long, stirring history of conjecture and conclusion that might be prone to pomposity but rarely descends into self-indulgence. It’s not so much stiff upper lip as elegance. Parisians originated salons. They don’t honk in traffic. They don’t fume in line-ups. They are too refined here to get hysterical.

Wednesday I was ready to pay my respects. First, the Belle Équipe café five minutes from my old apartment where bikes were still locked up to the patio railings amid hundreds of bouquets and candles.

We strangers gathered quietly, gravely, taking turns with the front row. Friends of slain Ludovic had put up posters calling him a hero for the way he dove atop a woman who has survived. I’m glad they let us know. I tried not to picture too vividly what else had transpired there on that balmy Friday night.

A 15-minute walk west along boulevard Voltaire took me to the Bataclan. I imagine most Parisians have a soft spot for the Bataclan for one reason or another; I used to go there in the ’80s for Sunday afternoon dance parties.

The club itself was blocked off, the marquee unchanged but unlit. In the square across the road, the air was sweetened by thousands and thousands of flowers and as many candles, with dozens more laid and lit by the half hour. The crowd was hushed with sorrow and respect, methodically perusing the faces in the RIP posters and the garlands sent by embassies and associations.

There are orders against public gatherings still in place as I write but up the road at République, Paris’s Times Square with the added virtue of a Marianne statue, France’s own lady liberty, a crowd always naturally congregates sewn together by skateboarders. Hundreds of thousands of flowers and candles. Singing. Another big circle forming. I heard that had even happened on Metro platforms on Monday at noon. Parisians sharing Paris, come what may.

I relit a few candles and thought about handsome Pierro. He co-owned a family restaurant in a chic Paris enclave; Friday had been a rare night out for him. His father hoped he hadn’t known what hit him. Some of the victims at the café shootings mistook the shots as coming from inside and ran straight toward their slayers. How were they to know? It was the kind of thing I’d do.

I went home and wrote my friend a condolence letter, worried I lacked the grace it would take to tell her all, but I had to try. The pictures of the candlelit Bataclan shrines could speak for themselves.

I hope I stop noticing dangerous places for bombs as I bike around Paris – Shouldn’t someone rake those leaves? Having my bag checked several times a day, at office buildings and grocery stores now as well as museums and galleries, doesn’t bother me.

I jumped back on Tinder within days, I didn’t think twice. I wasn’t alone; in three days, I matched with 20 strangers. Only connect, I suppose we were all telling ourselves, as the novelist E.M. Forster had it. Or carpe diem … now because maybe never.

Exactly one week after the attacks, I was in the 11th, living it up at a Lebanese fusion bistro. That wasn’t brave; it was common sense. I’ve resolved not to spend another Paris Friday evening home alone if I can help it.

What I can safely say is that since Nov. 13, my homesickness has gotten better, not worse. I may not find love in Paris but I have newfound love for Paris, if love means devotion, gratitude and willingness to do the work of intimacy. My plan never wavered to be here through spring (however, from what I recall Paris in the spring is grey, chilly and wet, contrary to what some delightful old ballad might tell you).

What I now think I want is another Paris summer, with its bright green Seine, 10:30 p.m. sunsets and constant instigation to get out into these storied streets and flirt with men, neighbours, shopkeepers, dogs, yourself, the views, life. What those ignorant murderers failed to understand – no one takes on the City of Light and triumphs.

Même pas peur. You lose, we win.