Paris, Friday the 13th and me

Tempus ends to fugit whether one remarks on it or not, so no point really. Time has passed, things happened, blog posts did not.

One of the things that did happen was Paris and yes, I was there, on Friday the 13th, in the 11th arrondissement, on the Right Bank of the Seine, Blvd Voltaire, hash-tag Paris attacks. I found out several days later that one of the attacks had been closer to me than I’d known; I was sipping Cote du Rhone, listening to jazz, oblivious that quite close by there were gunshots at the Comptoire Voltaire (where the only casualty was the somewhat, er, inept gunman who blew himself up without hurting anybody else).

It’s rather bizarre being in the centre of history as a friend puts it.

The trendy area around the Place de la Republique is not my natural habitat;; I was never especially young and trendy even when I suppose I was. But this one time, weirdly, I had made my way to the 11th to the café Aquarium where a friend, Benoit Gil, was playing.

Things were normal until half past nine or so when – perhaps in retrospect – things seemed a bit tense and, uncharacteristically, café staff made it clear they were closing. Seemed a bit early but as they were starting to mop under our feet we left. We heard some murmurs about an “explosion”. A bomb perhaps? We made our way to my friend Minnie’s car; in the street two passers-by told us something was going on at the Bataclan. (This was completely unenlightening to me as I had no idea what Bataclan meant; it was only later that I realized it was a theatre. I am a Left Bank person.)

In the car we did see the Blvd Voltaire cordoned off and a lot of police cars and SAMU (emergency vehicles) but nothing especially alarming. Still, we turned on the radio, talk was of the Stade de France and nobody knew what was happening. President Hollande had just been whisked out. Later, on TV, he seemed a tad rattled which was understandable under the circumstances.

It was, I admit, altogether a bit surreal.

Since then the attackers’ provenance has been traced to Brussels, specifically Molenbeek. A former resident Teun Voeten, cultural anthropologist and photographer, clearly knows more about this area of Brussels than I do (though I think I have wandered through on the odd occasion) and his take is dead on I think. I suspect that many young men (and perhaps a few young women) fall into terrorism for banal reasons: boredom, a desire to belong, the usual preoccupations of the young like heartbreak or being in with the in crowd. And becoming a martyr provides purpose and a higher calling, structure even, that the boring and commonplace does not. (And what one does not realize at that age is that much of life is neither dramatic nor extraordinary or that youth in general – contrary to the cultural myth  –  is an anxious, difficult time for most.)  Alas, at the moment too many conflate that discomfiture into violence or the Caliphate.

“To be willing to die for an idea is to set a rather high price on conjecture.” Anatole France *

At the Place St. Sulpice on the other side of the Seine, just after 10, all was quiet and the man at the hotel desk knew nothing. I told him what I knew, which wasn’t much but turned out to be more than BBC World which told me the sky was falling and the end was nigh. Oh good. It seemed that all of Paris was burning, even though I had just seen it was not. I checked Twitter (unhelpful) then, just in case the news made it to Vancouver, sent a few messages and went to bed to the sound of sirens and helicopters. The next day Paris became the nexus of a terrifying news cycle (for about five days) and I woke up to some 40 concerned texts and mails. I then did something I’d never done in my life, I changed, my “status” on Facebook, which had obligingly provided a phrase along the lines of “safe in Paris” for me to tick.

I had always known but never experienced first hand the parallel universe(s) of reality and news but here it was. The next day Paris was essentially fine, though subdued; quiet for a Saturday. By afternoon reaction had set in and museums closed though metros and buses ran and people milled about in cafes and elsewhere.

Context is best found, I think, in poetry, in art, in history and narrative.  Auden, in the poem Musee des Beaux Arts wrote: “About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters.” In the Brueghel painting Icarus: even as the young man falls from the sky with a large splash, the ploughman, head down, keeps working, the sun shines and “dogs go on with their doggy life”. It was “something amazing, a boy falling from the sky” but to most people it was “not an important failure”. Paris, of course, was hard to miss; but that ploughman of Brueghel’s had no smart phone.


Speculation (and heavy police presence) continues and no doubt will continue for a long time. A few days later it was Mali. What a world, what a world, as that great philosopher, the evil witch in The Wizard of Oz, said. On a side note, I have to say I have wondered about those small cafes, especially le Petit Cambodge. I’ve seen small Asian cafes like that all over Paris and it seemed like an odd target. Call me crazy but that one felt personal to me. Being fired or a former girlfriend working there? Too often the political is personal even if we don’t realize it at the time.

However. The City of Light recovers, the news cycle has moved on – and next week there will be jazz again at the café on the Blvd Voltaire. Tout passe. That is the nature of it all.


*etre pret a mourir pour une idee est de fixer un priz assez eleve sur des conjectures