The day after a series of attacks across Paris that killed 129 people, an expat recounts the city's response.
As a travel writer based in Paris, I spend a lot of my professional energy navigating the city’s branding. It’s not just a city of unique beauty, so it goes, but one where pleasure is key. Here, you sip a café au lait, shrug and flâne your way cheerfully down a cobblestone street. It’s la vie en rose. Cue the accordions.
But I’m not a tourist in Paris; I live here, in a nightlife-glutted neighborhood on the border of Montmartre that miraculously escaped the multiple attacks that took place Friday, November 13, across the city and left at least 129 people dead. And when the effects of the sleeping pill wore off the next morning at 9 a.m., after having spent most of the night glued to France Info, listening to weeping eyewitness accounts of the carnage at Le Bataclan, la vie was not exactly rose. But what color was it?
Saturday morning it was the gasoline blue exterior of Pain Pain, my local boulangerie, with its chicly saturated façade, brass fixtures, and carrara marble. At 10 a.m. the line stretched around the block. People held each other’s gazes a bit longer, but there were no outward displays of anything. The servers were cheerful, people took their time to order. “Do I want the coffee éclair, or a pain au chocolat?”
When we think of a people of stiff upper lip and regal bearing under stress, the English immediately come to mind. The French are the blustery Latin ones who hit each other in the face with gloves over the slightest trifle, and yell and gesticulate wildly when perturbed. I’ve lived in Paris for ten years and some of this excitability is true. But when the shit hits the fan, something else emerges.
As I stood in line waiting for my brioche feuilleté, a cross between a croissant and the cinnamon toast of my youth, I remembered that these were the people who ate animals out of the zoo during the blockades of the Franco-Prussian war. A year later, at the close of that historical horror show, La Belle Epoque emerged, an era of aesthetic indulgence whose landmarks, like the Place de la République, around which more than a million people converged this January following the Charlie Hebdo killings, are part of what draw people here in good times and bad. The response to tragedy here is often an unapologetic reaching for transcendence through pleasure.
With an extra brioche in hand—because I was ostentatiously comfort eating even if no one else was—dressed in torn jeans, cocooned in multiple sweaters, sniffling and shell-shocked, I made my way down to meet my partner Stéphane and his kids at one of my favorite local florists, Debeaulieu. We were due in Yvelines, 45 minutes west of Paris, to celebrate the retirement of his aunt.
There was no question that the lunch would go on. Stéphane had bought her some Laguiole steak knives but he wanted to offer her flowers, too. When I arrived, I went straight to the car, parked in front, to talk to my two stepchildren. I got in and kissed them hello. "What a terrible night,” I said.
“One-hundred and twenty people are dead,” said Zacharie, 10, of the current death toll, while his little sister, Irène, 9, buried her nose in a Scrooge McDuck comic book, listening to every word. “This is much, much worse than Charlie Hebdo,” he said, his eyes big.
The American in me, the one who lived two blocks from the Lexington Avenue Armory in Manhattan on September 11, the place where people posted pictures of missing persons that stretched on for blocks, wanted to hold his hand, look him in the eye and ask him how he was feeling. Discuss the implications. Hug it out. But what I ended up suggesting made me think that something like assimilation was finally beginning to happen. “Do you want to go inside and look at the flowers?” I asked.
His sister stayed put, but Zacharie took me up on it. And so we walked into Debeaulieu. I gave Stéphane a kiss and a long hug, and then followed the boy as he walked up to every vase, gasping in amazement and gently touching the flowers. There were black lilies and lacy blood red tulips, strange relatives of the amaryllis family the color of pink flamingoes, cockscomb that looked like neon pink brains, and a bouquet of pillowy David Austin roses, their scent so indolic it was almost morbid. “Ça schlingue!” he said. (“That stinks!” in kid-slang.) “But wait, it smells good too.”
We weren’t the only ones in the shop. Helpers cut stems and organized bouquets. The owner, Pierre Banchereau, emerged, his bushy hipster beard streaked with grey, eyes rimmed with pink. We looked at each other and shook our heads. “Are your people safe and sound like mine?” I asked. He nodded. “A bit of beauty does one good in a time like this,” I said.
We made our way out to Yvelines, to La Commanderie des Templiers, a Romanesque revival church-turned-restaurant that sat on a brook a few miles west of Versailles. Ducks and a fat white cat patrolled the grounds as the waiter gathered all 25 of us around to take our orders. “Who wants the scallop casserole to start?” Up went a dozen hands, the jokes flying.
Stéphane’s uncle told us, a few feet away from the others, that he was having a glass of champagne in a restaurant on the rue de Charonne an hour before the gunmen showed up. He wore a grim smile and shrugged. My mother-in-law arrived, unaccompanied by her husband, who was home sitting shiva for his brother, who died the day before outside of Tel Aviv. She ribbed me, good-naturedly, for my poor choice of clothing. “I’m ashamed of you!” she laughed. Everyone else made an effort, what was my excuse?
With very few exceptions, no one checked their cell phones as the slow cooked veal roast and entrecote was brought to the table. We might have put away a few dozen more bottles of wine than usual for a Saturday afternoon, but gifts were opened, congratulations offered, kisses shared.
“This was a bad day for us,” Irène said in the car on the way home. “We lost 120 people. And grandpa’s brother.”
“It’s true,” Stéphane said. We think of them, and we will miss them, even the ones we never met. And in a few hours we’d kiss the children, go back to watching the news, and eventually start thinking about what to make for dinner. Stéphane had received a kilo of Comté cheese from some dear friends in the mountains. We got beautiful avocados from the Chinese grocer up the street from his place. We made a salad and counted our blessings.
Alexandra Marshall is a contributing editor and the Paris correspondent at Travel + Leisure. Food, design, architecture and fashion are her specialties, which means, living in Paris, that she is very busy. Follow her on Twitter and on Instagram.