At first I was going to Paris on a whim--a friend was there for a conference, there was a FF ticket involved. I'd play tourist instead of journalist. Though I'm frequently in town, it had been decades since I played that role. But in the shadows of the November 13th events, I understood that I was flying to Paris to pay a shiva call.
One eats and drink at shiva. One mourns. One makes sense of the past and then realizes the future is inevitable. Finally one step is put in front of the other and life continues.
"Aren't you afraid?" I was asked.
It hadn't occurred to me. It had occurred to others. Out of self-defense I told my always-fearful mother I was going to Vienna. French friends said, stay out of the RER and the Metro. My flight to France was empty.
I landed into an quiet airport and a friendly city. Was that really a joke and a smile from the man behind the glass at passport control? Unprecedented.
With the Climate Change conference about to start the metro and RER were free. How was I to refuse such a generous welcome? I looked into the face of the weary passengers as we passed, and did not stop at Saint Denis and Stade de France.
I dumped my bags and guided my good friend to my Sunday morning ritual. The best cure for jetlag is the potato,onion best-latke-ever-galette at the north end of the Marché Biologique. But something was amiss. I heard no English, British or Brooklynese. There was no line at my favorite bread stall. You know, the one who has the pain aux fruits secs. The market had been returned to the locals.
The streets were stripped of its wall of tourists. Looking back there wasn't one couple carrying their Tonka Toy assortment of shopping spree. I saw no Asians struggling with Googlemaps. The city echo was loud when we snagged a table at Katsuaski Okiyama’s still hot, impossible to book, thumbnail of a restaurant L'Abri. True, the man who made the call has Okiyama's cell phone #, but still. Not a tourist except for me in ear shot.
The Clown Bar? A table available? Really? I asked my friends Robert and Renée-other Americans who had not changed their annual Thanksgiving in Paris plans. The resto is around the block from Bataclan, perhaps it was too close for some, such as a Parisienne friend of mine who lives in the 18th. I'd see her later in the week, near the comfort of her apartment. But meanwhile, eight of us met up at the restaurant.
We dined outside in the chill, under the warming lamps. There were tables inside if we had wanted them. I hadn't been to the small spot for about a decade, when the food was serviceable and the wines less so. The word was that under the stewardship of Ewen and Sven the resto had grown frosty. I felt no chill. Vegetarian, Renée and I mumbled as I waited for the arched eyebrow of disdain.
No scowls were forthcoming. Instead, only deliciousness. The milky topinambur soup, dreamy, seasoned to perfection, dancing slivers of mushroom and crunchy vegetable. Their chicken, white and buttery against the gamey pigeon, stripped off its carcass in front of me. I'm used to the paradox of sorrow and joy. It's the human condition.
American news reported that the French were taking back the streets, restaurants and cafés, it was their duty. This was not my experience. They weren't on the Canal. They weren't at cafés.
I did find them at the Batalcan, where there were a few other non-natives, South Americans. But no crush of people, more like a steady stream of thoughts, flowers and children. We stood in silence. No one looked at one another, taking alone moments with strangers.
I saw Paris tried to morph around its new reality. Guns poked out of police rear pockets. I couldn't help but think of unwitting tourists inviting pickpockets. Security guards at stores from Au Bon Marché to FNAC were ineffectual as they apologetically asked to inspect bags." "Unzip your coat," the motioned. I had to wonder, how would they handle finding explosives? 'Sorry Madame, you'll have to take that vest off. None allowed inside."
I sailed into the Musée Picasso. There were no lines. No wait. No buildup in front of glass cases. No foreign languages.
Paris was left to the French with few interlopers.
The tourists and the Parisian will come back as soon as the necessary denial and defiance snap back into place. But for now, Paris is in transition, to a place that has been alien to those of us who have already accepted a new world. When I left I could feel the city doing the necessary walk around the block after shiva and then next steps about to follow, even if shaky.
As far as making sense of it? That, I fear, is impossible.