On Friday 13th November 2015 at around quarter past nine in the evening, what has come to be known as the Paris Attacks happened, and the Western world was thrown into disarray. Everything we thought we knew about security turned out to be a lie; they seemed everywhere, the ominous ‘Other’, the face of whom was the Islamist terrorist, roaming free on our continent. It appeared certain that Europe would be thrust into a race war, even as Francois Hollande declared France at war. For the first time since 7/7, the West was truly scared of terrorist attacks on its own shores again.
This was how I felt at the time. Over a year on, and in part those fears weren’t unfounded, even if my analysis is essentially incorrect. It hadn’t been the first horrible attack on Western democracy since 7/7 at all. The same year, the Charlie Hebdo attacks had sent ripples across Europe and America, and sparked a fierce, democratic, pro-free speech backlash. Charlie Hebdo had been an appalling attack on free speech and the debates around censorship which arose were far too alarmist for my liking. (My friend’s parents, for instance, essentially told him that if one was going to publish such offensive material publicly, one should expect retaliation. He said that he thought it rather hyperbolic retaliation.) But really, I felt disconnected from the whole thing—I did not feel truly shocked, though the event itself certainly was shocking. Perhaps I was too involved in a narcissistic battle with my own inner ghosts, unclean spirits, to really feel anything other than my own despair (a battle in which I still am today). The Paris Attacks of November later that year, though—they were different. They felt real. This was not the first time something terrible happened on French land, but it was the first time I felt truly affected by it.
Just after they happened, I wrote a short piece on my feelings towards the Attack. I had wanted to write something longer, but I couldn’t fathom it; I was out of words, I had nothing to say which wouldn’t have been a two thousand-word reiteration of ‘We should stand with the French’, and I felt so empty and yet so full of dread all at the same time. The piece was entitled Même Pas Peur, and read:
A profound sorrow envelopes the sitting room tonight. The events of the weekend of 13/11/2015 have reduced us to balls of torpid goo, messes of quandary and fear. On the television, live, Matt Frei is mid-report when, in Place de la Republique, hundreds of people run for what they think is their lives. This time, it’s just a scare. Last time it wasn’t. G and I huddle an inch closer on the sofa, acutely despairing within the safety of our student house. We are five hundred miles away from the horror in Paris, and we are scared.
This time, the sadness is exhausting. It wasn’t like this with the Charlie Hebdo massacre. For some reason, I didn’t feel as close. This time, my solidarity is fervent; now, I am pained in a way I haven’t been in a long time. As my friend said to me, ‘Yeah. There is something about this one.’ But neither of us could place it.
Frei is talking to Lauren, a young woman, on the television. She says first in French that we have to show we aren’t afraid. And then, in English: We have to fight panic, to stay strong, free, together. She says that she, they, everyone, will show that they are united and strong, because ‘it’s worth it’. As her spiel continues (‘freedom, love…’) Frei ushers her away.
Lauren is the voice of the people. And Paris—France, Europe—will stay strong. Even as my sadness, my despair and fear consumes me, I will show solidarity. And love—‘It is beaten by the waves but does not sink‘.
Looking back, it is obvious how deeply I was affected. A year and a half ago, I would never have written something so fumbling emotive, so achingly platitudinous, as this. And yet, it existed, and it existed in all its cliché, in all its pained glory. When I read it am I am taken back to that weekend, and all the sorrow I felt. But most of all, I was taken back to the fear I felt that I was going to Paris the very next week with my friend Brad.
I called up my mother on the fourteenth and asked her if I should still go. She replied that she didn’t see any reason for me not to, and that it would be a shame if I didn’t. I felt hurt that she didn’t immediately call me and forbid me from going—but my mother has never been that sort-of woman. My mother is the sort-of woman who wanted to see Cuba before the Americans ‘ruin’ it; the sort-of woman who would never pass up the opportunity to see a nation at such a time of crisis, to pay her respects, to help people in suffering, to properly experience the world in all its horror and bleakness. She expected me to go; the idea of me not going hadn’t even crossed her mind. So we went.
It was raining more heavily than, perhaps, I have ever experienced when we alighted from the Eurostar and walked out of Gare du Nord on to Place Napoléon III. It wasn’t like how they all say—you couldn’t smell the fear. The streets were not desolate; quite the contrary, they were teeming with people braving the rain. What did exist was lingering feeling of tension over the city, and it seemed that all at once it might break and everything would come tumbling down from the liberal democratic high Paris had once been on. (And indeed, we are beginning to see that today.)
We found our hostel, and were greeted by an amicable hostel-owner. We were too early to check in to our room, she said, but wouldn’t we please sit down and eat some of the croissants—complimentary, of course? We were only too happy to oblige. As we sat and ate, we expressed our condolences for what had happened only a week before. She looked at us gravely in turn before thanking us—sincerely—for still coming. Her whole hostel had been booked out, she said, and nearly everybody had cancelled their rooms after what had happened. Nobody wanted to travel in Paris any more. It didn’t seem safe. I repeated what I had said to my mother earlier—that it was probably safer right now than it had been in the last six months. She responded in the affirmative. The meeting between us, two foreigners, and her, a Paris local, and the connection we felt, as total strangers, over this tragedy which had befallen the entire continent, and her thanking us for still showing up—it is something I will never forget. Never a duo to waste a day, the two of us walked to Montmartre in the blistering cold and pouring rain. It was wonderful.
The next four days passed far too quickly. At some points, we almost forgot that we were walking in a city which had experienced one of the worst terrorist attacks in years just a week before. We were quickly reminded, though, by the legions of armed soldiers who paced the city, on the metro, outside the Notre Dame, huddled under the metal bastion of the Eiffel Tower—who were simply everywhere. We would be walking along the Seine, amiably humming to Brad’s phone as Ludacris ft. Nate Dogg – ‘Area Codes’ played (the rather inappropriate and unsuspected anthem of our trip) and, before we knew what had happened, we would be shoved back into reality by a troop of passing men with assault rifles, or a whole street covered in bouquets of flowers, or—and this was what struck me the most from the trip—a man playing piano in the middle of the road, just across from the theatre in which eighty-nine people were massacred.
While we wandered around, drank at bars, ate good food in restaurants, met locals and other foreigners (on the penultimate night we met an American called Dean, with whom we had a rather topical chat about solutions to the Syrian War, and had a friendly if uninteresting debate about the state of the world economic system (Dean was a stalwart Marxist and believed the war to have been caused by capitalism and capitalism alone)), I took notes on my phone. As a result of the immense pragmatism of iCloud, they remain. I recount them here.
Man playing piano, surrounded by a crowd of people down the street of the Bataclan, just across the road a string of flowers, candles, shows of solidarity.
On the Bataclan, the sign which advertised the Eagles of Death Metal show still hung. The place was destitute.
Meme pas peur was everywhere—on the walls, on billboards, graffitied on the floor, on the sides of toilets.
News van still everywhere, covering, correspondents removing their coats and flattening their hair, the screech of sirens all around. Paris was in panic. In madness.
They read like all of my other notes—a desperate, tearing string of hastily tapped out words, written in an attempt to catch up with my racing mind. But I remember now the deep sadness I felt when I wrote each of them. I remember feeling like I should write something—anything—when I returned home, and I remember opening up those notes and feeling that I simply couldn’t. Writer’s block is nothing new, but this was something different. It has taken me a whole year to overcome it, properly.
When we arrived home, I put together a short film of our time in Paris. Watching it back now, I realise that there is no mention in it, not a single snapshot, of anything which would remind the viewer that the Paris Attacks even happened. The two of us stroll around, taking in art and architecture, admiring timeless sculpture and laughing together. The reality, in fact, was similar to that. But there was always something hanging over our heads.
I used the song ‘When I Fall In Love’ by Bill Evans Trio as the music which played over the top of largely silent, fisheye images of a beautiful city, raped. When I listen to Portrait In Jazz now, even the happier songs, I am reminded of those few days we spent in Paris, wandering around, taking photographs, getting caught in the rain. The sad songs, especially, remind me of evenings crawling around the bars near where we were staying, drinking red wine and eating, and conversing about history, literature, politics, music (mostly hip hop), Call of Duty—all those things one talks about with a friend. I picked ‘When I Fall In Love’ for the film because it has such a nostalgic quality, and Paris was—I hesitate to say unforgettable, as it seems a cliché. Enchanting. ‘Spring Is Here’ reminds me of riding around on bicycles. We rode around on the Parisian equivalent of Boris Bikes every day, and it was similar to a horrible romantic film in a fantastic way; feeling the cold breeze of the air on one’s face as one flies by the Eiffel Tower; not noticing how cold the end of your nose is because of the astonishing beauty of the Notre Dame; barely glancing at the shining rifles of the military because you’re too busy gazing across the cobbled streets, down at the Seine; turning a corner and seeing spellbinding buildings, one after another; turning another corner and seeing something better. And ‘Autumn Leaves’, that Joseph Kosma classic, makes me feel like all those bars in which we sat drinking until we couldn’t think had jazz music playing in the background—such is how Bill Evans’ piano playing makes me feel. But of course they didn’t.
And of course, I will never forget. The music, over the silent film—it was nearly enough to distract me from what had happened. But not quite. And forever will I remember those few days we spent in that disoriented city, in all its beauty—soldiers and flowers littering the pavements, the sound of a distant piano playing for days on end somewhere in the distance, old signs from fresh tragedies left hanging as symbols, walls covered in stoic graffiti, squares bordered by correspondents and television vans waiting for something else to happen, and a lonely woman murmuring platitudes of courage and unity through it all as fires burn behind her and bodies lie strewn across the streets—and forever will Portrait In Jazz remind me of them.