Tuesday morning, December 2, I flew back to Phoenix after six weeks in France. For most of that time, I was in Marnay-sur-Seine, a village an hour southeast of Paris, but I had early on reserved a room in the city for my last night, which as it happens was about a block and a half from the Bataclan. Monday evening, walking back to the hotel from dinner, we saw a crowd of reporters and many many police vans parked in front of the concert hall, and moments later, Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, in town for the opening of the UN Climate Talks, arrived in a small motorcade. He stepped out, made a sort of awkward silent survey of the crowd, and placed a single white rose on the pile of flowers and notes and candles that continues to grow. (Continues: I was also in Paris one week earlier, and had to walk from the Gare de l’Est to the Gare de Lyon, a route that permitted me to visit the Place de la République, and to follow the Rue Voltaire, and to pass the Bataclan—sites where (and very near where) murder had happened and where memorial was happening: it had rained, the candles were mostly out, people were putting their signs and letters in plastic report covers to preserve them (“Long live life!” “We are all the same!” “Everyone against hate!” “Solidarity with refugees!”); the flowers were limp and damp, and between November 21, that first visit, and November 30, my second, the offerings kept growing and spreading higher and deeper.) Tsipras seemed uncomfortable, he looked around helplessly, he got back in the car. Maybe it all took 90 seconds.
Just before I saw him, I’d walked up the alley that I’d seen in a video the day after the attacks: you may’ve seen it too: a Le Monde reporter across the street films the side wall of the Bataclan, where for a while a woman is hanging by her fingertips above the street. One watches it thinking she is going to fall two stories onto bodies lying beneath her in the road. Then someone pulls her back up inside, but you can still hear shots in there. It’s awful. Two weeks later, there was a cardboard sign below the window where that woman had held on with just her hands, a sign reminding passers-by that the French values of liberty, equality, and fraternity had been fought for and forged with acts of terrorism. A small crowd had gathered to read it. The sign was not removed or damaged, as I think it would’ve been in the States. People read, they looked at the flowers, they walked on.
The response to the attacks most everywhere I went over the last weeks was both somber and bracingly, defiantly life-affirming. Also, people seem sure that such attacks will continue. In the posters and letters left at the memorials and in all my conversations, I saw much less anger and xenophobia than I expected. I was struck by the French sense that the only way to reject—or refuse the rejection, the annihilation enacted by the killers—is not by negative but positive means: let’s go out, let’s live, let’s love each other (and ‘each other’ struck me as very broadly defined—I know that the far right has tried to make divisive use of the attacks, and yet what I almost exclusively saw was a resolute and passionate commitment to multicultural—vibrantly cultural—France, reinforced now by the national electoral rejection of the National Front). In Marnay, a tiny town whose residents completely seduced me in their sidestepping of American-style consumerism, in their deliberate collaborations on happiness—embracing the arts, taking care of the community, cooking together, hatching business plans for endeavors that will keep the parties afloat and (also, especially) contribute some loveliness to Marnay itself—they are making their lives with all the emphasis on quality of relationship not quantity of consumption.
On the morning of France’s national memorial, November 27, Marnay’s mayor, Nicole Domec, had invited everyone in town to come to city hall to watch the proceedings together. Just over twenty people came. Nicole wore a sash in the colors of the Republic, as did her vice-mayor, and there was much kissing and handshaking and warmth in the greetings as we (both visitors and long-time town residents) assembled in a semi-circle around a flat-screen television. Nicole welcomed us, explained her belief that in watching the memorial together, we were reaffirming the crucial values of the nation. About ten minutes into the televised ceremony, the door burst open and a black cat pranced in, jumped up on the windowsill, and began to preen. A girl of 10 or 11 looked at her mom, looked at the cat, and went to carry it outside.
The cat spent the rest of the hour trying to return to us, pressure at the door, scratching at the wall. As the ceremony concluded, the crowd at Invalides in Paris began to sing the Marseillaise on tv. A few lines in, someone in our little room began to sing too, and then we all did, together, not resoundingly but in quiet, shaken, mournful voices. I learned that song probably in junior high, always found it a little scary, actually—and stirring—and as we sang in the stone council room I thought of a line from the speech Hollande had just delivered: that we would be faithful to the very idea of France, which he then defined as an “art de vivre” and a fierce desire to be together. After we sang, we kissed each other again, and confirmed plans or embraced friends or thanked the officiants (probably all of the above)—See you later. See you soon.