Monday, November 16, 2015

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.
The day after a series of attacks across Paris that killed 129
people, an expat recounts the city's response.

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