Written: at a table outside Café le Bistro in the 10eme, with a glass of rosé.
Countries visited: 1
Churches visited: 4
Pastries eaten: 7
I walk past the Bataclan each morning. I saw it first on Google Maps as I traced Boulevard Voltaire all the way from La République to Place Léon Blum, committing its proud line to my nervous memory, but I had forgotten again when I made the trip in person.
It almost stayed forgotten, too; I’m not sure if the Bataclan was always unremarkable or if it has, since November, been encouraged to blend further into the steady Haussmannian march of buildings. I’m still, two weeks on, unsure of exactly where its entrance is, but I know it faces a stretch of fence that contains a tiny crooked diamond of grass.
Without its context that two metres of fence might be a children’s art project, with its fluttering pages covered in uneven photo collages and hand-drawn hearts just beginning to bleed in the rain. Every morning I try to look at a different face, to take in the utterly ordinary lines of their features, their half-smiles printed hurriedly from Facebook profile pictures that should have been replaced, by now, with new shots from Christmas or New Year’s Eve or the weekend in April they had planned to faire le pont in Brussels.
I ration myself to one a day because after a second or two they make me cry.
I have not yet run out of faces.
A couple of months before I left, at a catered soirée in a converted warehouse in West End, my friend’s father’s eyebrows leapt into his hair when I told him I was going to Paris.
Paris! You do know that there are 14 million Muslims in France?
He had, bluntly, expressed the same opinion that had been dealt out to me over and over. At least, from him, there was no artifice; his advice was not dressed up in concern for my safety, and therefore seemed both more offensive but slightly less dangerous. Ugly prejudices are, at least, honest in their ugliness.
At least, too, he said it to me. I had no patience with the naysayers who could not hold back from wafting clouds toward the sunshine of my plans, but they did me no harm. The people who inflicted their fear on my mother – those were the ones I could not understand and was hard-pressed to forgive.
After the first few times, the first few frowns, the first few aren’t you worried abouts, I did what I do best: I developed a strategy.
Q: Aren’t you worried about everything going on over there?
A: I’m more likely to die crossing the street in Brisbane than in a terrorist attack – and I’d rather be blown up doing what I love than be safe and unfulfilled here.
No further questions.
I have more in common with my friend’s blunt father than you might think.
I spent my first few days testing the air, watching faces in the street, trying to gauge the feeling of the place. Was the Bataclan lurking somewhere on every street, not just the one I followed?
I read an article about how the fanciest restaurants, the ones with Michelin stars and waiting lists that resembled gestation periods, were serving just one table of customers each lunchtime. About how the tourists who were staying away and the euros were drying up. I’ve only been into the centre of town a couple of times since I arrived, so perhaps it’s different there. But here, half an hour’s walk north of the Tuileries, I can’t discern it.
I keep sniffing for the fear. If I had the 10eme of 18 months ago to compare to, I might see it, but I don’t. I keep thinking back to Northern Ireland in the spring of 2014, and how, even though nothing of interest had happened, the air felt flammable and the ground shell-thin. It doesn’t feel like that here.
There may well be 14 million Muslim people in France; I’ve not checked the statistics. I can confirm that they are not all trying to kill me, or, seemingly, anyone. The veiled women I have met seem mostly to be trying to get their children away from the chocolate aisle in Franprix and to snaffle a seat on the metro – and those are only the people who have some physical characteristic that I, probably prejudiced myself, associate with Islam. Many will have slipped past me unnoticed, also up to nefarious things like driving smartcars and putting their rubbish in other people’s bins and running late to work.
Getting stopped by roaming policemen a little more frequently than everyone else.
A few evenings a week, the Place de la République fills with protestors. The statue in the middle of the square has been graffitied, a little more each time it seems, with pro-refugee slogans and draped in a banner that appears to have been, in less troubled times, someone’s bedsheet.
They are, from what I see of them as I walk home, quiet: closer to a sit-in than a manif. Still, clusters of police vehicles line the sidestreets. This is a well-organised kind of liberté; the protest seems to run to a preordained schedule that allows the authorities to attend and, on the bigger days, to close the nearest metro station as a safety precaution. Men in body armour stand at the corners of the square, looking outward, stopping people to check bags as they approach the Place.
It is that, more than anything else (and, rest assured, there is plenty else), that reinforces my lack of concern. This is still, for now at least, a country in which the people with machine guns face away from demonstrators, not towards them.