Line 2 crosses the most vibrant and sometimes weirdest neighbourhoods in the north of Paris. From the crack dealers of Stalingrad Métro station to the pick-pocketers of Place de Clichy, the over-ground line showcases the best and worst of everyday life in Haussmann’s architectural child. Even the street-sellers in Barbès have become a familiar presence on streets covered in cigarettes and leaflets, selling spells and blessings in a city that just does not care about what you do as long as you do it eccentrically. It is humanity at its best, chaotic and enchanting. And yet, silence has fallen in the carriage for the first time in months: there is a sense of respectful contemplation and tiredness. I can only feel the vibration of my mobile phone tucked away in the right pocket, waiting for my mother to command on the other side: “Call me once you’re out, please”.
I am on my way to the Salle Pleyel to see Hozier. The day is November 14th, a national celebration of grief. Last time my mother was so nervous about the idea of me living a normal life, it was exactly three years ago: I was stuck in a hotel in Brussels’ red-light district – thank you, travel agencies, for not mastering Google Maps – and the police sirens would shake the silence every hour or less. While security services were searching for Salah Abdeslam in Molenbeek a few miles away, Parisians were trying to recover from the destruction of everyday life as we knew it. I do not think I have ever felt so paranoid as I did for those five days on the Belgian public transport, constantly searching for unfriendly sights and staying away from the most crowded carriages.
A total and involuntary brainwash took hold. It was rooted in sheer fear. Willingly or not, the reckless flow of information that follows such events – including the dangerous rhetoric about the threat of open borders – can erase our rationality. In hindsight, and with more knowledge of terror networks under my belt, I recognise the ridiculousness of assuming a second attack would happen in the span of 48 hours. However, neither can I deny that November 13th has transformed the paradigm of threat, to the point where it is the insignificant element that will upset you the most: it is the coffee shop and the concert hall; it is the stadium and the seafront; it is Charlie, and all the rest that came before. And so, Brussels becomes the 21st Parisian arrondissement. We are all in it, like it or not.
Concerts have nearly become an ideological statement in times of despair. The flashing red triangles of the Alerte Attentat signs peer through the glass windows of all public spaces to remind us we are potential victims and vigilance is our best friend. The request to open your backpack for inspection has become routine in university halls as well as libraries, and the 3117 emergency number regularly makes its way on the train’s noticeboard. Despite all the encouragement from political representatives, terrorism has won over our privacy. We are guarding the public space and overthinking the size of luggage pieces around the transportation network, trying to link each of those left on the floor to someone on the platform, for the peace of everyone’s mind.
Going through Salle Pleyel’s door, in this sense, is a hybrid form of atonement and commemoration. The closest experience to this form of catharsis was attending the anniversary of Paris’ liberation from the Nazis in September: another apologetical denunciation of the community’s mistakes in believing that a blind naming-and-shaming was only the privilege of a few unconscious people, and it would not repeat itself despite all warning signs from those same accusers. This time, though, the wound has been so abruptly torn apart again that the symptoms keep haunting the patient.
Ever since my move, I have learned how much of a family feeling there can be behind the frantic runabout of big cities. Scrolling around Instagram, the owner of the clothes shop I visited a week earlier shows her new window all in pink – la vie en rose, as she jokingly mentions in the caption. In her stories, instead, an all-black post remembers 1095 days of loss for a victim of the attack. Were he her husband, brother, father or friend, or whether he was at the Bataclan or one of the target restaurants, it does not and will never matter. Her memory is a collective act as much as the balloons being flown over the mayor’s offices in Hôtel de Ville, or the flowers contouring Place de la République, where everybody went in 2015 to mourn.
Today, the people crowd the cafés and bear with the frost that is slowly worming into our bones, as if the greatest act of protest were drinking to avoid freezing. On that train, I start hoping the shop owner will have something to smile about over a beer, before a different concert in which she will manage to feel safe and loved just by listening to the echo of distorted sounds. In my fantasy, she is surrounded by a different group of Parisians and internationals alike, more resistant than ever before, all there to defend our human right to forget: even if they have to text a worried relative and drink over a few moments of sadness, they will wake up the next morning and embrace the tragedy of life, even make a good story out of it. One of those stories to tell your neighbour while complaining about another signalisation problem at the Etienne Marcel station.
After all, this is a place that chose as its motto Fluctuat Nec Mergitur: tossed by the waves, but not sinking. Maybe turned upside down, but nonetheless alive and beautiful in its fragility – just like its citizens.