20 Nov 2015 15:40 IST

Paris will endure

The attacks by ISIS have caused irreparable pain and loss, but have strengthened the city’s spirit

Shortly after ISIS gunmen attacked innocent civilians at several locations in Paris on November 13, the news of a man travelling 400 miles to Paris to pay tribute to the victims went viral. Davide Martello arrived at Bataclan Theatre, one of the attack sites, with his grand piano and played John Lennon’s Imagine. Martello’s gesture surprised and moved many across the world.

But this is something that can be expected in Paris. Anyone who has visited the city or lives there knows — and will agree — that the city moves you, and transports you on a roller-coaster ride of catharsis and ecstasy.

I visited Paris just a month before the attacks.

Like French wine, the city is an acquired taste. The city of love, of light and of all things arts and culture is not impressive on arrival.

Many sides

Graffiti in Paris' metro station Abesses (line 12).
As an analogy, let me briefly talk about some of the lines on the Paris Metro. The Metro trains are dingy: all metal, dirty velvet seats and raw. The train rattles, and the tunnels are lit by unappealing tube-lights. The paint is peeling and the graffiti runs wild, inside the metro and outside too. You can see other trains pass by and the tracks and the gravel remind you of the Indian Railways. Inside, the seats are fraying and gray. There is spit and dirt on the floor. The lights on the train are faint and dull.

I am coming straight from London, where the Underground hides all the disarray of London’s underbelly and presents itself as prim and proper. The disorder in Paris is jarring and appalling.

But by evening I have revised my opinion of the metro, and the city too.

The metro system continues to baffle me — it is very efficient, just not straightforward — but by dusk and after two metro rides, it dawns on me that the dirty, chaotic metro is an impression of the city and its people. It tells me people’s thoughts and imagination ought to run wild, and that life is not all order and discipline. It’s a mad rush — our lives and the metro — and all the pretentiousness about pretty things are petty points in our existence.

At the end of my first day in Paris, the city was both making sense and not making sense, all at once.

Music and lyrics

A view from under the Louvre Pyramid, which is the entrance to the museum
I realise the change in my attitude has a lot to do with the musicians who get on the train — some with synthesisers and mics, some rapping, some playing the accordion or the violin. The music can range from pop songs by Enrique to classical pieces by Mozart, Chopin or Vivaldi.

It’s almost always an uplifting tune, reminding you that life is sublime. After the attacks, I am sure there are more musicians about, earnestly singing and playing a tune that will remind Parisians that all is not lost and they are together in this.

Responses and reactions emerging from France, and elsewhere, continue to reflect just this spirit.

Shortly after the attacks, John Oliver, comedian and host of Last Week Tonight, had the most appropriate response to the attacks. After some unabashed swearing on HBO, he said in his November 15 episode: “France is going to endure. And I’ll tell you why. If you are in a war of culture and lifestyle with France, good luck!”

His explanation reminded us why.

Addressing the ISIS, he said: “Go ahead, go ahead. Bring your bankrupt ideology. They’ll bring Jean-Paul Sartre, Edith Piaf, fine wine, Gauloises cigarettes, Camus, Camembert, madeleines, macaroons, Marcel Proust, and the croquembouche!”

You know Oliver is right. Parisians will endure, and the whole of France will be a part of it.

Paris is filled with inspiring stories of life and art, and many of them tell a tale of endurance.

As a visitor to the city, you will hear tales about each part of the city.

Lessons from history

How Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame changed people’s opinions of the magnificent gothic Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris (built between 1163 and 1345 AD) and saved it from being pulled down. How the Louvre, one of the largest museums today, was once an extravagant medieval Royal palace and converted to a people’s museum during the French Revolution in the spirit of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

How the people participated in uprisings through the 18th century and how the Bastille was stormed in 1789. How people reminded monarchs that they really had no divine right. How people formed the famous barricades — human and often made out of furniture, as immortalised in (once again) Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables — and laid down their lives for a cause and beliefs that are now the foundation of French society.

Of great artists’ and writers’ affairs with Paris at Montmartre – Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Salvador Dali, Claude Monet, F Scott Fitzgerald and many more. ( Click here for more on Montmartre)

The most scary and hair-raising story is of the Liberation of Paris at the end of the Second World War. Paris had been occupied by the Nazis since June 1940, and in 1944, when it seemed like Germany would lose the war, the city was wired up to be bombed and razed to the ground. The idea was: if Hitler couldn’t have Paris, no one could. But this was avoided, thanks not only to military and tactical action, but also because Parisians played an active role in ensuring that the Germans had a difficult time. ( Click here to read more on Liberation of Paris).

Spirit of Paris

The history of Paris assures you that, however bad things might be, the great city’s spirit will remain intact, its passion flaming and faith unbroken.

Parisian Anoine Leiris is an example of that attitude. Leiris, whose wife was killed in the attack, posted a tribute to his wife on Facebook that went viral. He writes, “So no, I don't give you the gift of hating you. You are asking for it but responding to hatred with anger would be giving in to the same ignorance that made you what you are. You want me to be afraid, to view my fellow countrymen with mistrust, to sacrifice my freedom for security. You have lost.” ( Click here to read the full tribute)

His message encapsulates all that the city stands for. Parisians, and their never-say-die attitude, will ultimately triumph.

Recommended for you