It is hard to believe that this weekend marked the 1st anniversary of the unimaginable horror that took place at the Bataclan concert hall in November 2016. One year on, Sting took the stage; there would have been no song more apt than the hauntingly beautiful “Fragile”, no lyric more poignant than “I send an SOS to the world”. I’d love to have been there.
The attack happened a few weeks before my son was due to leave Perth for a semester’s exchange in Lyon. I was stunned into silence and for a few days after the attack I was unsure. Should he still go, should we insist that he stay here in WA, should he change his plans and leave Lyon for another time, another year? We contacted several of our friends in France, some living just outside Paris. Life goes on, they said. We must not change the way we live our lives. After much thought and no small amount of agonising we concurred and off he went. I was nervous, on edge, tried not to show it, but it felt like I was holding my breath. My son was so happy, he was ready to leave home for a while, on the threshold of what was to become one of the best experiences of his life. I exhaled a little on hearing that he had arrived safely, been met by friends at Charles de Gaulle airport and was spending New Year with them just south of Paris, celebrating the year’s end and looking forward to new beginnings. A few days later he was in Lyon, happily installed in a little student studio beside the university. I exhaled some more and began to relax. Over the next few months we heard tales of his adventures, new friendships forged, a new culture explored; he was growing, changing, moving onwards and upwards, elated with his newfound independence and sense of belonging.
Then, on Bastille Day, towards the end of his time in Europe, on a day of celebration, the unthinkable happened again. There were no words to describe the horror that took place in Nice on 14 July. Here in Perth, on the other side of the world, I was stunned into silence once more, unable fully to process what actually happened, to comprehend the fact that someone, a person, a human being, would do such a thing. A quick email to my friend to make sure she was safe. She lives in Nice with her newborn, a joyous time in her life, a cruel juxtaposition with the carnage that occurred metres from her doorstep. An email came quickly back – she and her family were out of town. My son was in Paris for the celebrations, in the Champs Elysées with friends. Sometime after midnight French time a message popped up – we’re on our way home now, all OK.
He had been in Nice a few weeks earlier with a group of new friends from all over the globe. He posted bright and happy photos along the promenade, on the beach, jumping off the rocks, savouring the moment, doing what 19 year olds should be doing, exploring the world with wide-eyed wonder.
I have been in mourning for this country that I love since the Charlie Hebdo horror. I first went to France with my parents on a camping holiday at the age of 10 and my love affair with the language people and culture began. I spoke no French when we arrived, but at the end of a month running around barefoot with French children I was forming sentences, could order drinks and ice-cream, began to make sense of all the new sounds around me and a whole new world opened up. We returned to France every year thereafter, always somewhere along the west coast north of Bordeaux, one year the magical Ile de Ré, favoured playground of well-heeled Parisians, another the rugged coast of Brittany, always camping, always making new French friends and as I grew older there was the occasional sweet but short-lived holiday romance. I loved the food, the beaches, the glorious weather, the smell of the pine trees along the Côte Sauvage, the colourful markets, the exquisitely picturesque villages. A month was never enough and each year I dreamed of being able to return. From the age of 16 I found holiday jobs in France, as an aupair, in a bar, on campsites, each year exploring new regions and finding new delights. Later, while at university, I spent a year in the north of France as an English assistant in a lycée, and finally began to feel that I could speak the language fluently.
Many years later I was able to share my love of France with my students, organising school excursions for groups of girls eager to set foot on French soil for the first time. They were never disappointed. Paris, Lyon and Nice were our usual destinations. Avignon, too, on one occasion. We explored the lesser know parts of Paris; I was keen to show them more than the obvious tourist sights, and was thrilled when a student told me she’d felt like a real Parisian for a week. I came to know Nice and Lyon well and the students loved being residents of these cities even for a short time. On the Côte d’Azur we visited the museums, the old town, the port, the impossibly beautiful coastline, the mansions on the Cap Ferrat, the lovely town of Villefranche, Monaco of course because you just have to, but also hilltop villages like Eze and St Paul de Vence, and the Ile Sainte Marguerite where the mysterious Man in the Iron Mask is said to have been imprisoned for a time. So much to see, so much beauty.
In April this year we visited our son in Lyon and had a truly wonderful holiday – one of the best we have ever had in France. There was something particularly special about the welcome we received everywhere we went. From the Uber driver who was clearly so proud of his city, the friendliest hotel staff I have ever met and the very attentive Air BnB owner, to the Parisian engineers we teamed up with one night to take part in a pub quiz, a fun-filled night in which strangers became friends. We’d been in that pub four years previously, recognised some of the clientèle and they remembered us. It was a special moment. The next day I received a charming email from our new found friends, expressing their pleasure in an evening shared with ‘foreigners’ and their gratitude that we’d chosen to visit France in ‘these difficult times’. Add to that an offer of accommodation should my son need a place to sleep in Paris, as well as a guided tour, and we were left feeling very warm and just a little bit fuzzy.
Leaving Lyon for a while we explored the gorges of the Ardèche and met up with an Australian friend in Uzès to spend an afternoon with her at the Pont du Gard. From St Martin d’Ardèche we drove to our next destination, St. Martin-en-Cluze, avoiding the motorways. It was a spectacular day. There was something very special about that drive, the cloudless blue sky, the changing landscapes across regions unknown to us. A perfect drive ended as we drew up to our accommodation for the next two nights – a small and lovingly restored chateau, 85 euros per night, amazing breakfast included, a seemingly limitless feast of home produce. A gourmet dinner served in the gracious dining room on request with fire roaring in the elegant fireplace. Perfection. We were surrounded by mile after mile of breathtaking views and spectacular hiking trails.
From there on to the Alps and a brief stay in an apartment lent to us by French people we had met in Melbourne in March. They were from Paris, living in Mauritius, loved Australia, and were keen to exchange friendship, houses, cars; like-minded people, open to new experiences and new connections. So thanks to a chance meeting in Melbourne, there we were in Val d’Isère, surrounded by snow, breathing in the crisp Alpine air, eating raclette. Another uplifting experience. There are so many good people in this world. I have to keep telling myself that.
After we left, our son stayed on to finish the Semester, at which point he morphed from student into the proverbial Aussie backpacker, travelling to Ireland, Scotland, England (the not-so-United Kingdom), then over to Amsterdam, Berlin, Montreux, Prague, Barcelona, Milan and back to France for the Bastille Day celebrations in Paris, making the most of his Interail ticket. Then a message popped up. He was back in Lyon. He’d been missing it, he had felt really happy and settled there, he wanted to eat in his favourite bistro, have one last cycle around all his favourite places, – he still has the 15 euro card that allows him to use the excellent bike system – catch up with friends at his local bar. He had so enjoyed being a resident, albeit a temporary one, rather than a tourist. Lyon had embraced him, and he it, and he needed to go back.
He is home now, has readjusted to life back in Perth, but he still misses Lyon; he loved the buzz of living and studying in the heart of Europe, the easy access to weekends skiing in the Alps, or camping in the Ardèche, jumping on the TGV up to Paris or down to the Cote d’Azur. I am sure he will return many times to Lyon in the years to come, as I have over the years, to this vibrant city that enchants and delights and that he was proud to call home in 2016.
In France this year I saw humanity at its best and beauty that took my breath away. Each time I return I discover somewhere new and make new connections. Will I walk along the Promenade des Anglais again? I am not sure, but it will never be the same. An aching sadness will have seeped into the pebbles on the shore, the wide boulevard shared by joggers, sightseers, rollerbladers, happy families, students, elderly couples, tourists, locals, revellers. I do know that I will never stop visiting this country that I love. It is a huge part of me. Each time I land on French soil my pulse quickens with excitement at the delights and sights that await me, the conversations to be had, the food and wine to be shared. One year on from Bataclan and a mere 4 months since the carnage in Nice, we must not forget. The French people need to know that the world cares. May those who lost their lives rest in peace, and may we never ever stop living our lives the way we want to live them. Vive la France.