by Jennifer Shanahan
In a sweeping stroke of luck, my family and I were heading to Paris for a music filled few days. Concentric circles of business, friendship and schedules overlapped and we would not only be seeing one our favorite bands in the City of Light, but my husband and daughter would be attending a music conference and we would have time with friends visiting for many of the same reasons. And my daughter would celebrate her twentieth birthday there!
We arrived on a Thursday and immediately set about lunch with friends, made dinner plans with others and began organizing logistics to and from various concerts and venues. In spite of the November chill the city bustled as usual; department stores shone with early holiday decorations, pedestrians overflowed the narrow sidewalks and cafes veritably hummed with activity day and night.
On Friday night we met friends for dinner on the Left Bank. During dinner, our phones began to chirp and buzz with concerned friends checking on our safety and whereabouts. This is how we learned of the terrorist attacks that would ultimately claim 130 lives and injure 368 people.
We were unsure if we should stay at the restaurant, which seemed safe enough, or if we should all call cabs to take us back to our various hotels. When we finally did get a ride to take us across Paris, the sudden change was obvious. Our van was one of the only cars on the road- in Paris, on a Friday night. The usual sounds of honking horns, sirens and the drone of scooters replaced by the gentle whoosh of rain under the van tires.
Everything was canceled. Any place where people could gather shut its doors or gates. While many of our friends took the chance to return home, we chose to stay. We knew we would not hear any of the music we came for, but we did not feel the urge to flee. The quiet in Paris was weighted with shock and sadness, and I could not shake the sense of déjà-vu that took me back to the days following September 11, 2001. In Chicago, the lack of aircraft flying overhead for three days created an eerie absence of background noise, a constant reminder of how the world had changed.
Saturday, my daughter’s twentieth birthday was a somber day in Paris- low, grey clouds mirroring the pall below. The collective grief felt in the wake of the attacks was not only for those whose lives were so senselessly cut short, but also for a city and for a way of life that included congregating to enjoy music and the arts without fearing for your life. The hush in the streets was respectful and necessary but in that void emerged a desire to make sense of the incomprehensible, to ask questions like, what kind of world is this for young people, like my now twenty year old daughter? And why? And what comes next?
Sunday the sun came out and we decided to walk along the Seine. Seeing the gates to Tuileries closed and locked reinforced the fact of a city shuttered. The few cafes that chose to open were sparsely populated with customers bundled against the cold.
We walked and walked, warming ourselves in the sun as we went. We saw a lot of other people doing the same, what else was there to do? We walked past Notre Dame, where a silent vigil would be held the next day. A military presence broadened a secure perimeter around this landmark church.
We walked past Notre Dame, toward Ile Saint Louis. As we approached one of the bridges connecting Ile Saint Louis to the rest of Paris, I heard it- music! A small group of musicians played for a ribbon of onlookers. The singer, a woman, played a small washboard hung around her neck and sang American folk songs. To her right, a man strummed a guitar, and on her left a horn player alternated between clarinet and saxophone. A toddler, urged on by his clapping parents, ran forward and dropped a euro coin in the guitar case laying open on the ground at the musicians’ feet.
All music venues, theaters and even museums would remain shuttered for some days to come. Concerts were rescheduled. The Bataclan nightclub, where 89 people lost their lives, would not reopen until one year later, on the anniversary of the attacks. I didn’t have answers to the big questions like why, how, what next, but on that bridge I began to understand that while terrorism had taken innocent lives, along with a sense of safety and freedom it could not take away the joy we share in music. Music! It unites us. It can make us feel less alone in the world. It can drain us, wring us out, pump us up, fill our hearts. Each of knows songs that evoke passion, or peace, or simply pleasure. In a beat or two, music can bring on a rush of memories, a flood of emotions. Music can lift us up from our daily struggles, shake us loose inside, make us dance, sway, cry, smile, jump, sing, embrace, giggle, sigh, breathe …
Since graduating from Columbia College where Jennifer Shanahan studied fiction and edited their literary journal, Hair Trigger, she has found an interest in travel writing. Initially, this was strictly a personal project, to share updates with family and friends while she was away. Yet the more she blogs, the more that she has to say and share with others. You can visit Jennifer's blog here, which is about her efforts to learn and use French.