Paris, Nov. 13, 2015, 11e Arrondissement

I Love Paris – in the springtime, I Love Paris – in the fall… despite everything.

We happened to take accommodations just a short distance from Le Comptoir Voltaire, one of the targets of the terror attacks of the evening of the 13th of November, and just a few hours before they began.  Although we were never in the kind of danger that others were in, we were close enough to feel it.  It was our turn this time.  The following is an account I sent as an email some days afterwards to family and close friends.  It is now adapted for this article, and with quite a few more photographs than had I included before.

Well, we had a little trip to Paris, for the occasion of the Mois de la Photo (which consists of a big photography exposition at the Grand Palais, and lots of little shows in various galleries around town), but it didn’t go exactly as planned.  At least we’re both (each of us) in one piece.  I’d have written this up a little sooner, but I had a few things to take care of, and frankly wanted to not think too much about the insanity for a few days. 

We took the morning TGV, around 10AM, which gets you to Paris at about 4PM at the Gare de Lyon.  A short ride to the one-room-with-kitchenette we’d taken for the stay, at 100 Rue de Montreuil, which is a short walk from the Place de la Nation and the big metro station there.  We met our agent around five, and got the house keys and the rundown on the apartment from him.  After unpacking our stuff, and having a better look at the cupboard, we went out to the small food market across the street to get a few things to make some dinner with, along with a bottle of wine – burgundy, but not the kind you get in the gallon jugs – and a small log of goat cheese, plus some coffee, jam, and bread for breakfast.  We brought our booty back “home” and went out again immediately for a walk, to case the neighborhood. 

We went straight west at first, two blocks, to Boulevard Voltaire, then turned right and went up the Rue Guénot, a crooked little back-street with a couple of nice wine bars, then out again and up Blvd. Voltaire a bit, then down Rue des Boulets, and back home to 100 Rue de Montreuil, crossing Blvd. Voltaire again.  In passing the Comptoir Voltaire, always curious, I asked Stefania what “comptoir” meant (a counter – duh).  Along the way we saw nothing notable, except for how many Parisians get around on scooters (push scooters, not motor!), using the bike lanes, and not just kids and teenagers, but people in their 30s and 40s.  Maybe we’d spent half an hour on this walk.

We rested a bit, and finally got started fixing dinner.  While we were eating, Stefania thought at some point that she had heard fireworks.  I probably missed it, as I am not only near-sighted but near-eared, if that’s the term.  (Maybe it’s “acoustically challenged”.)   In any case, we thought no more about the noise at that time.  When we were finished with dinner, maybe towards 10:00PM, I started to clear up but quickly got involved instead with checking out the coffeemaker, already planning for my morning fix. 

Meanwhile Stefania logged on to Information Central – her smart phone – another habit of a sort, but very useful for certain things.  She was going to do a little research on places we might visit, but first checked the news.  Just as I was discovering that the last person to use the coffeemaker had put it away without dumping the filter full of wet grounds, and that now, at least two weeks later, the entire filter was thickly coated with white mold – I was roundly cursing that person – Stefania saw that all hell was breaking loose, and some of it not far from us at all. 

We were just a couple of short blocks – barely 150 meters – from the Comptoir Voltaire, the site of the last of the attacks that night, and the least deadly, in that only the suicide bomber himself was killed (although many were injured, a few very seriously, including the waitress who’d just come to take the guy’s order).  The Comptoir Voltaire is a bar-bistro-brasserie like probably 5000 others in Paris – an inner bar and a room with small tables, and an outer area, extending over the sidewalk, and enclosed by glass so the space can be heated.  People were watching the game on TV, and things were happening at the stadium besides the game.  When the guy blew himself up, it seems many in the Comptoir Voltaire at first thought that there had been a gas explosion in the place. (The bomber hadn’t made any kind of dramatic entrance, or speech.)  A male nurse who’d been there and was unhurt, saw a gravely injured man on the floor and started to give him CPR, but then lifted up the torn shirt and saw wires.  There were also some unexploded charges left, he counted himself lucky that the CPR hadn’t provoked a further explosion. 

But we only learned these details much later.  We were up until after two watching this stuff, and it was all about the stadium, the nightclub, and the more serious attacks.  Rue de Montreuil was closed off by the police the next day, and we didn’t try to go near the bistro.  Deciding to avoid also the metro until further notice, we took a cab to another neighborhood to meet Stefania’s cousin and his companion.  It was only the next day, Sunday, that the street was open again.  I had gone out to buy some bread, and afterwards went up to the Comptoir Voltaire to see what I could see.  Lots of people milling around.  Flowers had begun to accumulate on the ground at the base of the outer, glassed-in area, and candles.  No barriers, and no police then to keep people at a distance.  But in one set of glass panels, at the left extremity of the closed area, there were several holes that I took (mistakenly) to be bullet holes.  Each one was framed by an “L” of masking tape, left there by the forensics team.  When I looked through the windows near the entrance, at the interior of the same area, I could see many more holes and Ls running diagonally from upper left to lower right, across the rear wall of the heated area, from the area over the door to the bar across the window to the blackboard menu.  It looked like a spray pattern typical of an automatic weapon, and I thought, “Oh my god, they just came in here and started to shoot the place up.” That idea sort of got to me at that moment. 

What was odd was that the rest of the place seemed in perfect shape: the inner bar area itself, and a second glass-enclosed area to the right of where it all happened, were both immaculate.  No panes of shattered glass, except for one, still intact, that might as well have been the object of somebody’s kick at some other time.   As bombs go, this apparently wasn’t the most powerful. There was a poster in the front window advertising Beaujolais Nouveau, and a small, hand-written note attached to it that announced the Voltaire’s own “Soirée Beaujolais”, slated for the following Thursday. 

The area of the attack had been straightened up a bit, but only partially.  Some chairs that had been outside had been brought back inside and stacked at some point, and the tables had been gathered – but not cleaned.  There was still debris – most noticeably, little bits of material, like cotton or (suggestively) the insulation for a jacket – on some of the tables and on the floor.  Part of the floor seemed incompletely cleaned of blood.  And I couldn’t help but notice what looked like a small wad of cotton or insulation, stuck to the inside of the window with a bit of blood. 

When we heard that the whole thing had been the work of a suicide bomber and not somebody with a Kalashnikov, it didn’t quite make sense to me.  The holes didn’t seem to accord with this. (Maybe I was thinking still of the “fireworks” we had heard.  We’d even heard that a car was found down our street, abandoned, with three assault weapons inside.)  But the bomber’s vest was loaded with nuts (as in nuts and bolts), and evidently they flew from the blast, not uniformly, but in a sort of rough fan shape that left the diagonal pattern I had seen.  When I looked again at the photos (for I had gone back there with Stefania a bit later that day, with the camera this time), I realized that an AK47 or the like would have made a much more regular trace, and much greater damage. 

I hope all this detail doesn’t sound too morbidly curious, but my life has been fortunately sheltered from this kind of stuff, and somehow this was horrible enough and close enough to compel my interest, even to the level of the amateur detective.  Somehow I have to tell our story just to work it out a little emotionally, though I know it’s nothing compared to what many people – millions – have undergone lately, and are undergoing every day around the world.  Maybe I feel like I owe it to someone, as the old CSNY song goes (Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young). 

We had a few dinners out, either chez one or the other of Stefania’s cousins, and once in a restaurant.  Italy is great for food, but Paris is in another class entirely.  So we definitely enjoyed ourselves gastronomically.  The Grande Palais was closed for the next few days – beyond the time, anyway, when the main photo exhibit was supposed to take place, so our principal objective for the trip was nixed.  We had to improvise a bit.  Sunday afternoon we went to the Bois de Vincennes, a lovely place, the weather mild and the sun brilliant.  Lots of people, people from all over the world, Parisians and visitors, a totally normal afternoon in the park.  People feeding the ducks and geese (ignoring the posted rules against it), strolling, sitting on the grass, kids playing ball. But it all seemed terribly special this time, just because it was so ordinary.  As we were leaving we saw an old man playing an instrument that I’d never seen before – a sort of barrel organ – a large wooden box with a crank, through which are fed a long belt of folded, perforated cards (like the old IBM cards, the original software), that plays the old songs – “Sur la Pont D’Avignon”, “Alouette” – for generations, the favorites of all. 

The next day we took the metro to Pigalle and walked to the nearby Musée Gustave Moreau, which I’ve wanted to see for some time.  The artist’s old house and studio, marvelous in themselves.  The walls covered with paintings.  Moreau was a sort of visionary among the artists of the Victorian era.  In the afternoon we went to the Palais du Tokyo and saw some pretty good contemporary art, especially an exhibit devoted to John Giorno, the genial and provocative poet.  The next day it was the Musée Picasso, which was fantastic.  The man was a tornado, a force of life.  We could have spent all day, but my eyes were strained, and my back ached – not so much life force. But before going home we stopped in a French cheese shop (run by Japanese) and bought a few tasty things to bring back to Torino.  The funny thing here, though, was one of the cheese display units – a big round thing, with a large dome of plexiglass held at a certain height above the cheeses.  At some point the clerk pressed a switch to raise the dome, and it rose and made a sound just like the famous “Cone of Silence” on the old “Get Smart”. 

Our last morning there we made an excursion to the area of Rue des Rosiers and had the best crèpe I’ve ever had, and bought a few middle-eastern pastries to bring home.  We also had another look at the Comptoir Voltaire:  there were many more flowers, candles, notes of condolence and solidarity, and, taped to the window, a drawing by Louison, one of Charlie Hebdo’s regular cartoonists.  It shows the Eiffel Tower, which speaks, saying “It may be that I’m shaped like a prick, but you are breaking our balls, Daesh!”  (Daesh is another term, new to me, for ISIS.

Flowers and candles outside the Comptoir Voltaire, Nov. 18, 2015.  Taken a few days after the other photo of the 15th (way above, of the doorway), and the offerings continue to accumulate. 

Stefania’s cousin’s daughter, who is 30 or so but who lives in another city, reported, when she heard of the attacks, “oh yes, my friends and I always used to meet at the Voltaire, then head for the Bataclan for the rest of the evening.”  All the targets that evening were places where people get together to enjoy themselves, whether stadium, nightclub, restaurant, or bistro, and I guess that’s why they were targeted – as if fun itself ought to be punished with murder.  I myself wondered later, was the Comptoir Voltaire chosen in part because of the name?  Voltaire is as good a symbol of the enlightenment and the age of reason – which confronted the old domination of the Christian Church – as can be found, and it’s easy to imagine why Islamic fundamentalists would declare him anathema.

I did not fail, before leaving Paris, to pick up the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo, dated that morning, the 18th. But when I first looked at the cover, I thought maybe it was the previous week’s issue, and that it was too early to see Charlie’s reaction to  the attacks. The cover shows a drawing of a guy dancing and glugging from a glass of champagne. I thought they might be making fun somehow of the Beaujolais season.  (In 2004 a Charlie cartoon speculated that Yasser Arafat had been poisoned – by the beaujolais nouveau.)  So it took me a second to notice that the champagne was flowing out of several bullet holes in his body, like in an old animated cartoon. 

If anyone needs a translation of this – even I understood it without any help – it means “age has no importance, unless you are a cheese”.

I Love Paris – in the winter – when it drizzles

I Love Paris – in the summer – when it sizzles!!

For me, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins owns this song.

© Copyright Allen Schill

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