Opinion

Stephen Taberner
Paris in the fall

14/11: I am, unfortunately, in Paris. I was out in the streets just as the events unfolded, and walked right past the Bataclan more or less as the attack started. I am fine, though heartsick at what these events will do to this beautiful, beautiful city and its people. On the night before, I took a midnight bike ride through all of the adorable, labyrinthine streets to the Eiffel Tower, to stand under it, marvel at its impossible grandeur and breathe in the feeling of freedom and aliveness. It feels very different today.

 

14/11: Tonight we are having a small musical soiree in Paris, which was to be me and some other people performing, and now will be altogether something else. Something more like that today of all days is a good day to sing. Someone mentioned the word hope. That seems too strong a word for what I feel. Perhaps it will be more like a simple affirmation of our common humanity in the face of madness. I’d like to thank everybody who sent me messages; I will somehow try to take all that and put it into the songs.

 

15/11: It was a perfect night of musical loveliness and insanity. Valerie sang for the first time outside the shower. Jerome improvised film noir lyrics to a creeping bass line. Helene sang an immaculate harmony to a song she’d never heard. There was crooning and a huge amount of highly expressive interpretive text: moaning, grunting and bellowing. There was judicious stomping and ill-advised dancing. There were some perfectly horrible harmonies by drunk people, and a charming and fulsome commitment to their expression. There was passion; there was humanity, as predicted. We drank about 13 bottles of wine and they smoked about 3000 cigarettes. Then Armelle sat on my ukulele, destroyed it, paid for it immediately, and apologised about 45 times. It was, as I say, perfect. I loved it.

 

15/11: It was warm today in Paris, and so I followed through with my plan of going and singing some songs in the lovely rotunda of the local park with my double bass. The small children were amazing: they pressed up against the railings and made their parents listen. There were all kinds of interactions, especially with a sweet moist-eyed dad named Emmanuel and an old, old man who whooped slightly as I started “Autumn Leaves”.

Every song seemed relevant in some new way – I used to walk in the shade... everybody knows... hold on... and so we rise again – especially Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris”, which I learnt for the occasion, and I could not seem to stop, as each time I tried someone would wish for more. It was a surreal idyll with occasional sirens for accompaniment. Perhaps the aim was to be something like un petit nuage – the phrase the French use with regards to milk in tea. A little cloud of something good.

 

17/11: They say it’s all in the timing. Or maybe in the position.

One: I was walking past Bataclan 25 minutes before the attacks on Friday night.

Two: When we emerged from our beautiful crazy party in Montreuil the next night, there were two cops with machineguns at the end of the street. They said something had happened, but they were smiling. The terrorists had abandoned their car, with three Kalashnikovs inside, four parking spaces from the front door of our party.

Three: The next day in the city there were two “panics”, a major one and a less major one. I was walking past Notre Dame and quite suddenly became involved in the less major one. Cops running and yelling wildly and people running (less wildly) away from Notre Dame, including me (I would describe it as contractual-obligation running). Apparently someone let off firecrackers. Good thinking, I say.

It seems like my timing is good; but, luckily, not too good.

I’m fine here, by the way.

 

19/11: Day two of the park experiment: Soraya, a Basque singer, joined me, and sang beautiful, dreamy, gypsy-esque harmonies to songs she didn’t know. The children around the railing multiplied. Eventually there was a chorus line of eight eight-year-old girls, quite spellbound by the proceedings. One of them was so achingly keen to sing that she was just kind of trying her mouth out around the idea. So we made up a blues and they clapped along and became the response to our calls. They all sang. We didn’t know very much language in common. A police siren came quite close, but it was in the right key so we could put it into the song. The experiment may be over, because a cold change moves in after today and tomorrow’s rain. Life goes on in Paris. There is a soft sadness in people’s eyes in the street, something like the opposite of terrorism.

 

21/11: I seem to be having trouble doing things by halves. Reduced to a miserable ruin by the recent utterances of Islamophobes, my difficulties in organising a second singing workshop, and by being rejected from even playing a little bass in the local cafe, I resolved to turn my fortunes around with a walk to Montparnasse. This took me past the Bataclan again, and I paused for a moment to look at the flowers, the people, and… a little tent with a piano.

I said, “Can I have a go?” and four hours later walked away, dazed, hungry and freezing, having been a part of something most extraordinary. I played and sang every song I knew, and many that I didn’t, among a crowd that rapidly grew and warmed to the use of their voices: “Give Peace a Chance”, the Chariots of Fire theme, “La Vie en Rose”, so many Beatles songs, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, improvised nonsense, “La Marseillaise”, “Hallelujah”…

I made them do mouth trumpet, oohs, whistling, and dog noises. There were amazing silences. National TV was there – a man came because he saw us on TV and lives close. So much crying. Impassioned cries of “Liberté!” I was enfolded by a Muslim man in a French flag, and massaged by 10 hands to keep me warm.

It was ridiculous, I am still dazed.

 

23/11: Out walking today and examining the people’s faces for signs of… what? Having been in Christchurch just after the earthquakes I know that both tenderness and paranoia can be magnified at such times. I moved into a new Airbnb apartment: the owner seemed over-vigilant about getting details about me. He later explained that four guys had stayed there and gone to the Bataclan Friday night; none were hurt.

Thierry, who I had met at the Bataclan singings, had also come to my second singing workshop on the Sunday. He said that he hadn’t sung for 25 years, and that on this day he could not speak for grief. He was the one doing astonishing, blaringly loud mouth trumpet in my ear all night – now he sang the choruses like each was the only song he would ever sing.

I see that Paris is as beautiful as ever: the variegated artisan shops, the warm colours of the upper balconies in the late afternoon sun, the calm luminescence of Saint-Eustache, the daring juxtaposition of grandiosity and quaintness. The sirens and armed police are omnipresent. Little moments: a bent, old, bearded Asian guy sharing his childish glee with me as he was overtaken by a chic young apparition in black, moving at four times his speed.

Yes, the people are out, they have been since the Sunday after the shootings. It is an act of bravery, an affirmation, but to be here is to know that there’s really no choice about that. I’m still waiting for my first experience of an arrogant Parisian. There is a gentleness, a care with each other that is most touching: parents towards toddlers, old couples, strangers. And none of us like it when there are loud or sudden sounds.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 28, 2015 as "Paris in the fall". Subscribe here.

Stephen Taberner
is a composer, and double-bass player, and leader of The Spooky Men’s Chorale.