Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.
When I visited Paris two years ago, I fell in love with Bastille, a fun neighbourhood of boutiques, galleries and bars. But this time, visiting the 11th arrondissement just three weeks after terrorist attacks here last fall, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would the neighbourhood feel vibrant, or tense and grief-stricken?
I was a little nervous, but my trip was already booked. And I wanted to show solidarity with a neighbourhood I loved – a place that reminded me of Montreal’s Plateau and Toronto’s Parkdale rolled into one eclectic Parisian neighbourhood.
On the way from the airport to my Airbnb apartment, the taxi driver takes a detour. The most direct route, via Boulevard Voltaire, would take us past the Bataclan Theatre, the concert hall where one of the massacres occurred. The road has been closed for two weeks, the taxi driver tells me. I’m ashamed to find I’m a bit relieved – not yet ready to witness the site of such a horrific tragedy.
“It’s horrible, but we have to live our lives. We have to eat. We have to work. We have to live,” he says, as he turns the car onto a quiet side street.
Later that evening, I walk by a bar on Rue de la Roquette, a 10-minute walk from the Bataclan Theatre where a boisterous crowd watching a soccer game spills onto the street. Pedestrians on their way home stop to watch the game. It is reassuring.
Across the street, at a cheerful spot with art-deco mirrors and bright concert posters, all the seats are full at Café des Anges. The wait for dinner with some colleagues goes by quickly. The delicious French bread helps.
As I tuck into a vegetarian lasagne so tall it reminds me of an architect’s skyscraper model, we chat with a friendly waiter, April Pett, who it turns out is from Thorold, Ont.
“I opened my own business, Paris for You Luxury Tours, personalized walking tours of Paris,” she says. “Business is good but it’s been a bit slower since the summer and especially, everything that happened,” she says, alluding to the violence.
After dinner, we pass a synagogue guarded by two soldiers. After a few days in the neighbourhood, I get used to their presence.
The next day, at Les Artistes Gourmands, all the tables are full for lunch. As the waiter delivers pizza and pasta, he flirts energetically with everyone from the well-coiffed senior with Sophia Loren glasses to me. “Let me show you Paris. So you’re married, that’s okay. I’m not the jealous type.”
A few days later, at Blé Sucré, I join the locals lining up in the tiny bakery, which Bon Appétit anointed one of the best pastry spots in Paris. I devour a croissant (okay, two). They’re even lighter and flakier than I remembered. I watch a father and his young son cross the street, headed for the playground in the tree-lined Square Armand Trousseau. The park is quiet and peaceful.
Around the corner, at Bistrot du Peintre, an art-nouveau masterpiece with sensuously curved mirrors, tiles and doors, a steady stream of locals pops in for a glass of wine by the zinc bar in the late afternoon. Some of the older patrons bring small dogs, one of which scampers behind the bar. The light from the flower-shaped chandeliers casts a yellow glow as Michael Jackson plays on the stereo. It’s cozy, upbeat and relaxed – exactly why I love this neighbourhood.
But here, too, tragedy is not far away. Outside the bar is a busy intersection. From Avenue Ledru-Rollin, turn left on Rue de Charonne and you’ll find yourself on a curved street lined with high-end boutiques. It’s just a few weeks before Christmas, and the gorgeous shops are packed.
But turn right and you’ll pass La Belle Équipe, a restaurant where terrorists spraying bullets killed 19 people. Flowers and candles fill the patio, from the sidewalk to the door.
At the metro stop around the corner, you’ll see life continues as usual – tourists try to decipher the subway map and locals walk quickly, heading home or out for the evening.
It was clear that a visit to Bastille is a visit of contrasts.
A few nights later, after a meal at a tiny but outstanding bistro where each course made me sigh – from the pumpkin cream soup to the delicate fish to the poached pear with mousse – I walked home past the Bataclan Theatre. Nearly a month after the massacre, the theatre was lined with thousands of flowers (some fresh, others wilting), flickering candles and photographs of victims. A bicycle across the street had flowers in its spokes.
Tragedy speaks here. Joy lives here, too – the restaurants are busy, the bars lively and the shops all seem to be full of dresses I want to buy. In the city of light, the light continues.
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