Je suis tout le monde

The sound of heels clicking over long-trod-upon stones announced the climax of the event. A lone man, president of the Republic of France, walked in by himself to take his place on a single straight chair in front of the bleachers where gathered the invited officials and families and survivors of 13 novembre, to commemorate the 130 who lost their lives to terrorists that day. The entrance of Francois Hollande was preceded a good hour and some earlier by the entry of the army rifle corps, and the military band who stood in formation opposite the bleachers in the storied Cour d'Honneur de l'Hôtel des Invalides. Already I had been transfixed by the professional orchestra perfectly rendering the profound second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. Comfortingly familiar to me were both the music and the sight of the many balding, fair-skinned men in overcoats, and women with their winter scarves modishly tied. Nathalie Dessay passionately delivered the classic French song "Perlimpinpin," a plea to end violence.
                                                     "...Because a child who cries,
                                                       No matter where he is from,
                                                       Is a child who cries.
                                                       Because a child who dies,
                                                       At the end of your rifles,
                                                       Is a child who dies."

After the attacks in Paris, it was good to see almost instant reminders of the tragedy that had befallen forty-one Lebanese in Beirut the day before. Empathetic people were invited to post pro Lebanon sympathies, "Je suis Beirut et Je suis Paris". Of course the victims in Beirut were as important as the victims in Paris. So why did we need reminding?

As I watched the memorial service in Paris from western Canada, it felt like I was one neighbourhood over. Citizen of a bilingual country, and imperfectly bilingual myself, I understood the short, strong, serious address Hollande made towards the end of the ceremony, before walking out over those ancient stones his heels knocked against the second time that day. The stones made me think of the stories that have come into our literature from France, Les Miserables, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and so many more. Heroes, like Joan of Arc. French words that have entered the English language intact, hors d'oeuvres, or have been anglicized. Colonizers, like Cartier and Champlain in Canada, and Père Marquette and Louis Jolliet in the United States. The first non-Indian settler in Chicago was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. When the Belgians tweeted images of cats to clog up the Twitter feed, and French people placed thousands of pairs of shoes in Place de la République, because the continuing state of emergency prohibits protest marches, we got it. We understood the literal point of those images, and we got it deeply, on a metaphorical level. If we're thinking tribes and tribal identity, whether I like it or not, I am most definitely part of the French, i.e., European tribe.

I know almost no Arab words. Only salam. And while I have read novels by the Egyptian Nobel prize winner, Naguib Mafouz, and own copies of both Omar Khayaam's lovely Rubiyat,  and Khalil Gilbran's The Prophet, This link to Arab literature shows that of the 105 books listed as "best," I have read perhaps three or four. I may have heard of another couple of titles or so, and I don't think I am unusual. I intend to read Amin Malouf, who writes in French and whose work is all translated into English. The Arab writer I knew first, and have read in French and English, is Albert Camus, of Algeria. Perhaps works written in the language of the colonizers had a better chance of entering the Western canon. The title of Camus's best known work, The Stranger, was ironically appropriate when the novel was published in 1942 and continues to be so.

With luck and serious intent, the flood of Syrian refugees to North America may spark more and broader investigations of the culture, so that names like Faruq (truth) and Barakah (blessing) and often-hyphenated last names, will come to seem commonplace and be easy to say. The North American literary canon is slowly becoming less eurocentric, but if we are to say "Je suis Beirut," and really mean it, cultural barriers must be lowered across the arts, and more works from Middle Eastern countries brought into North American education systems. It isn't enough to eat felafel.

Un plus parfait Paris

Parisians have not been living up to their reputation. Instead of the dismissive arrogance the world knows them for, I've found them helpful, even friendly. The man who sat down next to me at a metro station, who was resting after a long day, curious to know where I came from. After midnight, on the Marie Lillas line, a platform deserted except for me and a toothless man hunched in dirty clothes, un vrai misérable, who raised his head to tell me that the line terminated on that side, that I had to go à l'autre coté. The charming jeune filles we encountered as we ducked around a corner to escape the crowds at Sacre Coeur: "Do you mind?" they asked us. "We are making a project for our English class at school," and proceeded to ask about our impressions of Paris, our favourite French food. The helpful man in a neighbourhood hardwood store in the 10me arrondissement, who not only figured out that what I wanted was a reveil, not a reveilleur, but supplied a battery as well as instructions for using the tiny alarm clock.

Mon français is far from perfect, but I asked for and received directions and enjoyed short conversations with people and no one responded to me in English, as I had been told to expect, "because they don't have the patience." Well, they did. Even when I said, plié on the street of tissue, or fabric, when I should have said plissé.

My host in Paris has a studio literally furnished with books. Towers of Gallimard editions with their distinctive cream jackets, and other editions, support a small table, a desk. Outside, in the courtyard, pink roses bloom and birds sing. Just down the street, along the banks of Canal Saint-Martin, people enjoyed the sun, and later a warm evening, bateaus and small flotillas of mallards slipped by, people hurried away from the neighbourhood's renown boulangerie with baguettes or some hefty artisan bread, their escargot (a pastry) or croissants.

Of course, at this time of year, not only are the chestnut trees are in blossom, tulips, iris and every other variety of flower seems to be blooming. Booksellers man their stalls along the Seine no matter the skies, and  the cheap plastic ponchos of tourists waiting their turn for Notre Dame flutter in the blowy, showery, sometimes brilliantly sunny, altogether unpredictable spring weather.
 Of the two especially wonderful restaurants we tried, the more interesting concentrated on combining tastes, a curve of chili powder and a mound of apricot conserve framing a rectangle of brie, for example. A reflection, perhaps, of the mixing of peoples in this storied city. Waiting in line at the Pompidou Centre, I heard Punjabi, Spanish, English, German. Languages I could not identify. A rich palette of human voices and human skin colours.

Inside the Pompidou, a woman methodically photographed virtually every tableau she passed, the image and then the description, the artist's name. Chance placed us in the same galleries all afternoon. Click, and there she was, a mid-aged blonde, wearing black, aiming her big camera. Click.

Alicia Penalba: "A form becomes abstract because it creates a new myth that does not come from the spirit of man."