Two weeks after the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, French food and travel writer Maria Canabal takes a look at the reality of everyday life in the capital.
Parisians always talk about “their” bakery and “their" bistrot. Defining what a bistrot is exactly, is complex. It’s a state of mind. It’s about ambience. It has a certain patina. A bistrot traditionally has a zinc bar where boiled eggs are exhibited on a conical metallic display stand. A bistrot will generally recommend wines from an extensive list, which will then be served in the typical "ballon" glasses. A bistrot will offer seasonal cuisine and the dishes will written up with white chalk on a huge blackboard every single day.
A bistrot serves a “petit noir” in the morning, a “pot au feu” at lunchtime and after six in the evening it will get busy for “l’apéro” (aperitifs) where rounds of wine and sausage will be consumed until dinnertime. A bistrot is that place where the barman becomes a psychologist. A place for first dates, for crisis resolution meetings and the place to meet when one of your girlfriends has been dumped by her man. The bistrot is that place where you stop for coffee after the grocery shopping on Saturday morning.
A bistrot is where students will meet after class to joke around and swap notes. A bistrot cannot be exported. Those casual eateries abroad are exactly that, casual eateries, not bistrots. The bistrot is the essence of Parisian lifestyle with their terraces, their small round tables and wicker chairs with the recognisable red and white “cannage”.
On November the 13th, terrorists from Daesh attacked four bistrots and a concert hall.
Liberté, égalité and laicité
Literary circles from around the world are always observant of the reactions of French readers. Their judgment is considered a reference. The French are an educated and intelligent people. Paris stands for freedom, tolerance, history, art, fashion and civilization – maybe more so than in any other western city.
It is not a chance occurrence that terrorists have attacked this city’s places of leisure and pleasure: the bistrots. The country’s secularism (laicité) has without doubt been one of the country’s distinctive features that has most irritated these obscurantists. French society and identity is based on the idea that there is a neutral space where everyone can co-exist independently of their convictions or religious beliefs. Blasphemy as a punishable crime does not exist in France – it is a secular state where people of all origins mix and co-exist. Many nations have adopted the declaration of human rights, which was initially conceived in France, but few countries defend secularism the way France does.
When many western countries did not even exist as such, France was fully immersed in The Enlightenment known in French as “Siècles des Lumières” with Montesquieu, Voltaire or Rousseau. In the 18th century, Danton launched his famous “Pour les vaincre il nous faut de l’audace” (to defeat them, we must be bold) in a bistrot, in face of the invasion of foreign troops. This phrase makes even more sense now than before. Paris is a revolutionary city, a rebellious city. Daesh detests its humanist culture and values. And when things go wrong, Parisians like to sit at the tables of bistrots, sipping on coffee and watching the people passing by.
130 dead and 415 injured is a chilling balance. Fear has spread throughout the city. A sense of unease is tangible in the bistrot terraces, on public transport and in public spaces. Two days after the tragic attacks, the bistrots, cafes and restaurants reopened their doors. It was a gloomy Monday. A true act of resistance. Many remained empty and silent, the kind of silence that causes anguish. And yet they remained open.
Many Parisians cried out “We are not afraid”, but that is not wholly true. In the first week, hospitality industry attendance had dropped 80%. On Monday 16th November, a group of bistrot proprietors launched the campaign “Tous au bistrot mardi soir” (everyone to the bistrots on Tuesday evening).
Fear is maybe the most primitive sentiment that allows us to anticipate danger and consequently make decisions. Fortunately, Paris is afraid but not totally paralysed by fear. Paris is sad and particularly anguished. The feeling of unease in the face of the impotence of what has occurred and may again occur.
The reaction of French chefs goes beyond those affected on the arrondissements, where the massacres took place (Septime de Bertrand Grébaut is 100m from where one of the attacks killed 19 people). The idea on Tuesday was to cheer people up. Give people an excuse to go out, to be together and share. After the three official days of mourning, everyone was aware that things would be tough.
At 21:00, people came out of the bistrots, fine-dining restaurants and cafes to toast to the “most beautiful country in the world”. The hospitality industry took the lead in showing the world that nothing would change the French way of life.
On Tuesday, the message on Twitter was clear: mourning, retreat and everyday life will be mixed up for a while. #TousAuBistrot (all to the bistrots) coexisted with #MinuteDeSilence (minute of silence) or #DeuilNational (National Mourning).
The Parisians and the French have perfectly understood that the idea behind the attacks was to divide, create tension and stigmatise certain communities. A serious mistake. If the Muslim community launched the campaign #NotInMyName, the Parisians responded with #JeSuisEnTerrasse. Parisians still want to socialise in spite of the pain and modestly continue with their lives. The spirit of the French is that of resistance, of singing in spite of the tears. France will not fall into the trap. France will respond with culture and fraternity.
The French could have never imagined, not even in their wildest dreams, that having a drink seated at a terrace could be seen as an act of resistance. The Parisian lifestyle has become their banner. A French way of responding to the attacks. Gastronomy is one France’s most symbolic professions. The bistrots are a centre for social life in the city. And so they should remain.
Hundreds of Parisians sat on the terraces in spite of the rain and cold with mixed feelings of anger, pain and a fear of the shadows. More than a week has gone by and although many places are still mostly empty at night, slowly attendance is building at midday.
There are battles that can only be won over time. Great cities have a hidden fortitude and possess great resilience. Almost as if they were people. They can agonise and heal and become stronger than before.
Paris is indomitable. Tenacious. Strong.
The proof? Hemingway’s book “A Moveable Feast (translated in French by “Paris est une fête” Paris is a party) has sold out and the editor has asked for an urgent re-editing.
Image: © Paris Tourist Office - Photographer : © Sarah Sergent