I couldn't stop fidgeting. I would pull my hair down out of a tightly wound chignon only to wrap it back up five minutes later. Ditto for the Hermès scarf that I rarely wear, I would tie it around my neck, twist my fingers in the tips, only to shrug it off and drape it open around my shoulders. Something inside me was jumping and I wanted to break out in a run.
And yet I wasn't actually nervous but rather fuzzy, out of focus and distanced to what was going around me. I was still too caught up in the emotions brought about by endless loops of newsreels to be out walking about in public.
It was Friday night, one week exactly after the terrorist attacks in Paris when 130 people had been brutally killed. I think if I had only listened to my instincts, I would have stayed at home, le cocooning as the French call it. But we had an invitation.
Remi's friend and colleague, Lionel Roux, was opening his art exhibition "Par Dessus Tout, La Provence," where he would present his panoramic images of our region shot from on high at the Chapel St. Anne in Arles. Of course, we had to go. And part of me wanted to as well. Not only to support Lionel but to finally start to see other people and to respire beyond the confines of my own shrunken heart.
There were several events organized for the evening as is often done in Arles so that la belle monde can stroll from one to the next, creating a flowing line linking creativity, a glass or two of cheap wine and fastidious conversation. Many Provençaux were expected to attend the unveiling of the new sash to be presented to the Queen of Arles in the town hall while another vernissage at the recently opened Manuel Rivera-Ortiz Foundation - which focuses on the plight of the poor in under-represented countries - would most likely draw an intellectual crowd with the possibility of quite a bit of overlap between the three.
I did not know what the mood would be.
I laced my arm with that of the belle Madame L who was accompanying us along with her companion Monsieur W. The men walked up ahead of us, lost in discussion, as we crossed the Place de la Republique. The night wore heavy, I felt slightly exposed and leaned in. I was especially aware of who was around me and where, just as I had in Manhattan the days after 9/11. We mounted the steps to Lionel's exhibition, past the security guard who was checking his cell phone but was present nonetheless. And there we found...
...a happy band. A milling crowd...
...out in the dark.
The glass half-full of something just below burned, barely palpable...
...with the need for connections to be made.
And yet there was no show of pasted on normalcy...
...no frozen smiles...
...and at times the roots of mourning were still obvious.
I ran into a few people that I hadn't seen in a while, some of whom wanted to talk about the horror of the week before but most did not after an initial nod of recognition. A few shared stories of having been nearby the attacks as if to cleanse the story - as though with repetition it would lose its strength. One whispered with disgust that there seemed to be something of a twisted competition in these stories, of who lost the most, who survived.
But, above it all, there seemed a tacit agreement to simply focus on the art.
We were all a bit fuzzy that evening, I suppose, not only me, scratching our way back up to the surface of everyday life...
Mixing, talking and even laughing but most certainly...not letting fear win. Even for those who could not claim to be même pas peur. Like myself.
And this even though the pain was still so present. Certainly no one was forgetting anything. Fresh flowers had been lain at the small shrine in front of l'Hôtel de Ville despite the wind having snuffed out the candle's glow.
At the Foundation, I passed through the brightly lit rooms of the Renaissance period hôtel particulier alone, observing. The age and the solidity of the old stones held up the bee-like swarm of the shoulder-touched crowds. Hiding behind my camera, I no longer felt the need to fuss and flick, now steadied by the current of a collective hum.
For I was incredibly proud to be amidst this group, so wounded and yet so resilient. As an outsider, I was quite moved by what I saw. That evening, these regular citizens were standing by their belief in freedom and joie de vivre, qualities of life here that no one will take away. Wearing their affinity loosely, while rising ensemble like a bird set free, they showed me the beauty of the French spirit and through that, the strength of humanity.
"It felt good to go out tonight, didn't it?" I asked Remi later as we walked towards home in our tiny village. Yes, it had, he agreed.
I am not usually one for pop anthems but I have been listening to this on repeat the past few days:
My thoughts remain with the families, friends and loved ones of the victims of the Paris attacks. I think that I stayed at the Radisson in Bamako, Mali and send the same to those involved there. And for any of you reading from Brussels, stay strong. The world believes in you and is sending strength.
Let's continue to stand united as one mankind.
Thank you for all of your support and for being the amazing people that you are.
With much Love and Gratitude from Provence,