I have no desire to contribute to any bias-tinged, futile but impassioned online debate. So I’m going to start by explaining what this article is not about. It’s not about terrorism, anybody’s religion, the comparative atrociousness of different atrocities or the limits of free speech. Suffice it to say that everyone has an opinion, I have mine, and I’m right.
Now that that’s settled, here’s what this article is about: what happens when you try to pack 2 million French people into an area with a capacity of 20,000.
As everyone now knows, there was a horrific massacre in Paris on January 7, followed by more barbaric bloodshed on January 8 and 9, followed by a national “silent march” to honor the victims on January 11.
For readers who can’t stand a gap in a timeline, nothing of France-shaking importance happened on January 10. Except, of course, the predictable flurry of bias-tinged, futile but impassioned online debates.
Like (almost) everyone else in Paris, my wife Nancy and I were appalled by the senseless loss of life, and like (absolutely) everyone else in Paris, we decided to attend the “march.”
I keep putting “march” in quotes because, as it turned out, the silent march was neither silent nor a march. I’m sure that many Paris Update readers went, and I’m even surer that they had exactly the same experience that Nancy and I had: we spent nearly the entire time trapped in a noisy crowd unable to move in any direction. Except maybe heavenward, but there had been too much of that in Paris already.
At first we thought we were being smart. According to the announced plan, participants were supposed to walk in “quiet contemplation” along three routes from Place de la République to Place de la Nation, starting at 3pm on Sunday afternoon.
Expecting, correctly, that everyone and their dog (literally — more on this later) would be there, and that, like everything in France from dinner to heart surgery, it would start late, Nancy and I left our apartment at about 2:45, intending to walk over there slowly and join the cortege after it got moving, at around 3:30 or so.
We even had the foresight to take a bottle of water, figuring that:
1) We might get thirsty and all the cafés on the route would be closed, and, more importantly…
2) After we drank it, we could sell the empty bottle for a hundred euros to someone stuck in the crowd who really needed to pee.
So far, so prescient. But when we neared the starting point, we found the Boulevard Saint Martin already packed facade-to-facade with people, blocks away from République. We decided to try the next rue to the route and found it equally packed. And the next one. And the next one.
Finally we found a street on which people were still able to move, vaguely in the right direction, and decided to try it. And actually got within two blocks of République before grinding to a standstill in the midst of a sea of well-intentioned humanity.
In fact, “sea” was an apt analogy. There were currents, as people milled around the best they could, and detectable levels of pollution, in the form of cigarette smoke.
And waves. Every few minutes a wave of applause or cheering would wash through the throng. Apparently, this was in response to something happening at République, but we (and the 15,000 people around us) were too far away to see or hear what it was, so no one had any idea what we were all clapping or hurrahing about.
I presume that it had something to do with the A-list marchers who were leading the procession, which included President Hollande and many other current and former heads of state, but for all we knew it was because the Bush twins had shown up and were teaching Angela Merkel to twerk.
Also, in keeping with the maritime metaphor, about every 20 minutes there would be a foghorn-like blast of singing, usually spontaneous outbursts of “La Marseillaise.” I’m glad that none of them took place near me, because I’m afraid my inability to participate would have drawn suspicion: I have only the faintest inkling of the words.
In fact I only know the first two lines:
Allons enfants de la Patrie
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
(“Alone, infants of the Pastry / The glowing soup arrives from the east!”) (Or something like that.)
Time passed. After about an hour, during which we managed to get about nine feet closer to the parade route, Nancy and I decided to struggle, salmon-like, back the way we came and try a different tactic.
And thus we participated, unwittingly, in a tidal pattern that we would see repeated multiple times. Like the tides, it went in two endlessly alternating phases:
1) People would jam into a street leading toward République until they could no longer move.
2) After a while, there would be a counter-movement of people heading the opposite way, at first a thin stream, then a steady but sluggish flow as more and more would-be marchers realized the futility of standing motionless for a statistically significant percentage of their lives.
Then they would jam into another street leading toward République until they could no longer move. For a moment there, it looked as though this was going to continue until it was time to retire. By which I don’t mean “go to bed” but rather “start drawing a pension.”
Finally, a little after sundown, Nancy and I made it to the march route! Sort of — we reached one of the two “overflow” avenues, which was still mobbed, but at least it was possible to walk. So we did part of the parade, spent a few minutes quietly contemplating something other than the backs of strangers’ heads, tried to look conspicuous so we’d be counted by the police helicopters and, our well-intentioned humanitarian duty fulfilled, headed for a restaurant.
Despite the inconveniences, ultimately it was a positive experience. Not to get all Woodstocky on you here, but this was reported to be the largest single public gathering in France since the Liberation in 1944, and the crowd was, with almost no exceptions, civil, calm and considerate. As befitted the occasion — after all, trampling over someone to join a demonstration of beneficent solidarity kind of defeats the point.
And even the exceptions were more the result of misjudgment than maliciousness. Like the couple we came across in the dead middle of the biggest, densest crowd we had been in all afternoon, who had a little sub-crowd of stumbling people surrounding them at all times.
It was noticeable from a distance: there were these two stationary heads, but everyone in their immediate perimeter was lurching and staggering as they tried to inch around them. When, borne by the multitude, we drew nearer, I saw why: they had their matching fancy, expensive mountain bikes with them.
That makes sense! Millions of people are going to cram into the streets, filling every millimeter of space, so I’ll go ride my bike through them!
Others had brought their dogs, in some cases several, which of course also couldn’t be seen until it was time to trip over them. Just like the people who, instead of standing around, decided to sit around, taking up three times as much sidewalk space and turning themselves into well-intentioned, beneficent booby traps.
Still, to my knowledge, only one of the 2 million demonstrators was an ISO-certified jerk. Unfortunately, he ended up behind me during one of the phases when Nancy and I had joined a slow-moving human ebb tide toward what looked like a less congested area.
He could clearly see that there were hundreds of people right in front of me and that I was indeed moving, but he stayed literally on my back — for 15 minutes we were in constant sternum-to-shoulder-blade contact while he kept lunging right and left in a desperate attempt to get around me. I would have moved aside to let him gain a precious half-second and go bully the next person in line, but it was physically impossible. My guess: he must be a driving instructor.
In any case, I survived the terror attacks, and then I survived the memorial to the terror attacks. So now I can continue to exercise my Charlie-given right to freedom of expression in future installments of C’est Ironique. That is, if I’m not assaulted by a patriotic Frenchman for insulting the national anthem.
© 2014 Paris UpdateFavorite
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