A colleague from school had asked me to join him and ten students from his French class for a trip on the French Riviera. I knew Nice a little bit, but no other place he had planned to visit with the class. Nor would it have been my choice of destination for a holiday, but I could well comply for a school trip.
Before departing, I was anxious about Nice – I knew what I would find. Next to the Mediterranean Sea, a sea of candles in answer of July the 14th’ attacks. That’s the new normal in my country. It’s the new normal at the embassy in Berlin as well. Gathering in mourning. Before departing, some parents also feared that their kids would be attacked in France, so they withdrew their approval. That’s how we ended bringing along 10 kids instead of 12. Four of them are almost 18, the other six are around 14. They’re all lovely, so it’s no hard work to mind them.
On our first day, we head to the city center. We walk along the Promenade des Anglais. I’m not sure I’m happy about it, I don’t want to see the traces of what happened. The kids are all enjoying the gorgeous weather, and I suppose they enjoy the landscape as well, although they’re busier finding the perfect spot from where they can Instagram and take sunny selfies than really looking what’s in front or behind them. But they’re there, they’re happy, that’s the point. I don’t know how I feel, but Pink Floyd’s Good Bye Blue Sky is playing in my head. There is no goodbye to ours though, even when we walk past the exact spots where that truck massacred people. The pavement is being redone, new palm trees have been planted. Here and there, there’s a couple of candles, a letter written to a loved one killed that night, a teddy bear here to remind us that of all innocent victims, children were targeted by this mad being. They all mark the place where someone died. The kids look at it while walking, they’re sorry but don’t feel strongly about it. In a way their distant empathy is the blatant proof that life does go on. They are impressed though, especially because of all the teddy bears on top of the candles. That should belong to the world of innocence and be the sign of a happy childhood, not be place there to mark the death of kids who just happened to be there on July the 14th. One more thing here shows that we’ve come to a new normal: in front of every public building stand security men, and on the Promenade, while the beach still looks unscathed, groups of heavily armed soldiers and equally armed policemen patrol, looking sombre. One of the girls asks me whether she could pose with one of them for a picture. I’m not sure they’d appreciate being a tourist attraction so I tell her they’re probably not allowed while working.
I decide to come back later, alone. It doesn’t help to light up a bloody candle as an answer to that violence but it helps to see that the sea of candles doesn’t go any smaller after each attack.
As always, in those moments, I think of that day that I was lucky enough to spend with a French World War Two resistant, Lucie Aubrac. I met her when I was twenty. She, in her 90ies, was already physically diminished and almost blind, but kept on visiting schools across France to teach the younger generations to have civic sense and be responsible. Upon asked how she entered the Resistance, she would just shrug and explain that there was simply no other way. No other way than going straight to the Gestapo to claim freedom for her husband to Claus Barbie. No other way than risking her life daily to defend what she believed in, to try and free her country from the barbaric spell of the Nazis. She would almost get annoyed when asked whether she’d ever been scared. That’s what she had to do, at the time! she’d say, as if we were too dumb to understand. If I had never hung a poster in my room as a teenager I had certainly found my hero that day when I met her, this old, frail but lively lady who had contributed to make our country shine again, after years of darkness. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she taught me resilience. She did so before even uttering her first words in that classroom. I was there, pen in hand, eagerly waiting for her, ready to report her visit for my local newspaper, and all school kids stood upon her entrance and chanted Le Chant des Partisans, a French Resistance song which she solemnly listened to, standing in spite of her constitution, her patriotism permeating throughout the group. She hadn’t said anything yet but her mere presence had already moved everyone to tears. When she did talk, energetically and with the authority of the born-teacher she was, her words resonated deeply.
At the time I didn’t know when a time of need would come, but I understood, talking to her, that everyone with a sense of moral duty owed it to her, to all of her peers, to themselves and to all of their families who suffered the hardships of war, wherever they were, to behave with bravery and dignity should dark times ever strike again. They were probably always here creeping up in the background but for me they became blatantly obvious in my life on January 7th, 2015, with the first attacks in Paris. Le vol noir des corbeaux sur la plaine, the first line of the Chant des partisans, resonated in my head again. Other crows, other times, but a danger to face and an answer to give, not only as a nation, but also as individuals. So now, each time, I think of the crows and I know that if one of my peers falls, another will stand up right here, ad infinitum. To me, this show of humanity is how wars are won and the only response that can be given at our scale. Candles are pointless only to those who don’t see that each and everyone of them embodies the determination of one holder to never give in to fear.
Back in Nice, once the kids back at the hotel and my colleague on babysitting duty, I go out again. I walk along the Promenade. It’s quiet, but here and there people sit and chat. Some joggers and bikers pass me by. If it wasn’t for those roadworks towards the city center one could never guess. Cars buzz while passing by but no one pays attention. It’s just an ordinary evening in Nice except from when your eyes meet someone else’s. Then, there’s that acknowledgement that we’re standing where it happened, that we both know and agree to keep on living, because that’s the best answer. Outside, people still sit at cafes and talk quietly to one another. Ami, si tu tombes, un ami sort de l’ombre à ta place.