Like many Parisians, I had a hard time dragging myself out of bed in the aftermath of the November 13 terror attacks. After having been anchored to the desk at France 24 all afternoon and most of that Friday night while the horrific details emerged, I managed to fall asleep about 8 a.m. Saturday and spent that afternoon and evening hiding from the world, checking in with friends, gorging myself sick with news radio and internet updates. By Sunday afternoon, my dog and I needed to rejoin the world, and the sun came out to encourage us. I arranged to meet a friend and we started walking, not realizing until we’d crossed Bastille that our inner GPS was guiding us north to the Bataclan. Heading up Boulevard Richard Lenoir, we stopped to read the chalk inscriptions on the pavement not far from the Charlie Hebdo offices that were targeted by terrorists the previous January. It was reassuring to see so many people on the streets after 36 hours in which life as we knew it had come to a halt. Parisians were sad and subdued, yet children and dogs played along the asphalt normally occupied by the farmers’ market, which had been cancelled. The mood was a mixture of defiant, reflective and shaken.
Moving north, we soon found ourselves milling about with hundreds of others who’d gathered quietly in front of the concert hall to pay their respects, lighting candles and leaving flowers, notes and letters for the 89 people who died there.
After stopping at dozens of makeshift memorials, at Wei and I wound up at Place de la République. Although public gatherings were forbidden under the state of emergency, we didn’t plan to stay long. I had been asked to file a story, but what more could I say? Like so many others, I was still in shock and after being outside for a couple of hours, wanted nothing more but to slink home and crawl under my couette.
Until I saw two young guys smiling and stretching their arms out to strangers near the Marianne statue at the center of the plaza. Jérôme Calvini, 26, a student at SciencesPo, told me that the idea came to him on Saturday morning after a sleepless night. “In these dark times, we need to give each other love and show that we’re united,” he said. “It’s kind of like, ‘hugs against barbarism’.”
On Saturday November 14, Calvini started a hug circle in front of the Hôtel de Ville, but told me he preferred the symbolism of Sunday’s informal gathering at République: “I’m trying to show that we’re still alive, that life goes on.”
His friend Cédric Vergez, a banker, said he’d been so depressed he’d barely slept since he heard the bad news on Friday night. But then he got a call from his friend Jérôme. “Today I decided I’d rather act than give in to sadness and anger,” said Vergez. I’ve got to admit, being out here puts me in top form after everything that’s happened.”
As we were chatting, passers-by occasionally interrupted to request a hug from one or both of the men, and were rewarded with instant gratification. “I really needed that,” said one woman, smiling. Calvini hugged one man tight and kissed him on both cheeks, moving him to tears.
“Thank you,” he said, wiping his eyes before moving off into the crowd.
“The first 50 or so hugs, yesterday – I cried, too,” Calvini said. “I’m an emotional sponge and yesterday was just so heavy. But today, we’re laughing and crying at the same time.”
Vergez agreed. “I think this is what we have to do as a civil society – show that we are human, that we are love.”
Turning to provide a double hug to a couple who were tearing up, Calvini added: “And we have to show the terrorists that our difference is a facade.”
At the centre of the hug circle, it was easy to imagine that the world envisioned by John Lennon might just be possible.
[I ended up filing a more journalistic version of this story here. I plan to call Jérôme Calvini pretty soon to wish him a bonne année and see if I can get just one more hug for good measure.]