Today, January 7, is the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo slaughter. I arrived in Paris yesterday with an urn of composted Martin Place flowers left at the time of the Lindt Cafe Martin Place siege. I intended to scatter some with the myriad of French flowers I fully expected to be left at the site and at The Place de la Republique today. As I wrote in my earlier blog I wanted to do this in honour of the victims, but also as a gesture of the solidarity I witnessed in the endless floral tributes, the deep reverential silence, the love and the prayers for a better world I saw expressed in spades, by the ordinary people of both cities, Sydney and Paris. To me, that is what will link these two great cities, the love expressed, not the terror.
Getting the composted flowers here was not easy. They were only released to me late on Christmas Eve and, to be honest, the contents given to me in a clear plastic bag would, to a Customs Officer look very much like Hashish. I had no doubt they would not believe they were what I told them they were!
The other problem was that I was leaving for the USA pretty much straight after Christmas day and go from there to Europe, so time was of the essence.
I took advice and ultimately arrived here in Paris with the material. Exhausting!!
I arrived In Paris with no idea of what I was going to do! I found really no one could help me and remember yesterday sitting on St Pancras Station, London, waiting for the train to Paris, feeling all alone and a bit stupid in my commitment to doing this. What really kept me going was the memory of the people, couples and individuals who, a year ago in both cities, came to reflect and respect simply because they could not not come and stay away. (It’s the only way I can express it).
God Bless the Australian Ambassador to France, Stephen Brady and his staff! When I knocked on their door and explained what I was doing they were most helpful and encouraging. I was going to do ‘it’ anyway but to have their support helped no end.
So, this morning, armed with the composted remains in a small wooden urn loaned to me by Father Ray, whose monastery I stay in when I’m in London and a candle, a cigarette lighter and a long handled tea spoon, I headed off from The Place de la Republique to the old Charlie Hebdo digs at 10 Rue Nicolas Appert. The mood had, for me been set by the desk clerk at the hotel I was staying whose eyes filled with tears as he drew the route I was to walk. It was a cold, grey, blustery, wet winter’s day. The rain and the wind came in squalls and I had trouble keeping to the footpath, but I kept going. Every now and then I would ask for directions and everyone would say “Charlie Hebdo” when I showed them the address. They all knew where I was headed. I was truly lost when a little old lady literally took me by the hand and guided me to the street, I knew I was there when I saw the crowd outside and the TV vans. There were as many media as people. At the time I arrived there was a small crowd of mourners who kept coming and going. I realised how conflicted Parisiennes must feel. Not wanting to give in to terrorism so trying to be ‘business as usual’ yet, things aren’t the same and we are all needing to stop and reflect yet “we mustn’t give in”.
The media, I found were pretty tough and uncompromising. One said to me “We’re off now to where there’s a shooting at a Police Station” and hurriedly packed everything up.
So, I stopped, collected myself. Got out my candle, lighter, spoon and urn and moved over to where people were placing the flowers. I thought I’d light the candle first but the wind and the rain kept blowing it out. I cannot tell you properly what happened next. It was as if to every mourner there, keeping my candle alight became of the highest priority! Cupped hands appeared from everywhere, men’s hands and women’s hands as I flicked and flicked the lighter. Someone picked up a glass tumbler and set it up in that. My candle burned for a while but very soon nature won. Others wanted to keep the struggle going but I realised it was hopeless and thanked everyone for their help.
For an instant there we had all become one.
I then opened the urn, muttered a quiet prayer for the victims and for peace then and sprinkled spoonful’s of composted Martin Place flowers over the deposited flowers and candles there. I noticed a huge wreath from the French President and especially cast some over that.
I stayed around for a while talking to, holding hands with and hugging a few people who were still sad that we couldn’t keep the candle aflame and then it was time to go.
Suddenly, I felt quite lost. My real mission had been accomplished and it was so understated very few outsiders would have noticed it.
“All that’, I said to myself “Something as low key as that”.
I made my way back to the Place de la Republique and did it all again at the statue where this time there were heaps of visitors and a myriad of candles, flowers, signs and offerings. There, I had decided to do it all again. Again the second candle wouldn’t light and again out of nowhere came all these hands, This time white hands, black hands, brown hands, male hands, female hands all cupped to ward off the rain and the wind. This lot were even more persistent and we kept trying for far longer than made sense. Once again the sense of oneness was there. A clear glass cup was offered but even that wasn’t effective. A lady burned her fingers trying to help. I placed the candle with the others and cast some compost over all the flowers there and in the water in fountain.
It was then I realised that the day hadn’t been an understatement at all! I had participated in an event that made all Heaven sing. Groups of people who didn’t know one another from a bar of soap had tried to keep a candle aflame and participated in an event where the deposited goodness of thousands of Sydneysiders was cast over the deposited goodness of countless Parisiennes.
“Wow!” I thought. “All my angst has been worth it”.
I have written this in great detail as I realise many, many people would be here if they could and many people were there with me in spirit today and I want to honour that.
I have some compost left over. I understand there is a special memorial service being held in the square on Sunday at which a tree will be planted. I intend to go to that. I am hoping the remaining compost I have will be added to the earth surrounding the roots of the tree. Then the goodness of both cities will be honoured.
I am having trouble contacting the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hildago. If anyone knows her, can they please ask her for me if she will do that and let me know. If it doesn’t happen I’ll wait my time and sprinkle it there anyway.