Tuesday 25 October 2016

Former French Rose: They are hoping to divide us, but we will continue living the life we love

A vibrant, close-knit district of Paris refuses to back down to terror, writes former French Rose

Madeleine Barry

Published 22/11/2015 | 02:30

LIFE WILL GO ON: Madeleine Barry outside a local cafe in Paris. Photo: Dave Coffey
LIFE WILL GO ON: Madeleine Barry outside a local cafe in Paris. Photo: Dave Coffey

That Friday night started like any other weekend evening.

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I met three friends in a Mexican restaurant just a few minutes from my home. They live in the west side of Paris and though it's only about half-an-hour away by public transport, it's always a challenge to persuade them to come over to the east side. On the Friday evening of the attacks, I managed to convince them to come and discover the happening night life in the heart of my neighbourhood.

The restaurant we went to, which is near the Bataclan and between two of the restaurants where so many were killed, was packed full of people enjoying a night out after a long week at work. We were eventually seated at the back of the restaurant, right next to an exit which opened on to a little courtyard. Shortly after 10 o' clock, I remember looking around the room and noticing quite a few people staring intently at their phones. I thought, "how odd, nobody is talking to each other". The atmosphere seemed to have changed and a hush had settled in the air. Things moved very quickly after that.

I started getting messages from friends asking me how I was. One friend in particular, whose husband is a journalist with Al Jazeera, texted me to check where I was. When she found out, she messaged me: "My God, I'm sorry. 12 on the floor rue Charonne, shooting in le Petit Cambodge, carnage in the Bataclan."

The restaurant owners pulled the shutters down and moved us all to the courtyard. It was only when we got outside that the reality of the situation really hit me. It was dark, and all we could hear from outside were deafening sirens. It sounded like there were hundreds of them. People were huddling up together; most of them were on mobile phones, checking the news, trying to find out what was happening. Some were crying. Some were asking others for information.

I managed to reach my mother, who had just arrived in Dublin for the weekend and who thankfully had not yet heard about the events in Paris.

I was born in Dublin but moved to France when I was just 18 months old, and have lived in Paris since I was seven. People often ask me if I feel more Irish or French and the answer is I feel both. Growing up, most of my summers and Christmas holidays were spent in Dublin at my grandmother's house.

I remember as a little girl watching the Rose of Tralee, and identifying with all these women from around the world who shared the same nationality as I did. In 2007, I was selected to represent France in Tralee, and I am still friends with many of the roses and escorts that I met that year.

Just two months ago, I moved to the Avenue Parmentier in the 11th district, a wonderful, vibrant, lively district on the east side of Paris, right next to the Marais.

That Friday night, as we huddled in the courtyard of the neighbourhood restaurant, text messages started flooding in from family and friends from all over the world. It's at that point that the sheer terror of what I knew was happening just outside grabbed hold.

At around 12.30, people started leaving the haven of the courtyard, desperate to get home to safety. I live less than 10 minutes away so I made the journey home by foot. As I walked by the Bataclan, I saw police cordons everywhere and people standing behind them. Some people were just sitting down on their own on the path, dazed.

The relief I felt when I got home was immeasurable. I was able to call my mother to tell her that I was safe, behind locked doors. Speaking to her and reassuring her made me think of all those parents waiting by their phones for news of their loved ones, hoping against hope that their children were alive and would ring at any moment. So many parents and loved ones did not receive that call last Friday.

I work in the education sector of the Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation of the United Nations (UNESCO). One of the areas we focus on is the impact of conflict on education.

I wonder how people can come to have such hate in their hearts. I wonder what schools they went to, what their teachers were like, and at what time in their lives they began to feel that they didn't belong to France, that they were not one of us. The only reason I can find is loneliness. People who didn't believe that they were part of a community.

The terrorists are hoping to divide us, they are hoping to turn us against each other with the aim of recruiting more disillusioned young people to their hateful, empty cause. I want to spend more time looking out for people who feel that they don't belong to this community. I want to think of how we can tackle this rise in the radicalisation of our citizens.

Of what changes we can all strive to make in society to be kinder to each other, more accepting of our differences.

But most of all, like every other young person in Paris, I want to continue going out with my friends, to fall in love, to eat, to drink and to dance until the early hours.

And yes, it will take time. But I will go on. That is something else that we cannot let them take from us.

Sunday Independent

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