Resilient, Paris' Le Carillon is a place where locals can root for France again
PARIS -- A comfortable bar like Le Carillon doesn't start off that way, slowly weathering over time into something soft, round and familiar. A local becomes itself only after people come and live their lives there, turning it into an altar and a stage, a canteen and a living room, too. The memories made and left behind shaped the space as vividly as decades of smoke and spilled drinks darkened the walls and left rings on the worn red tables and the copper bar.
Le Carillon sits on a corner, at the intersection of four streets, owned by the same family for 40 years. It's the hub of the cool Parisian neighborhood surrounding it; the nightly crowd sports a high percentage of Chuck Taylors and Stan Smiths. A piano waits against the far wall. Small and L-shaped, the place has a maroon awning and red lights above the bar. Six months ago, two gunmen rolled past the bar and Le Petit Cambodge, the sleek Cambodian restaurant across the street, and fired into the crowded terraces with assault rifles. Fifteen people died, many of them regulars. Twin sisters died at a table, their bodies sent home together to their small hometown in western France. Bullets ripped through the walls. Blood pooled on the tile floor and the bodies lay outside with winter coats over their faces. A memorial grew up around the door, flowers and candles and love letters to the dead. Piles of flower bouquets looked like fresh cemetery dirt, and in the days after the attack, people held vigils outside. These new memories changed the bar, even after it reopened, because it seemed impossible that anyone could ever walk past, let alone step inside, and not remember the people who died doing the exact same thing.
I'M WRITING THIS sitting by an open window at Le Carillon, across the street from the Cambodian place, in the spot where the gunmen opened fire. A minute or two ago, France beat Romania 2-1 in the opening match of the 2016 Euros, and people are flowing out of the bar into the sidewalk and street, drinking, laughing, smoking cigarettes. The cheer when Les Bleus took the lead back in the 89th minute included just plain joyful laughter.
For the past two hours, fans stood shoulder to shoulder in front of two televisions, the bar so packed that one of Paris' many flower vendors came in with a basket of roses, looked for a way through the wall of people then just shook his head and left. Maybe all these people live nearby, or happened into this sacred space randomly, or maybe they came to reclaim one small piece of their city stolen in November. I heard only one person mention the attacks -- a family of tourists walking past and pointing out the spot to their kids -- but it was impossible not to feel the heaviness. A bullet hole remains just a few feet to my left.
The people came early, two hours before kickoff, rare in the ever nonchalant Paris. A few people wore team jerseys, even more rare than the early arrival, and the bartenders wore matching France shirts, with the flag painted on their arms, the most rare thing of all: Paris is often much too cool for anything as earnest and maudlin as patriotism. Someone hung the tricolor flag from a shelf.
The bartenders danced and whistled at pretty girls. People hunted out seats with good lines of sight, shuffling over orange, yellow and red tiles. Across the street, the guy working the register at the Cambodian place told paying customers to have a "good game." Paris basically came to a halt, or at least as close as the city is capable of doing; some people smoked and talked outside through the whole game.
"I want more goals," one woman said in French.
"I like the NBA," her friend said, sounding a little bored.
But most people held their breath and screamed at the close calls. A constant stream of people pushed in the door, finding little holes in the crowd, looking for alleys to the screens. Drinks cost 50 cents more at a table than the bar. Bartenders jumped up and danced all night, and then the game ended, after four long, tense minutes of stoppage time, the party moving on. Parisians are gonna drink all night tonight, the strong and the insane ending up at one of those 6 a.m. bars near the strip clubs, somewhere like a lovable dump called Le Bonnie & Clyde. I was in the city a few days after last year's attacks, and the place seemed like it might never be itself again, as overdramatic as that feels to type. The future is uncertain, in the city and across Europe, and the threat of an attack remains as painful as the memories of the ones in the past. But on one night, Paris drank beers and smoked cigarettes in the street, looking once more like the happiest, coolest place in the world.
SLOWLY, LE CARILLON is trying to get back the things stolen from it by two gunmen. It will take years for new memories to crowd out the overpowering memory of that night; the reopened bathroom still smells like fresh paint. It's all still so soon. But one of those memories happened two or so hours ago, just before the game began. It took people by surprise, and nobody who was here will ever forget it. I know I won't. The televisions showed the scene at the Stade de France, with the team lined up at midpitch.
Then the French national anthem began and at Le Carillon, a most un-French thing happened.
People started to sing.
The bartenders played a scratchy version on the bar stereo, very loud, and a friend of mine who lives here told me he'd never seen that happen before. The song, the violent, dark "La Marseillaise," echoed out of the bar into the street. On a wall close to the bar, there's a poem about celebrating on the anniversary of the attacks, taking back that date, sending their joy into the air like balloons, a kind of offering to the dead and wounded. The end of the poem asks that they may rise and be blessed.
A senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, Wright Thompson is a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi.