His wife returned from her shopping trip and among her purchases was a CD that she couldn’t wait to play. She held the case up for him to see and he nodded approvingly, politely, not really interested but not wishing to offend. It was a compilation of “Great Opera Choruses” by a local orchestra and choir. She plucked the disk out of his case like she was grabbing bowling ball, slid it into the player and pressed PLAY. The first track, almost predictably, was The Anvil Chorus, from Il Trovatore and he went on doing what he had been doing, happy to have some music to do it by; but the second track invaded his consciousness, taking command of his thoughts and transporting back a quarter of a century to the other side of the world.
It was pure coincidence that he had been in Paris when Fançois Mitterand swept to power in 1981, replacing Valerie Giscard d’Estaing as President. He had been outside the Elysée Palace when the reins of power were handed over; he had been on the Champs-Elysées when the motorcade of the new President had swept down the avenue after his having laid a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; but he had skipped the reception with the Mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, at the Hôtel de Ville, preferring instead to have lunch in his favourite café on the Rue Sufflot. All the usual crowd were there, including Serge, the waiter, who always had the place in an uproar because of his propensity to deliver orders to the wrong tables, causing animated exchanges accompanied by much shrugging and eye-rolling and arm-waving and head shaking. What was unusual that day, however, was not Serge’s incompetence but what was happening outside the café; for the new President’s final inauguration engagement was the laying of a single rose on the tomb of Jean Moulin, in the Panthéon, which stands at the top of the Rue Soufflot. On either side, the street had been lined with metal barriers to prevent the crowd from spilling onto the roadway and he overheard one patron of the café, paraphrasing the famous epigram of Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr by intoning cynically to the crowd: “Nouveau Président, nouvelles barrières”.
As it happened, his hotel was on the Place du Panthéon, and his 5th floor balcony, although offering onto a side street, provided a clear view of the approaches to the mausoleum. He had a perfect view of the new Président walking across the square with the rose in his hand. Then later, as he stepped out of his room to go downstairs, he was almost trampled by a squad of machine-gun toting CRS as they hurriedly made their way down from their vantage points on the roof. The hotel Patron later revealed that all the rooms were supposed to have been vacated during the Presidential visit. He didn’t realise that Monsieur had slipped upstairs.
But it was a time three years later to which the second track of his wife’s new CD had transported him; to a different crowd gathering under very different circumstances; not celebrating Mitterand’s election but protesting against a law proposed by his Minister for Education, Savary. At the time, the newspapers, depending upon their political affiliation, estimated the crowd somewhere between 1 and 4 million strong. The demonstrators had come from Paris, the banlieu, the provinces and even from the dominions and territories overseas; converging on the Place de la Bastille from the north and from the south. He was scheduled to leave Paris that evening so he checked out of his hotel after breakfast, took his luggage to the airport, then caught a train back into the city with a group of protestors who had flown up from the Midi. Although the protests were vehement, ultimately forcing the resignation of the minister, the feeling was like that of a giant picnic. His newfound companions, a group of schoolteachers, had even brought a picnic lunch, which they shared with him on the way into the city. But the over-riding memory of that day, 25 years after the event, was the seemingly inexhaustible tide of people parading through the Place de la Bastille; and the anthem they were singing with passionate defiance. It was based on an operatic chorus, written by an Italian, about the enslavement of the Jews in ancient Babylon and recently popularised by a Greek diva singing in French. And now, whenever he hears The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, he is instantly transported back in time to the Place de la Bastille and the last time he saw Paris.
Appropriately, the chorus begins with the words: Va, pensiero.