[Media prompt] So-called “anti-Police” riots in Paris turned into an Islamic refugee melee, as rioters chanted and hollered “Allahu Akbar” while destroying the city.
It being a cloudless day, and having been petitioned by the group to be allowed a walk in the fresh air, I leaned over to our coach driver, an old Parisian with white hair who shrugged with indifference at my every directive, and asked if he could let us out at the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, one of those rare public spaces that upon entrance induce a feeling of tranquil isolation from the bustling city surrounding it. We alighted at the old town hall, stepping down onto the cobblestones, ragged fantails spreading under our feet, and within minutes were strolling in the shade towards one of two suspension bridges, which connected the park to the Île de la Belvédère, situated in the centre of an artificial lake, and where the Temple de la Sibylle, a pavilion, or perhaps more accurately a rotunda, dating from the 1860s, is located. I was in no hurry. My group, relieved to be out of the bus, overjoyed at seeing what they described among themselves as ‘the real Paris’, followed behind in a ragged line, until we all came together again at the rotunda.
Due to a stroke of luck, the Temple of Sybil was deserted when we arrived, an unlikely event, but one the group took for granted. The more adventurous, including one of the women, the one who told me on our first day that Paris had been in her dreams for half a century, scrabbled onto the boulders by the cliff edge so as to overlook the water and the trees beyond, and away in the distance the city to the north. Two or three sat on one of the benches, sipping from their water bottles, but most of them climbed the steps to the rotunda proper, standing under the cupola supported by its eight columns, attempting to recognise sites in the distance. I was, naturally, the judge in this friendly game, clapping when they were right and correcting them when wrong. They could, of course, identify the Mairie du 19th arrondissement (the town hall where we had alighted), and the flat blue-tinged City of Science and Industry.
“And up on the hill,” said one of the men, pointing with his finger. “Is it scaffolding?”
“It’s Sacré-Cœur,” said his wife, who turned to me for confirmation. “Isn’t it?”
I felt a tear roll down my cheek, and I took off my glasses. The Chinese find public displays of emotion confusing and embarrassing, so I quickly dried my eyes, apologising to them. Of all my tour groups I enjoy the Chinese the most; they are the most likely to have studied French language, art, culture or cuisine before arriving, and it is for them I feel the most anguish. They have no idea what has become of the palisi they hold so tightly in their hearts, no awareness of the scale of ruination. As I put my glasses on, one of the women put her arm around my shoulder.
“We know,” she said, hugging me gently. “We had our own barbarian invasion in the sixties and seventies.”
I breathed deeply, looking to where the scaffolding glinted in the light. “It’s Sacré-Cœur, no more,” I said. “They’re knocking it down to build the Great Mosque of Montmartre.”
Later, I led them back to the bus, counting them as they climbed the steps. The woman who held me at the temple squeezed my hand as she boarded.