Paris. I tried hard to remember those brief French courses I took during my freshman year in college, 18 years ago, but the only response I could provide came from a Jack Johnson song called "Belle."
"Je ne comprends pas français," I told the French woman. She had that "I see" look on her face, nearly submerged behind a thick, old, white winter coat. With one hand, covered in a holey black glove, she pointed to a spot along the busy Boulevard Voltaire in the eastern side of Paris. "Bataclan?" she asked again. This time her word was more familiar.
She must have spotted me, armed with my camera strapped around my neck, traveling alone in an area that garnered worldwide infamy for being home to all but one of the six targets in the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, and assumed I was either a journalist, or someone looking to pay his respects.
She was dead on. Out of curiosity, I was indeed planning to visit the Bataclan Theater where 89 people were killed when three men opened fire on a crowd of 1,500 who had been there on that fateful night to watch a concert by the American band Eagles of Death Metal.
The woman spoke some more French words. Judging from her gestures, I think she was trying to say that it was close from where she greeted me out of the blue, exchanging words neither of us could comprehend. The theater was just around the corner.
A man in a black leather jacket and a gray seamed cap was laying on the ground, flat on his left side, in front of the now boarded-up Bataclan – a 19th century establishment in pale white accented with neon yellow and bright red paint and colorful mosaics.
With his right hand holding a lighter and another forming a cup to protect the flame from the strong freezing wind, he was trying to light more than a dozen candles arranged in the shape of a heart as his two sons watched.
Occasionally, curious onlookers stopped and looked, before shifting their attention to the few decaying roses tied to the metal barriers placed neatly in front of its doors, locked with an imposing steel lock, accenting its black exterior, still adorned with the theater's menu written in chalk for passersby to see.
A row of oversized fans hung on top of its windows, suggesting that there were once tables and chairs for people to sip a cup of coffee and watch the world go by. It was not long before the onlookers went on their way again, leaving the man in the leather jacket and his two sons be.
The man suddenly got up and looked my way. He was asking for a lighter. I couldn't figure out how he must have known that I did have one with me. I gently pulled my lighter out of my pocket and presented it to him, which he took with an audible sigh of relief.
I quizzed him after he was done lighting his candles and he tried his best answering my questions in an English that was much better than my French.
To my surprise, he does not do this regularly and he doesn't have any close friends or relatives who had fallen victim to the attacks. In fact, it was his first time performing the vigil. He is not even a Parisian, hailing from the northern part of France.
"It is important [that I do this]," he simply said after thanking me for my lighter, a reminder of just how the attacks in Paris came as a shock to the whole nation and the rest of the world. He needed not explain further, for I too felt compelled to visit Bataclan for reasons I cannot comprehend.
Maybe because I am a music lover. The people who came to Bataclan that fateful night were out to have some fun, to immerse themselves in some rock-and-roll tunes, to be inspired and to feel alive. But they were robbed of those wishes and instead had to come to terms with horror, tragedy and anguish.
A chill ran down my spine and my heart felt like it had dropped to the ground, as I traversed an alleyway called Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot along the side of the 150-year-old theater.
Before I came there, I had watched the YouTube video taken by a local resident high up from his balcony, depicting the ensuing chaos. I gazed at the door where panicking concertgoers scrambled out into the alleyway, running for dear life. The pavement where one man limped to safety after being shot in the leg, while another was laying helplessly on the road, too weak to move.
There were bodies being dragged right onto the asphalt road, where I was standing three months later. I stared at the window where a woman had hung on to avoid the shooting frenzy. "Help me, I'm pregnant," she said, pleading to a man standing at the window's ledge right above her, to help her to safety.
Three months had passed and life continued on the alleyway. Students scribbling in their notebooks and typing on their laptops inside a communications school just opposite the Bataclan. A renovation project of an outdated apartment was underway further down the alley and mechanics at a nearby auto repair shop returned from their lunchbreak.
But there was a hint of somberness in the air even as I exited the narrow alley onto Rue Oberkamph – a vibrant, two-laned road filled with boutiques and curiosity shops, where Art-Nouveau-style wrought-iron gates and turn-of-the-century architecture sit side-by-side with modern graffiti.
The road was littered with people flocking to cafes and restaurants, or just strolling from one store to the next in black or deep-gray coats and pastel-colored designer boots and matching scarves. Some were on scooters and others on rented bicycles but none seemed to be in a hurry.
I found myself back to Boulevard Voltaire, lined with stores selling electronic gadgets and video games. I was sick to my stomach when I came across one shop selling airsoft guns, samurai blades and Japanese throwing stars – weapons to bring harm upon others – just meters from Place de la République square, home to an iconic 19th-century monument, which had become a shrine to honor the victims of the Paris attacks.
The monument's base was littered with decaying bouquets, candles inscribed with prayers and messages, pictures and names of the fallen, the red, white and blue of the French Tricolore, banners and graffiti. I saw stuffed toys being crammed into every nook and cranny of the reliefs adorning the monument. The dolls were all looking down as if in deep sorrow for the dead.
Originally, built to commemorate the French Revolution, the monument has come to symbolize hope since the tragedy as well as the attack on the headquarters of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in January last year.
The square is a 15-minute walk from Bataclan, 10 minutes from where 15 people were killed inside a cafe and a restaurant on Rue Bichart and Rue Alibert, and 15 minutes from the Charlie Hebdo headquarters.
As mourners and tourists flocked to the monument to pay their respects, someone could be heard singing. The voice loud and haunting, reverberating as it bounced off the facades of the centuries-old buildings surrounding the square.
The melancholic tune, which continued the entire time I was at the square, came from a tubby man in a flannel shirt, standing alone, singing his lungs out. He was largely ignored by the mourners but his presence was felt, his voice augmenting the sorrow.
Like the man in the leather jacket I met in front of Bataclan, the singer's motivation was unclear. He was not busking for money. Like the man at Bataclan, the singer didn't seem to care for praises or so much as an acknowledgment.
But he did make my heart smile and feel at peace, even in this place of mourning. The singing, imperfect as it was, gave me warmth in this Parisian winter as did the candles lit at the Bataclan. Kindness needs no excuses, I thought to myself.
Paris is, after all, a city of love.