A Madeleine biscuit did it for Marcel Proust, and the horrific events in Nice did it for me. As soon as I heard the news and saw precisely where that truck of death had finally stopped, by the Palais de Mediterranean just past the Hotel Royale, virtually every detail of the holiday I took with my parents and younger brother in July 1959, when we stayed at the Royale, fell into my head.
Our high ceiling rooms overlooking the Promenade des Anglais; the beach; me being ill with what turned out to be Whooping Cough and going to the doctor for pills…and suppositories, which my mother couldn’t believe: “What? For his chest?”; my mother teaching me to play gin rummy, then leaving me in the care of two kindly, gin rummy obsessed ‘grandes dames’ who sat on the shaded hotel terrace all day while my parents and brother enjoyed the sea and sun; eating at Poznanzky’s Restaurant in the Old Town; visiting the old walled ‘artists’ town of St. Paul de Vence and remembering what I now know was the distinct and overpowering smell of old sewers and rat poison; the drive along the high Corniche to Monte Carlo looking down at the blue bay and all the yachts; and the flower parade when thousands of people lined the Promenade des Anglais to watch dozens of neon-lit, horse-drawn floats pass by, each decorated with hundreds of pink flowers, accompanied by what, to an impressionable 8 year old, seemed to be extraordinarily glamorous and exotic women also dressed in pink, who smiled and waved and threw petals in the air.
Perhaps even stranger than the crystal clear vision of that holiday appearing in my head, the next day an email appeared in my inbox. It had been sent from a mobile phone number that I (and my contacts list) didn’t recognise. I opened it carefully, fully expecting to delete it as spam, when I noticed the actual message.
“Terrible news from Nice. Do you remember us at the flower festival many many years ago with our families? Hope you are well, Jenny”
Jenny? Jenny who? But of course I already knew. Back in 1959 we had met and become friendly with another English family who were also staying at the Royale. They had two young girls, about the same ages as my brother and me. And one was called Jenny. She is on the right of the photo of us all sitting in the sea, sitting next to my brother. Like me, the news from Nice brought back the memory of that holiday and she had found my email by googling my name.
On that night of the flower parade 57 years ago we all stood together on the Promenade des Anglais, somewhere between the Hotel Royale and the Hotel Negresco amongst the crowd in the photo above, watching the magical procession if not on then certainly very close to where, last Thursday night, dozens of bodies lay broken, dead and dying in the wake of that horrific, murderous, barbaric rampage.
Back then, in those days of relative innocence, people of course still died in tragic accidents or by purposeful hand, but on the Promenade des Anglais that night it was inconceivable that someone would drive a 19 tonne truck at high speed into packed crowds of people, driven by an overwhelming, maniacal desire to kill as many as possible.
It was also probably inconceivable to the many thousands who thronged the Promenade last Thursday, enjoying the fireworks. But, objectively, we know only too well that there are inviduals and groups for whom such acts of barbarity are not only conceivable but also achievable.
After the death – from natural causes – of our baby, I became and still am acutely aware of just how thin and fragile is the fabric of everyday normality, and how easily that fabric can be torn and ruptured in the space of seconds. But we cannot live our lives, or be forced to live our lives, in perpetual fear: that would be a victory for barbarism. So I take some comfort in the wise words of the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh:
Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.