Thank You for the Guitar
The man is on all fours on the sidewalk, his hair soaked by the rain and his knees on the wet asphalt. The icy wind that blows into his open jacket doesn’t seem to bother him. On this Saturday, November 21, 2015, he stands up the vases that have been blown over by the wind, pushes the scattered flowers into cracks in the wall and sticks with the help of a roll of Scotch tape® the dozens of messages of sympathy that have been detached by the rain. With a sharp movement he strikes a match and relights the candles that have gone out.
I hear him sniff at regular intervals. Is he crying? He gets up. We look at one another misty-eyed for a long moment before he murmurs, “I’m a neighbor. Romain and I were friends.”
Romain Naufle was the guitar-maker in this working-class neighborhood of Ménilmontant in the east of Paris. He died at the Bataclan one week earlier, on November 13, gunned down by the terrorists who turned Paris into a bloodbath.
Romain’s workshop is located a mile and a half from the Bataclan, at 18 rue des Gâtines. It is here that the man with rain-soaked hair is tending to his memory and that passers-by and neighbors are expressing their grief and solidarity. The metal shutter of the guitar-maker’s shop is pulled down, like a flag at half-mast.
The children of the neighborhood have stuck affectionate and heartrending messages on it: “Thank you for the guitar, Romain”, signed Candice. “Romain, you’re my buddy”, signed Paul. A resident of the house has written: “Romain, since you’ve been gone, the building has lost its soul—we no longer hear the sound of guitars in the stairwell.” The sidewalk is no longer a sidewalk, but a chapel of remembrance.
On this morning, there are about ten of us paying our respects in silence. A woman of about 60 wearing an elegant beige coat turns to me: “I too liked to see him work as I walked by,” she whispers as if we were continuing a conversation. Her “I too” touches me. It underlines what we have all shared in Paris since the attacks: the same stupefaction, the same need for consolation and the same love of life.
Romain’s shop was a lively place. A single, modest and welcoming room. On the left as you went in, the guitars —mainly electric—hung on the wall. On the right was his honey-colored workbench with his tools that were similar to a cabinetmaker’s. In the streets of our cities and towns, apart from the shoe mender, it’s a long time since we’ve seen craftsmen at work. Romain Naufle was the exception. From outside, you could see his head, with his prematurely thinning hair, bent over the workbench, concentrating on his work, his hands moving. He was only 31 but worked with the calm of a man of experience.
Many of us in the neighborhood were fascinated by the pieces of wood lined up in his shopfront that would become guitar necks. “Maple, mahogany and padauk, an African wood that’s excellent for playing the blues,” he told me one day. An amateur musician myself, I had gone to him to buy a guitar for my son. Youri was then seven and was always grabbing my guitar that was too big for him, with the risk of him damaging it; it was time he had his own instrument. Romain wanted to meet the boy, but it was a Christmas present.
For half an hour, we spoke about music and childhood. Romain wanted to understand what kind of kid Youri was. He listened to my explanations while all the time fixing on the tuning keys of a guitar, a screwdriver in his hand. Music preserves you from the passage of time; the guitar-maker had retained a childlike face and smile even though he was well established in his professional life.
During our conversation, a man in his 40s who looked like a trader in his three-piece suit, but without a tie, had come into the shop. An ageless rocker, with grey hair and a silver earring, had followed him in. The first wanted a set of strings and the second was bringing his bass guitar to be repaired. They started talking about an English group I hadn’t heard of. All kinds of people mixed in the guitar-maker’s shop.
Since November 13, messages of support and compassion have poured in from all around the world. Many end with a resounding “ Vive la France”. At 18 rue des Gâtines, well-wishers have placed three small French flags, which flap in the wind and are withstanding the rain. Would Romain have appreciated them? Not necessarily! The French are not easily patriotic. However, since November 13, beyond our borders, we are proud of our nationality and happy to be united with all lovers of freedom and democracy. People are singing La Marseillaise and Paris’s centuries-old motto has re-emerged—“Fluctuat nec mergitur”—“it is tossed by the waves but does not sink”.
We are finding that we can be patriots without being nationalists. And we are convinced of the fact that, while the terrorists always win the first battle, they always lose the war. Romain is missed by his family and friends. He is missed by his neighborhood. When he tuned a guitar, it was as if he were restoring some order in the chaos of the world. Some harmony. In our living room at home, 50 yards from his former workshop, Youri’s guitar stands next to mine. Last night, we tuned it together.