Since the attacks of November 13, 2015 here in Paris memorials have sprung up spontaneously at or close to each of the locations where people were killed. Stuffed animals, hand crafted cards, photographs, personal notes, French flags and even small toys intermingle with the hundreds, if not thousands, of candles and flowers that have been laid since that day. These personal mementos of lives lived blanket the pavement. They seem to be trying hard not only to offer solace to those who visit, but also to provide proof that the people who died that day were not faceless ‘victims’ but ‘real’ people – daughters, sons, friends, brothers, and sisters – and they are not to be forgotten.
One of the most poignant memorials I’ve seen was in front of Le Petit Cambodge, the Cambodian restaurant tucked away on a quiet side street in the 10th Arrondissement near the canal St Martin where 15 people were killed: It was a little olive tree. I actually knew the olive tree was there because my friend and writing instructor Gary told me he put it there. Until yesterday though, I had not yet been to see it in person.
I’m not sure when or why Gary got the olive tree in the first place. All I know is that he had it in his apartment and he lives only a block from Le Petit Cambodge. Standing about two metres tall, but rather scrawny, Gary confessed that he had not spent a significant amount of time caring for his little tree. But still, the morning after the attacks he felt compelled to hoist the little olive tree, pot and all, into his arms, stagger down the stairs at his apartment building and then down the street to place the tree in front of the restaurant. It was one of the first memorials to be laid.
Since leaving his tree on the corner Gary regularly monitors its condition, as well as its whereabouts with respect to its original position. In those early days after the attacks the memorial out front of Le Petit Cambodge took on enormous proportions, forcing pedestrians onto the street for almost half a block in either direction. In turn, the little olive tree was shuffled off to the side of the restaurant seemingly drowned amidst the flowers and candles. At one point someone hung a poster from one of its narrow branches that threatened to break the little tree in half. Gary moved the poster to another, equally visible but less threatening, location. The little olive tree has been receiving more of Gary’s attention now than it ever had in his apartment.
When we’d meet at our writing group we’d discuss the olive tree and what Gary might do to help ensure its survival given the seemingly unstoppable spreading of the memorial site. He contemplated taking it to the owners of the Cambodge, the parent restaurant further down the street, but he didn’t want to move it: he felt that it belonged at Le Petit Cambodge. We worried about the effects of the weather and about a lack of regular watering. We worried about vandals. He wondered if it would get stolen or destroyed. I guess we all forgot that the olive tree is a fighter and a survivor. It can live over 2000 years and can withstand drought, heat and even fire!
It’s been two months now since Gary delivered his little olive tree to Le Petit Cambodge. Much of the memorial has been ordered to be cleared to allow the passage of pedestrians as well as to enable workers to begin repairing the damage to the restaurant. Life must go on after all. But the little olive tree is still there, back front and centre in front of the restaurant where it began. In fact, I could see it when I was still about half a block away. Someone has secured it to a post on the edge of the sidewalk. All the other memorials that are left now seem to emanate from its base. A few people have added small items to its pot. Gary told me that, at Christmas, someone hung a couple of small decorations from its branches, but nothing that would bend or break them.
According to the Bible it was an olive branch that the dove brought back to Noah to show him that the waters had abated and peace had been restored. Since then, in most cultures and across most religions, olive leaves have symbolized the hope for peace, the hope that peace will take the place of all evil and the hope that we’ll all be able to live in a safe and quiet place.
To my eyes the little olive tree now stands proudly on its corner: fulfilling its role as a symbol of peace, a symbol of survival, a pillar of strength. I like that. Some of the other memorials will come and go, the flowers that are left will eventually wilt and die, the candles will melt and the rain will wash away the writing on the many notes that are left; but the little olive tree will endure. It’s clearly in this for the long-haul. Personally, I think our world could use a lot more olive trees.