The first time I arrived in Paris, I stepped off the train at Gare du Nord and became lost immediately. It was the kind of lost that only happens when you’re twenty-years-old in a foreign city and it’s painfully late at night. You find yourself plodding down darkened alleyways, mumbling homeless voices echoing along the narrow walls, past leering male eyes, and your suitcase bumping along on the cobblestone behind you. No one recognizes the name of your hotel or the name of the street it’s supposedly located on, though both are presumably less than five-minutes away.
As I write this, nearly ten-years later, it’s safe for the reader to assume I found my hotel and did not spend the night on Parisian streets. In fact, I had all but forgotten about this dreary experience until I flipped through my old journals last Saturday. My strongest memories of Paris from that trip, and subsequent others, are not of the lack of street signs or irritable waiters, but rather the rippling reflection of lights in the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. On the hour, everyone, tourist or no, stops and turns to the great Parisian landmark to watch the sparkling light show, if only briefly.
I remember walking briskly downhill in Montmartre, a bitter headwind buffeting me to-and-fro with the fall leaves. Inspired by the impulsive wind, I dashed into a small boutique and purchased a quintessentially red scarf. It wasn’t to keep me warm. The scarf was meant to flap elegantly behind me in the wind, like the beautiful Parisian women. It’s still in my closet, threadbare now, from years of wishing I were in Paris.
There was the view from the stone steps of Sacré-Coeur, the basilica cathedral, so white it was like snow on ivory. At dusk, as the sun slips behind Paris, young Parisians sit on the steps with music, smokes, and drinks. I’m neither Catholic nor religious, but Sacré-Coeur holds a sacred place in my heart nevertheless.
For a time, I ran laps through Parc Georges-Brassens in the 15th arrondissement. Elderly women, shrunken with age, wrapped in hats and scarves even in the height of summer, sat alone on the park benches. Their tiny feet barely skimmed the ground and swung childishly as they tossed bread to the pigeons.
On my way home, to the bright blue door in the alley, I would pass three boulangeries, where baguettes were baked thrice daily. Every meal should have the freshest bread. In the windows of the pâtisseries, tartes, gâteaux and profiteroles were displayed like fine art. I was almost afraid to eat them. (Almost.) Small street markets served the freshest ingredients of les épinards, le truffle, and le lapin. Meals were as simple or as complex as the flavor of the day.
In Paris, streets can be staircases. Museums can be as grand as the Louvre or as humble as the Musée Picasso. And the children can still laugh and squeal at Guignol and the other Marionnettes du Luxembourg, the delightful puppet theatre in the Jardin du Luxembourg. Under the pale glow of street lamps, les accordéonists really do play “La Vie en Rose.”
Like so many others around the world, I have many beautiful memories and hopes for future memories in Paris. When the Islamic State attacked this great city nearly two weeks ago, it hit as close to home as if it had been in America. But IS has conducted many, many more devastating attacks on innocent people around the world before Paris.
A double suicide bombing in Beirut, which is said to have phenomenal museums and incredible food, killed forty people a day before the Paris attacks. Similar atrocities have been committed (for quite some time now) in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya to that which happened in France. (The cold shoulder the media has given to IS attacks in the Middle East over the last year is an appalling topic for another time.)
It is so painfully clear that IS is not just a threat to faraway countries that most of us will never visit. As we follow the day’s events in Brussels, which is now in its third day of lockdown as police search for terror suspects, we can see just how easily IS evokes fear and seeks to destroy a way of life. In the wake of the Paris attacks, citizens have defiantly returned to restaurants, bars, and music venues, beginning the long recovery process.
Paris is the City of Light. The Bubonic Plague, the Burgundians, the Nazis, and the Islamic State could not and cannot put out the light of Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Only the French can do that by succumbing to the same fear and blind hatred that inspires those who attack them.
After 9/11, the United States plunged into the dark and irrational depths of the conservative right and I fear France may do the same. With laws like the ban on face coverings in public spaces, further divisive, Islamophobic laws aren’t just conceivable, they’re entirely plausible. Ostracizing Muslims from French society will only create the kind of cultural, socio-economical divide in which radicalization flourishes. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe. Let Paris now be a light of leadership against IS – not just in bombing their strongholds, but in understanding how and why such hatred breeds. Perhaps the rest of us can do so as well.