It was Paris that decided it for me. We had planned an ambitious trip, Sean and I,—to quit our jobs, put our stuff in storage, and travel Europe for a season, and I was scared. What I wanted to do was cancel it all, keep my salary, stay home, stay put, stay comfortable. And though I could resign myself to missing just about everything else, I somehow couldn’t bear the thought of not seeing Paris. Paris, Paris. The City of Light had utterly captured my imagination and now it seemed of the utmost importance for me to stroll her boulevards, drink wine in her spacious, leafy gardens, wander the halls of her magnificent museums, and immerse myself in the city of kings and tyrants, revolutions and sieges, artists and philosophers. I read and listened to book after book about Paris until the names themselves became a kind of poetry for me. Place de la Concorde. Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Île de la Cité. Ponte Neuf. Le Marais. Hôtel de Ville. Place de Vosges. Montmartre. I needed to see the place where this poetry took form and shape and came to life. I needed to follow these avenues and quais, boulevards and bridges to wherever they might lead. Paris reached out to me across an ocean and a continent and planted hope in my heart—hope for beauty, for adventure, for living poetry.
And so we went, scared yet also brave, across the Atlantic, and then, across the Channel to Paris where, for me, there was one last pilgrimage to make: if I had clung to Paris as a symbol of beauty and bravery then the Eiffel Tower had clung to me as the soaring symbol of Paris. I went alone, and on foot, along the banks of the Seine, and I can tell you that neither Napoleon, nor the Prussians, nor Hitler himself could’ve walked the boulevards with more pride and elation than I felt as the Eiffel slowly rose before me, growing ever larger in my vision with each passing step. I’d done it. I’d come. And unlike those terrible tyrants and conquering armies, I had no need to possess or control Paris; I asked only for the freedom to roam unhindered; I wanted only for Paris to keep being Paris.
I passed directly under the Eiffel’s spidery iron splendor, and then strode on to walk and walk for hours in Paris, wherever my feet pleased to go, stopping for crêpes in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, resting in the Luxembourg Gardens in the cool of early evening, and lingering on the Pont de Sully to watch the sunset turn the Seine, for a few splendid moments, into a river of gold.
It’s just a phrase on the screen that catches my mother-in-law’s eye as we sit talking quietly in the den that afternoon. Breaking News, it says, and we turn with mild interest to find that Paris is under attack.
It is real to me. Perhaps more real even than the 9/11 attacks upon New York, though that was my own country and more souls perished. In 2001, I had never been to New York City. I didn’t know the glint of the sun off her skyscrapers, nor the pound of her sidewalks beneath my sore feet, or the smell of the subway each time one descends beneath her thrumming streets. It is unfair that we should need to know such details in order to feel tragedy more keenly. It is so selfish that this attack is more real to me because it’s more personal: because I know and love Paris now, and because it could’ve been me. But these blows to my selfishness, these punctures to my personal world tear great gaps through which the world can pour in, and I can join others, to the best of my ability, in their suffering.
The terrorists shot the people in the cafés, and, for that, I might never forgive them. For once I got there, once I encountered the city in the flesh, I think I loved Paris the most for her endless restaurants, and cafes, and parks where throngs of people gathered each evening to sit together and talk, and drink wine or espresso, and watch the world drift by. I know there is decadency and sloth in alcohol and relaxation pursued to excess, but there is also great wisdom in taking time to sit for hours with a friend, a loved one, a delicious drink, a plate of food, a beautiful city, a warm summer night. I found an ability to relax in Paris that perhaps my American soul had never known, and truth be told, I envied the French a bit for their ability to sit back and be still when I felt the need to so constantly, compulsively keep moving.
Now months later I watch hour by hour as the horror unfolds and I try to imagine things like gunshots and bombs amidst the tinkling of glasses and the lively chatter of a Parisian night. I remember particularly the color of the light cast by the street lamps on our first rainy evening in Paris, though on this night there is no rain, just the shiny gold of the survival blankets wrapped hurriedly around the shoulders of victims.
I curse and I cry and I drink a glass of blood red wine. The streets of Paris run once more with blood. There is no immediate comfort. There is only the bleak hope of history: that the Paris which has survived the Terror, the Tyrant, the barricades, the Prussians, the Commune, the Great War, and the Occupation will survive once more. I believe, in the part of my heart that just can’t give up, that Paris shall yet again prevail.
For now, I write this as a tribute and offer it as a gift to the city that made me brave by filling me with a longing for beauty which proved stronger than my fear.
Here we have no abiding city; bring us safely, merciful Lord, to our eternal home.