Paris is my playground. Wait, I thought only good things happened there? Like getting my portrait drawn by an old wrinkled artist called Igor in front of le Sacre Cœur, sipping vin chaud at the marché de noel while strolling along Champs-Elysées, or people watching on Saint Germain-des-Près pretending I was observing scenes from a Hemingway novel. Wasn’t this city just a perpetual maze of boulevards and bistros with charming, roll-off-your tongue names?
The other day, a notification popped up from my wordpress app on my phone that announced my “Happy two year anniversary!” It was two years ago that I wrote my first post from a suburban high school just an hour train ride from Paris on the transilien.
Paris, the city I had grown to know well during my seven and some months living in her backyard; a name that is now populating my twitter feed, Facebook wall and iPhone notifications with horrific events, and series’ of reactions to those events. I can’t help but think how tangibly changed the atmosphere of Paris must be now, how weird and sad and lost I would feel going back there now, meandering down familiar boulevards.
The peculiar mood of Paris where time slips away too easily, where people are busy enjoying the best of food, wine, fashion and art. Would that particular ambiance be replaced? Despite signs and graffiti reading “même pas peur,” not afraid, its difficult to believe the impact of such heinous crimes can so effortlessly subside.
One of my former high school students, who is now living in Paris, described to me a false alert of gunshots as she walked down one of the streets of the attacks the other day going to a memorial.”People in the street started running and crying,” she said, “things are weird.”
These attacks will be something from my young adulthood that I’ll always remember. Just like September 11th was one of the big events of my childhood. Although I was just ten years old, I remember it clearly: sitting in Mr. Clevenger’s fifth grade science class, taking apart a computer with my lab group when our principal appeared on the monitor in the corner of the classroom. I think he must have used words suitable for an elementary school audience to explain what happened, but was there any way to sugarcoat or euphemize the fact that terrorists had attacked the United States?
I’m addicted to reading the news right now. It is disconcerting seeing the names of familiar places, towns I would pass on the train like Saint Denis, landmarks like Place de la Republique that has been transformed into a memorial site. I can only image how bewildered and heartbroken the Parisians felt, and still feel. I see my former students’ posts on social media about these horrors: sad, scared, “staying strong”, “proud to be French”. It’s like I had just blinked from my time at lycée en forêt correcting their pronunciation, as they asked me about the U.S. with the wide-eyed wonder as if I were recounting my visit to the North Pole.
In our era of political correctness, of course it isn’t fair to pay more attention to the attack on Paris just because it happened in a city whose landmarks are universally known and adored. What about places where tragedy like this is common? Places where living in a state of fear and uncertainty is the norm? What about Beirut and Mali. Is their pain any less or more than what the Parisians feel?
I can’t answer these questions. I used to watch the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night when I was in the city. The city is so vast, so filled to the brim with museums suffused with tourists, boutiques boasting more elegant and seductive clothes than I encountered back home, crowded brasseries and bistros, Parisians bundled up glamorously in scarves and hats exhaling cigarette smoke; it overwhelms. I needed to see that sparkling tower: it reminded me that I was in an amazing place, enjoying an exceptional opportunity, and to drink it all in.
Now I see images of the Eiffel Tower in the colors of the French flag, and other landmarks across the globe dawning blue, white and red too. It reminds me as well that the spirit of Paris is not broken.