This weekend's horrific attacks on Paris left us all reeling. We watched the news, read survivor stories, and when the French government retaliated with air strikes on assumed ISIS targets, we wrung our hands (or applauded, depending on whether we believe that a violent reaction to violence can ever lead to peace).
For those of us who have had the privilege and pleasure of visiting Paris, we were flooded with memories.
I took French for most of my school years, starting in second grade with the glamorous Madame Cipriani (who also taught Spanish, despite her Italianate surname). Whenever she took vacations abroad, she would bring back souvenirs which we could win in pop oral quizzes. Two such items, a small enamel tray that looked like a Parisian street sign and a brochure from the S.S. France, were among my prized possessions.
I dreamed of visiting Paris and finally got to when I was 25. I spent two weeks traveling through France and Switzerland with a coworker. But, after a night in Geneva, I decided I'd had enough of the Alps and took a train by myself back to the city of lights. The few days I spent there alone were une très grande aventure.
More visits followed. I've been to Paris twice with my husband. The first time, we were still dating and we almost (sort of, kind of, well not really) got engaged there. He did actually pop the question later on the same trip, in Grenoble. The second time was many years later when we were able to add on a few days to a business meeting ... a wonderful way to travel and one that I highly recommend if you have the bonne chance.
My sister and I took our mother to Paris about fifteen years ago. We stayed in a pretty hotel across from a little park in the city's garment district. We ate more pastry than the law should allow. It was a lovely trip and also a bit sobering. I had to face the fact that my sister's French was beacoup mieux than mine. (Sorry, Madame Cipriani. Je suis désolé.)
Of course, the trip that stands out for me now is my most recent one with my teenage daughter. We were in London for a friend's bat mitzvah and took the Eurostar to Paris. It was just the two of us; her dad's work situation didn't allow him to come. We spent five glorious days there, filling each one with museums and sights and yes, pastry. Together we set off to find the city's best soupe à l'oignon, a quest that my daughter took very seriously, trying at least one and sometimes two a day. We visited Versailles, had crepes in the shadow of Sacré-Cœur, took a late night tour of the Seine aboard a bateau mouche, climbed la Tour Eiffel, and stood on line for two hours to explore les catacombes.
I don't know when we've had such a good time together. There was nothing to do, yet so much to see. No alarms to set (wonder of wonders, she woke early each morning — without any prodding whatsoever — because there was simply so much to do), no homework, no laundry, no client calls. We were there to enjoy it all in a place that seemed designed purely for that purpose.
I think that's what Paris means to all of us — and why this comes as such a blow.
That's what this weekend's terrorists were attacking, a place where celebrating life has evolved to an art form. One of my business partners went there earlier this fall, and it's hitting him very hard. As he explained to me this morning, the fact that the gunmen targeted café patrons and people enjoying music feels particularly obscene.
Much has been made in more liberal social media about the bias and ethnocentricity demonstrated by major news outlets. Why, people are asking (rightly) does a terrorist attack in France warrant so much attention, as well as national symbols of sympathy and solidarity? What about terrorist attacks in Baghdad, Beirut and Garissa University — some of which resulted in even more victims? I agree and I'm ashamed that we don't pay more attention to the atrocities in non-Western countries. We are all human beings and a life in the Middle East or Africa is every bit as valuable as one on the Champs-Élysées.
I am so grateful for the time I spent in Paris with my daughter. (Truly, I'm grateful for the time we've spent together anywhere.) Most of all, I'm grateful — profoundly grateful — to have her safe and sound when so many mothers, all over the world, are mourning today.
I wish I knew the answer, but I don't.
Mon dieu, I hope we find it someday soon.
If you enjoyed this post, I invite you to order a copy of my book Lovin' the Alien at www.lovinthealien.com.