Late yesterday afternoon, I was in the car listening to radio interviews with people in Paris whose lives had just been touched or irretrievably altered by last night's terrorist attacks, people who were simply doing what we all might do on a Friday night, maybe out with a friend at a concert of their favourite band, eating a meal at a restaurant, or enjoying a soccer match. There were harrowing stories of escapes and near misses, told from cell phones in darkened cafes and apartments. The voices - even those of seasoned reporters trying to keep up with the developments - all had an unmistakable note of incredulity. Everyone was describing what had happened, but the real question they were asking themselves was why.
When I first started travelling, Paris was famous among North American tourists for its boulevards and gardens and cafes and Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower. It was also famous for its rude waiters. Notoriously arrogant and condescending. Like all French people. Or so it was said.
That has never been my experience.
The last time we were in Paris, we were on our way to hike in the Basque country, and we stopped first for a few days in Paris to get time zones caught up. We stayed in a hotel on the Left Bank, near the Pantheon. A lovely old hotel, with an elevator smaller than a phone booth and a room barely big enough for its bed. Breakfast was served in the basement, under ancient stone arches. Fresh croissants, of course. One morning we talked with our table neighbour, a university lecturer. He started a conversation, by asking us where we were from. We asked him if he was visiting Paris, like us. Not so, he said. The night before there had been an open concert, with live music played at nearly every street corner in the city. It was an annual event. And every year, our table neighbour explained, there was a loud rock band stationed just underneath his apartment window, only a few streets away from here, and so he had taken to booking a room in our hotel that one night, every year, just to get a good night’s sleep. He laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation. But really, if you had a couple of kids standing right below your apartment playing full volume head banging grunge rock at midnight, with a crowd gathered around shouting encouragement, you might start to wonder if there was somewhere you could get some sleep.
We were just tourists, but he was happy to share his story with us, and we were happy to listen and laugh along with him. And Paris became not just a place to see, like a museum object you are allowed to admire but not touch, but a city full of people with real lives.
We walked. In Paris, we always walk. Paris is not just a city of streets, but a city that lives in its streets. On our first day, a lovely early summer blue sky day, we walked all the way to the Arc de Triomphe. I remember sore feet, and a lovely hour in the house and studio of the painter Eugene Delacroix, now a museum. Not far away, the crowds were milling about in the magnificent Musee D’Orsay, but we had M. Delacroix’s house pretty much to ourselves.
At the Arc de Triomphe there was a small memorial ceremony taking place, with some dignitaries in suits and military and families carrying wreaths. I don’t remember the occasion, but it was a reminder that in Paris, history is everywhere around you, and some part of the past is always taking place right before your eyes. We climbed to the top and admired the view, with all of the great landmarks spread out around us.
One evening we decided to head south east from our hotel, away from the major tourist destinations, in search of dinner. We found a Greek restaurant on a quiet street in a residential neighbourhood. There was a table for two outside on the sidewalk. Jammed in between other tables. We love Greek food, but this was a new experience: Greek food prepared by Parisian chefs, and with a menu that was simply indecipherable. There was no “souvlaki” anywhere in sight. I think I may have started fumbling for the dictionary. The waiter was sure to arrive in a minute. You know, a Parisian waiter. He would be impatient with our incomprehension, and we would hang our heads and well, wait a minute. The couple on one side of us, about our age, perfectly dressed as Parisians always are, took one look at us and instead of shrugging their shoulders at the amusing spectacle of tourists who had plainly found themselves in the wrong place, smiled and said hello and offered to help us understand the menu. They were both professors at the Sorbonne. Their English was as good as our French, and that’s always more than enough to get by. So we started to relax, and I think the bread and wine arrived. And then at the table on the other side of us a man reached under his table, pulled up a big bag, and then informed us all that he had been picking cherries that afternoon from the tree in his backyard a few streets away and thought we all might like to sample some. So he passed the bag up and down the line of tables and we all enjoyed fresh picked cherries.
It was World Cup season, and France was making its way, game by game, to the finals. There was a match that night. In the shop windows and bars in the streets around us, you could see TV sets and hunched-over faces staring intently at screens. And as the evening proceeded, whenever there was a big play, a goal or a great save, a roar overwhelmed the neighbourhood. And we would all laugh and congratulate one another, and the bag of cherries would get passed around again, and we would marvel at the joy which is Paris and life.
It is unbearably sad this morning to think of what has happened in this beautiful city, with its wonderful people, all of whom must surely be asking themselves whether, after two such attacks in less than a year, they have lost something they will never get back. Parisians are proud that theirs is the capital city of a major world power, and it’s impossible to keep the world at bay these days. There is more than enough to think about, and learn, and eventually respond to, but for this morning anyway, I think I will simply grieve for Paris, the city of light, and its people.