There’s the Paris of college-age backpackers, all dingy hostels and breakneck tours to squeeze centuries of art, architecture and artifact into a long weekend on the way elsewhere. There’s the Paris of older visitors, moneyed and patient enough to know an extra hour – or three – soaking in the ambience and esprit at a cafe, or a used bookshop with titles they can’t read, beats checking off another collection at the Louvre or Musee d’Orsay.
And then there’s the Paris of Parisians, who know the modest doorways on block after block often open to stunning indoors, who know the difference between the cafe on this corner and the one on the next, who have the fortune to mold their lives around the city and the city around their lives.
I have known the first two and been granted a peek at the third, the Paris that murderers savaged late Friday night.
My wife and I spent the four and a half years between becoming spouses and becoming parents north of Paris in Brussels. My work put me on the 82-minute train to Paris’ Gare du Nord a few times a year: to cover an air show, interview leaders in business and politics, or just to have lunch and a chat with my editor, who was based there. If that life sounds fantastic, glamorous, even indulgent — well, it was.
Then again, I’ve also sweated my way through a night’s sleep worse there than anywhere in my native South, Mr. Carrier’s invention being embraced less in Paris than in Perry and box fans being available at the hardware store, not the front desk. (True story: My parents, native Georgians both, were so irritated by the temperature of a two-star Parisian hotel in July that they bought a fan, then proceeded to haul it by train to us in Brussels. I hope it still works for someone.)
But there is no bad time of year to be in Paris, and this is one of the best.
The holiday lights beckon shoppers to the Galleries Lafayette. The crisp night air seems to make one more aware of just how much bigger the sky is in Paris, crowning the lower-slung buildings of this ancient city, than in newer metropolises where it’s reduced to darting into one’s eyes between the sides of skyscrapers. In less than a week, the city’s largest Christmas market will open and the latest vintage of Beaujolais nouveau, the easy-drinking red wine with a short fermentation, will arrive from the south. There’s just enough of a chill most evenings to throw on a scarf over one’s sweater, then slowly unwind it in the warmth of a cafe.
It’s a scene just like that — friends speaking energetically (but never loudly; those are almost always les Américains) around an emptying bottle and a bowl of olives or nuts — that I picture when I think of what was interrupted, what was taken, what was shattered, on Friday night.
The horrors being told by survivors from the hijacked concert at the Bataclan theater, the all-too-imaginable scenario of explosions rocking a packed sports stadium: These are spectacular images of terror, and were intended to be so. But consider the routine nature of the cafe, the restaurant, the brasserie. How many of us pored over photos of the storefronts of the assailed venues to see if they looked familiar and thought, didn’t we go there, or was it another place? Consider the violation of the everyday, like returning to a burgled home. Consider the terror in that, a terror that can’t be rationalized away.
And yet, Parisians are a famously resilient people. Their reputed prickliness, which most visitors deem an unearned slander, is better understood as pride in their city and culture, which they defend like a mother’s honor. It is a pride that will serve the people of Paris well as they stand against these latest terrors, and the evil men who wrought them.
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