I'm climbing up a wide spiral staircase in what looks to be the inside of a giant grain silo. I'm tired. My feet hurt from standing all day at the Salon du Livre, Paris's huge annual book fair. I'm jet-lagged, too, having just arrived this morning, and I'm hungry. I would be OK with a croque monsieur and a glass of wine and then let's call it a day, but my co-worker has other plans. I'm being led through the labyrinth of the underground Metro, a connect-the-dots route to a particular point in the middle of Paris that is to become my introduction to the City of Light.
We come out of the dimly lit station into a dark alley. The night air wakes me up a little. We round the corner, and I'm stopped dead by what I just walked into. I'm face to face with the ominous, hulking grandeur of Cathedral de Notre Dame, awashed in an otherworldly glow of orange light. I don't remember if I gasped, or cried, or just stood there in awed silence for hours and hours. I remember my co-worker laughing at my reaction and saying "I knew you would like it".
This is how my love affair with Paris began. This is a place that I return to, over and over again, because I simply can't get enough of it.
After the Salon du Livre closed, I stayed on the rest of the week to explore this multifaceted gem. I wandered through gardens and museums (and one rather famous cemetery), ducked into tiny boutiques selling everything from taxidermy birds to exquisite art supplies to chocolate creations. I took the clean and efficient metro train everywhere, finding hidden treasures in each of the arrondisements. I spent plenty of time in cafes, of course, and watched the Parisian world reveal itself to me in its own time.
Paris exudes a quiet elegance. It is polite, and attentive, and unobtrusive. It embodies a joie de vivre (appropriately) that is evident everywhere. Paris values art, and beauty, and all the things that define what I consider a life well lived. French culture values quality over quantity, which is so contrary to the general culture of the United States (a point I would dare anyone to argue). Paris, especially, has a culture that is clearly secular, but embraces a 'live and let live' mentality.
Paris, in my opinion, must be the most civilized place in the whole world.
Which is why the attacks on civilians earlier this week are so abhorrent to me. France has always welcomed immigrants, and although there is a concern that the waves of people from other countries aren't always eager to assimilate into their host culture (a global problem), there was an acceptance nonetheless. Not a 'let's build a giant wall' reaction. Not a 'round 'em all up and deport them' agenda. Maybe there should have been, but that would have been contrary to the French sensibility of civility, and hope.
I've been keeping up with the news reports since the coordinated bomb attacks. I've been interested in knowing who, and how, and why, and also in watching how Paris reacts.
What I'm seeing is this: that the Parisians, like America after 9/11, will mourn together, regroup, and move on. There will be a new sense of caution, of course, but there is a determination that wont succumb to extremist thuggery. I can't see the Parisians using the bombings as an opportunity to protect their right to arm themselves to the teeth and lock themselves in their little houses. Or that they'll now feel the need to carry a weapon into a movie theater or a church or a day care. Doing so would mean that they've given the terrorists what they wanted. They will have given in to fear.
The Parisians say that they're not afraid, but I know that's not true, at least not yet. I do know that they are defiant and resilient, and that they will fiercely protect their way of life. My prayer for Paris is that it never allows anyone or anything to steal its grace.
"Courage is not the absence of fear. It is acting in spite of it"