Remember the Paris of our dreams, not the Paris of our nightmares
I don't live in Paris anymore.
I spent several months there earlier this year, writing in Paris as I'd always dreamed. The moment I boarded the plane back home for the United States, Paris split apart in my mind. It multiplied and became different versions of itself, each one distinct from the other. There is, of course, the real Paris — the physical place that is layered and complicated and true. This Paris has existed for more than 2,000 years and will exist further into the future than I can see.
But Paris has many iterations, like the one that lives in my memory and is recreated every time I remember the city and my life there. This version — my Paris — is also true, though probably not entirely accurate. There is also the Paris of fantasy, the dream city that varies depending on the person doing the dreaming. This Paris is unreal, but serves as a refuge for those of us with Francophile tendencies.
And, finally, there is the Paris that lives in our collective understanding.
If I say the word Paris you understand what I mean even if you live in Dubai, Lubbock, Lima, Johannesburg, or Ho Chi Minh City. I say Paris and our collective image of the city will automatically be conjured in your mind — the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, Notre Dame and Sacre Cour, sidewalk cafes, baguettes and wine, miles of books, endless cigarettes, Edith Piaf and Albert Camus and on and on — whether or not you've ever visited. In this way, Paris is an idea we've all had. And the idea is universal.
When such an iconic place is terrorized, the resulting trauma transcends borders, both physical and psychic. Last Friday, after a series of coordinated attacks in Paris left so many dead and hurt, I was thousands of miles away. I cried out when I heard the news. Partly because this was tragic in and of itself. But partly because it was Paris — my Paris, our Paris.
Had I ever visited Beirut, my reaction to their terror may have been the same. Likewise had I lived in Baghdad or any part of Syria or on that campus in northeastern Kenya. When news of the horrors inflicted on people and places across the world reaches me, my heart hurts. I get angry. But normally, there is a distance between me and all of those people who have lost so many and so much, and are forced to cross this beautiful and wounded world to get to safety.
But I feel Paris. And by feeling Paris, I feel this great tragedy more profoundly.
The Paris attacks reminded me how lucky I was to have briefly lived in Europe. Even though I landed on the continent two weeks after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, while the city was still raw and in mourning, I knew that for the first time in years, I was living in a country where news of people being killed, en masse or one by one, was so unusual as to cause global distress.
As an American, shootings, mass or one-by-one, are commonplace. Americans shoot Americans every day. Gunmen enter churches, schools, shopping centers, and movie theaters. They show no mercy as they pick us off and kill our children.
Living in Paris, I didn't have to worry about that much.
Paris was also a world away from the Middle East and North Africa, a region where nearly every part of life, from religion to art and body, has been hijacked by extraordinary acts of violence perpetrated by extremists, despots, or powerful Western nations.
But in Paris, for a brief time, I was living in an ancient city where the rampant violence inflicted on the rest of the world felt very far away. It wasn't a perfect city, but it was beautiful and I felt safe.
The Paris I remember had streets lined with cheerful food stalls, warm bread shops, and the neglected Roma. It was a place where art was splashed across the sides of buildings and where people easily talked of film, religion, and philosophy. My Paris was a place where I watched a man smoke crack in the metro during rush hour. It was a place where I walked my dog in the park, while a woman walking ahead of me walked her rabbit.
I remember one cold Parisian night when a flock of white-bellied birds flew over my head, while I stood on a bridge that faced the pool floating on the River Seine. From the bridge, I looked through the fogged windows at the swimmers inside as they moved in and out of the water.
I remember these moments and thousands more. And it is this Paris, this magical place, that I hope we all can remember as our political climate moves further and further towards intolerance and isolation in the coming weeks and months. Remember the Paris of our dreams — not last Friday's Paris of our nightmares. Remember that Paris — iconic, fierce, and resilient — will survive.