My one and only trip to Paris thus far in my life was in 1995.
I was 17 years old at the time and on a trip to London with my father and his lady-friend to visit my uncle – my dad’s brother – and two cousins.
My uncle, ever keen to show visitors a good time and very well-connected through his work as manager of a bank, secured for us three Canadians and his daughter tickets to France via the not-yet-a-year-old Chunnel – the tunnel running beneath the English Channel used by the Eurostar high-speed passenger train. Upon arriving at the train’s terminus in Calais, we then made our way to Paris for four days.
My initial impressions of the city were that everyone seemed to smoke – everywhere, and heavily; that the architecture was historic and breathtaking; that the alleys – breathtaking in a rather different sort of way – reeked of urine, and that my money was not going to last. The equivalent of $13 CAD I spent one day on a chocolate croissant and a tiny cup of Coke nonetheless bought me what remains among the most luscious snacks I’ve consumed.
The four days went fast, yet managed to fit in a lot: we climbed two tiers of the Eiffel Tower and gazed upon the spread of the city below; we went to the Louvre where I was shuffled past the Mona Lisa on the ever-moving tide of visitors; we strolled along the banks of the river Seine and window-shopped on the Champs-Élysées; we dined at a fancy restaurant called Maxim’s that my father always wanted to go to because it was mentioned in some old movie he liked.
My cousin and I were accused of drinking the little bottles of vodka in our hotel room’s mini bar fridge and filling the empties with water. The bottles had indeed been drunk and filled with water, although neither had been done by us. With none in my party being a fluent French speakers and all of us in a foreign country besides, my father had to pay 100 francs to clear the tab and prevent the hotel from calling the police.
This past Friday, the streets of Paris were full of police, military, first responders, people who were injured, who were killed, who were frightened nearly to death.
I was enjoying a lazy day off work when I learned about the terror attack. I’d just arrived at the hair salon for an appointment as my stylist was finishing up with her previous client. Once that client left, the place, now empty save her and myself, she asked innocently, “Have you heard about something bad happening in Paris? Because I’ve been getting strange text messages about how the trip my friend was planning there next week will have to be cancelled.”
Thanks to the magic of smartphones, I was able to find the answer immediately: multiple mass shootings; suicide bombs; a hostage situation; some 20 people confirmed dead by 2:30pm local time.
By the time I arrived home at 5:00pm, the number of dead was more than 120, with more still wounded.
How is it that we live in a world where people can go out for a night at a club or a sports match and never come home again?
My omission of the word “now” in the aforementioned question was not a mistake.
For this has always been a reality in someone’s world – in many someones’ world. Throughout the history of humanity, there have always been those whose day-to-day safety was no guarantee, or even particularly likely. People for whom the privilege I enjoy in having days off work and paying others to fuss with my hair to make me beautiful is an utterly foreign concept.
When I wish for equality in the world, this isn’t what I have in mind.
To the people of Paris, my heart and thoughts go out to you, particularly the dead and the loved ones they leave behind.
Reposer en paix et rester forte.
Martin Luther, the German monk, theologian, and father of the 16th century Protestant Reformation, is quoted as saying, “If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.”
I believe this, but some days it doesn’t seem like enough, or to produce its effects nearly fast enough.
But at this moment, it’s all that I know how to do.