“There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it, and you received return for whatever you brought to it.”
And that’s it – four weeks, three countries, from Marrakech to Amsterdam to finally here in Paris, and I’m done: done with Northeastern, done with Boston, done with these last four years completely. Which means that this post will bit more of reflective this time around. I could write about the specific French issues with migration, how lacité differs from Dutch progressivism, or how Islam is viewed less as a religion by the French government but as a problem to be contained and managed. You can read some of that here, from when I was last in Nice about two years ago, if you’re curious. But I want to write, instead, about Paris.
There’s a memory that still stands out to me from November of 2015, back during my second year at university, during the night of the Paris attacks on the Bataclan, as 130 people were shot and killed in the worst attack on French soil since the Second World War. I remember, that night, walking through the Ruggles train station in Boston, hoping break away from the live updates from the BBC and CNN flashing across my phone screen, and hearing, quietly, a whistle float through the air of a tune I knew well:
Sous le ciel de Paris / s’envole une chanson …
“Beneath the Parisian Sky, a song flutters away…”
The words of Edith Piaf, whistled quietly, sadly, by a French man or woman somewhere on the metro, even as 130 people were killed far away across the Atlantic. Even today, listening to that song reminds me of that memory, one of the strongest I have.
This country, these places – France, Nice, La Côte d’Azur, Paris – mean so much to me, even now, two years since I spent anything more than a handful of days here. France is where the world opened up to me: the cafes, the language, the experience of walking through Paris in the evening as the blue light falls on the streets and the cafes bustle with life and light on every corner. It’s in listening to Debussy’s Clare de Lune and thinking of the crystal-clear waters near Cannes where it was written; it’s in the paintings of Monet of Antibes, or the writing of Albert Camus, Emile Zola, Ernest Hemingway. Besides the States, I have never loved anywhere quite as much as this country — not Bosnia, nor Jordan, nor even Morocco or Amsterdam.
I don’t have the opportunities to visit France as often as I once did, but returning each time reminds me of being nineteen, in Paris, and realizing for the first time that the world was so much bigger than I had ever imagined growing up in the mountains of North Carolina. That Paris exists – that the cafes were real, that the lights at night were just as I had imagined them, and that despite the violence and suffering in world that there is still a place like Paris out there – meant everything to a teenager still putting his first foot into the world. When, the following fall, I listened as over a hundred people were killed in the streets I had fallen in love with only months before, was like watching a kind of innocence die.
A year later, the attack in Nice didn’t serve as such a blow as Paris, even if it this time it impacted to the France I knew best. I guess this was because we all, in some way, were expecting it, just as we were expecting the Brussels attacks, or the Manchester attacks, or the London attacks, or the school shootings in the States. It seems sometimes like the innocence of France and of Europe that came about from the period of relative peace during my lifetime has become, if not broken, then wounded. We expect the terrorist attacks today. We expect the far-right, the anti-immigrant hate speech, the political polarization and division as we lurch from crisis to crisis. The world has grown darker in four years, darker with Syria and the Refugee Crisis, darker with Trump and Le Pen and Putin, darker as the West slowly gives up of this idea that human rights and democracy might still prevail, and that we can still work towards some kind of shared, positive future.
Paris is still beautiful, but wary and less open, with the soldiers and their automatic weapons, the constant bag checks and metal barricades. It’s a more guarded city now, and that’s not just in the increased security, but in the people – the French have never been the most openly friendly of cultures, but there’s a new level of tension here that I’ve seen grow slowly in the past few years, a tension reflected in the rise of Le Pen’s National Front, in growing anti-Muslim attitudes, in the ever stronger clinging to the notion of lacité – the intense separation of religion from public life that can be used as a weapon to attack Muslims – as a way to preserve what is specifically French about France. Even France’s recent World Cup victory hasn’t changed much — a few days of celebration of the multicultural Arab and African-background team, and then right back to the same debates, the same scandals, the same questioning of France’s role in Europe and the moral vacuum left behind by America’s retreat from the world.
Openness, tolerance, inclusion – these notions, which I write about over and over again, are hard, especially when you feel under attack, and especially when people seem to be coming in droves across from Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan. But it is sad for me to see Paris like this: to see the city of lights, and romance, and literature turn inwards. I expect my own country to be isolationist, xenophobic and scared, even as I reject it. But Paris is more than that. As America closes its doors, and Britain closes its doors, Paris can become the capital of the world in the way of London or New York are today — but only if it decides to be global, multicultural, and open. Paris does belong, truly, to the world, and so many people in the world, like myself, carry a bit of Paris in them wherever they go. That’s important, and something I don’t want to see this city lose, but embrace.
Paris has gone through more than this. It has gone through the days of terror during the French Revolution and the two World Wars; it has gone through the riots of the ‘60s and the conflict of the ’62 Algerian War. That this city and country will make it through this political era, I have no doubt. But I worry if it will no longer be the same city after this era as it was when I first walked its streets. I wonder, sometimes, if the France I fell in love three years ago with will be the same France in ten years time.
I won’t be coming back to France for a while yet – maybe for a few days here and there, but not quite like how I spent entire summers in France in the past. That door is closed, and I’m sad for that. But I’ll be keeping this country, and the memories I’ve had here, and most of all how it has opened the world to me, close to my heart. France will always mean a lot to me, and I wish this country, this city, and these people the best, as it moves forward to whatever future it chooses.
But France’s story is not my story, although I might have believed that for a time, and although I am grateful for sharing this country for a time with the people I knew and loved here. Returning to Paris, even for a few days, was important for me – I needed the closure that came with being in this country again. And now that that closure is done, I’m ready, I think, to give Paris an end.
Then again, there never really is any ending to Paris.
One more blog post, and then I’m done. This blog will be shutting down after the next step – the Tour du Mount Blanc in France, Italy, and Switzerland, a nice bookmark to a period that began with a hike in Colorado and will now end with a trek through the Swiss Alps. This was always meant to be a college blog, and now that university is done, it doesn’t feel right to keep it active.
I’ll be writing that last post soon though, so keep your eyes open for it. Until then, thank you for reading.
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast…”