“ça va Paris?” How are you Paris? — How I had longed to ask that question, when I landed at Charles de Gaulle airport on December 20. Ever since the November 13 terror attacks, I had worried about my family, my friends, Paris and her people. It did not help that French and international media relayed alarming news incessantly in the weeks that followed: “Parisians are in shock.” “Department stores are empty.” “Many visitors have canceled their hotel and apartment bookings.”
I had to go see for myself, and ask ça va, Paris?
By mid-December, I changed my travel plans and decided to spend all of my hard-earned time off in Paris. Nice and the French Riviera would forgive me. I would not make it South this time. I was not sure what I would find there, in the great city I once called home. I hoped that eventually, Parisians would prevail. This was not the first time Paris had been under attack. This was not the first time the army or the police would be patrolling the streets and guarding major monuments around the clock. This was not the first time I might feel nervous, staring at a seemingly abandoned backpack, while riding the Métro or the RER. As soon as I arrived, I knew I had been wrong to worry. Five weeks after the attacks, Paris and the Parisians were still standing, bruised and battered, and a bit weary, but determined not to give in – and yes, defiant. I felt pride for my people and their spirit.
The day after I landed, I met my brother at his office, located a few minutes away from place de la République. This is our ritual, once a year. We always have lunch in the neighborhood; later I walk along le Canal St Martin; check out the new colorful collections chez Antoine et Lili. This trip would be no exception. La Bonne Bière was the first restaurant hit by terrorists to re-open last month. It sits across the street from my brother’s office, and he and his co-workers go several times a week. He calls it “ma cantine,” (my cafeteria.) On the way, he pointed at the impact of a kalashnikov bullet in a wall; and the reality hit home. I realized how lucky he and his friends had been, that Friday night, when they could have been sitting outside the restaurant, celebrating the end of the work week. ça va, Paris?
The media frenzy had subsided: At la Bonne Bière, it was business as usual, and all tables were full by 1:00pm. The manager offered us a glass of bubbly. My brother had told her about his “American sister, French Girl in Seattle.” Service was friendly. Food was good; and we chatted for a couple of hours, until some cousins joined us. I did not leave la Bonne Bière until 6:30pm that night. Nobody bothered us, even after we stopped ordering coffee. There was no doubt: I was back in Paris.
La Bonne Bière and la Place de la République (the Parisians seem to have adopted it as their favorite memorial and gathering place,) were the only two places linked to the terror attacks I visited for the next two weeks. I was determined, like Paris, to move on, and to experience the city as I always do. But every day, as I walked the streets, I caught myself staring at people, trying to read their faces, as if to check if they were all right. ça va, Paris?
Again, I need not have worried. Everywhere I looked, crowds were back. Le Marais was still its bustling self on a Sunday afternoon. There were long lines in front of the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, or le Louvre museum.
One good thing to have come out of the terror attacks: Sitting at a café terrace, always a favorite Parisian pastime, has now been elevated to the status of act of resistance. Chairs and tables pop up all over the city, outside establishments big and small, famous and more modest. I joined the crowds with renewed enthusiasm every chance I got.
Everywhere I turned, I saw reassuring signs Paris was still standing. La Seine, the city’s lifeline for over 2000 years, flows, mesmerizing, magnificent.
Along her banks, Notre-Dame stands tall and proud, watching over Paris, day and night, like she has for over 800 years. The old lady does not seem to mind the ant world at her feet, or the heavily armed soldiers patrolling along le Parvis. She has seen, and survived so much. I took it as a good sign that part of the personnel was on strike the morning I visited; and I could not climb the 400 steps up the South Tower and say hello to my old friends the gargoyles. In France, some things never change.
This special trip deserved a special celebration. Two days before Christmas, my parents and I enjoyed a thrilling experience: lunch at the Michelin-starred Jules Verne restaurant, on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower. It was worth every Euro listed on l’addition. We are old friends, la Tour Eiffel and I. Many years ago, I got teased mercilessly as a Paris resident, for visiting the Tower on a regular basis and always gawking as I walked or drove by. That’s all right. Anyone who has researched Gustave Eiffel’s incredible life and career understands what a prowess he accomplished when building Paris’ Iron Lady in a little less than two years. And just look at her, 127 years later!
Paris is much more than grandiose streets and monuments. Stately façades, medieval streets, elegant or colorful shop windows, and lavish gardens delight and reward visitors who stray off the beaten path and have an eye for detail.
Paris is also about enjoying glorious food and, along the way, a few disappointing salades de chèvre chaud or croque-monsieur in touristy areas. The ubiquitous café gourmand makes up for the occasional bad fare served in the city’s restaurants. The local pâtisserie is always a reliable provider of sweet nothings, preferably sampled on a bench, at a local park.
ça va, Paris? I asked last month. “ça va,” Paris replied. “Of course, I am all right. I am even more beautiful than before. Take a look. I am Paris, after all!”
All photos by French Girl in Seattle. Do not re-use without permission.
French Girl in Seattle
For all of you who are concerned about Paris and her people, here is a short video I shot at the Square du Temple in le Haut Marais.
Look and listen, les amis, for these are the sounds and colors of Paris.