On November 13, 2015, the world was shocked by a series of coordinated, but separate attacks executed by ISIS in Paris, France. The city, still reeling from the shock of the Charlie Hebdo attacks eight months earlier, had been hit while it was down. No one ever expects tragedies to occur, but we especially do not anticipate them in cities like Paris that we adore and romanticize. At the time of the attacks, I had already made arrangements for a trip around Europe during my winter holiday. I would be flying into London, out of Paris, and right into the heart of the chaos. My friends and family where quick to notice the risk of my itinerary.
“You’re still going?” they asked.
When I replied yes, they begged me to be careful. When they told me to “stay safe,” their words were heavy. The dangers they were thinking about were bigger than myself: they knew that my safety was out of my own hands, so they said “stay safe” more as a prayer, than as an actual request.
It was hard for them to understand why I would continue my trip as planned and, at times, I questioned it myself. Now, having been to Paris and landed back on US soil safely, I know that I made the right decision. As Marcus Aurelius said, “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and you have the power to revoke this at any moment.” I was only in Paris for 48 hours. I didn’t have time to dwell on the pervasive presence of police, puffed up beneath bulletproof vests, carrying semi-automatic weapons as casually as if they were groceries. Instead, I turned my focus outward, toward the jewels that gave the city its allure in the first place.
I bought hot chocolate in a tiny café and spent 30 minutes people-watching as I sipped it. The Parisians around me sipped espressos and smoked cigarettes with the infamous je ne sais quoi, a kind of composure that can only be achieved when one is not trying for it.
I went into Notre Dame and marveled at the beauty and significance behind every detail within the hallowed halls.
In the Latin Quarter, I passed many academic buildings and dormitories of the Sorbonne, France’s most elite university. Girls in short skirts and translucent tights trotted into bars arm-in-arm with boys in round glasses and thin scarves. Though I did not understand most of their somewhat drunken French, I imagined they were discussing economics, philosophy, and the great books.
I spent four hours at the Louvre, meandering from hall to hall, looking at pieces like Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo.
Exhausted from a long day of exploring, I stumbled into a restaurant called La Petite Perigourdine and accidentally happened upon the most delicious meal I have ever had.
I strolled down Champs-Élysées, with gorgeous shops and five-star restaurants to both of my sides and the stunning Arc de Triomphe to my front.
While walking around the Rue de Rivioli area, I visited Librarie Galignani, the oldest bookstore in Europe and most beautiful shop I have ever entered. The dark oak and mahogany shelves that lined the walls were piled high with volumes in both English and French. With large leather armchairs tucked in cozy corners beneath giant skylights, it was a book-lover’s dream.
I saw the most perfect view of the Eiffel Tower at night.
My first evening in Paris was January 7: a Thursday and the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The mood of the city was solemn, but not self-pitying. People earnestly laid bouquets and lit candles as a tribute before continuing with their normal routines. Seeing this was centering. We, like the people of Paris, must learn to look fear in the face and keep moving forward. As a Parisian man said when explaining the November attacks to his young son, “Eux, ils ont des pistolets, nous on a des fleurs:” they might have guns, but we have flowers. Paris may have lost its innocence, but it will never lose its beauty.