Paris and the Unexpected

After five months in Ireland, it was time to move on. The semester at Maynooth University came to an end, the Regis students all dispersed across Europe and back to the States, the children finished their school work and our Irish visas were about to expire.

Paris seemed like as good as any of a place to end the first part of two-year hiatus from 45’s reign, so we boarded a flight early this morning and landed in the city of lights before noon.

It’s a miracle we got here at all.

A few days before our departure, I walked into our living room in Maynooth only to find Sujata staring at the computer with a look of complete horror on her face. “Um . . . I think I made a big mistake,” she declared and then informed me that the Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Paris that she thought she purchased never really got submitted and we didn’t have a flight. After a frantic search, she found us reasonably-priced seats on Air Transavia (it’s not that bad!) and the crisis averted.

I wasn’t actually that excited about visiting Paris. I really like beaches and although we have been traveling for a year, we have spent probably about two days at the beach so I really wanted to finish up this European part of our adventure in Cadiz or some quiet Grecian island. Plus, it’s been so cold in Ireland–I felt like I needed to bake a bit in the sun to get all the cold and dampness out of me.

Those dreams were roundly outweighed by a nine-year old’s dream to climb the Eiffel Tower and Sujata’s dream to spend her fortieth wandering through Parisian arrondissements, munching on croissants and sipping wine. Besides, they blithely informed me, we’re on our way to spending a year on the beach in New Zealand and you don’t even have to work! So I set aside my ocean dreams for at least two months.

But, I have to say, after Emmanuel Macron’s white-knuckle handshake of 45, I was ready to come here and support the man, and the country, that is willing to fight to make the planet great again.

Plus, it didn’t take long for me to fall for Paris. We usually take public transportation from the airport to our hotel or Airbnb, but we left Dublin with more luggage than we would have liked so we took a cab to our flat in La Marais. I was glad for the ride, though, not just because I didn’t have to lug a 15kg duffle bag as well as my backpack (although that was nice), but because I got to see the city as we sped along the surface streets.

In some ways, Paris’ cathedrals, haute couture shops and outdoor cafes reminded me of Vienna and Rome, and I even saw a little of Barcelona in the way the sunlight glinted off the white stoned buildings along the Seine and among Paris’ many lovely plazas.

We left our flat with a clear set of objectives: 1) find a creperie, 2) stop by the Notre Dame cathedral, 3) walk over to Shakespeare and Company and 4) find a nice outdoor cafe to relax and watch passersby.

Objectives 1 and 2 went swimmingly.

We wended our way from La Marais, across the Seine and over to Isle Saint Louis where we stumbled upon a quant creperie.

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Ice cream apres crepes
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On the Saint Louis Bridge

Afterwards, we found our way to Notre Dame and admired the flying buttresses, the ancient stained glass and the absolute grandeur of the place.

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It really is a marvel

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Everyone was excited for Shakespeare and Company, but for different reasons. For her part, Sujata wanted to get a book by an American expat to Paris (she was thinking James Baldwin or Richard Wright), get a classy Shakespeare and Company stamp on the inside cover and then retire to a cafe (preferably by the Seine), order a glass of wine and begin reading. The children just wanted another book to read and I just wanted to walk around the bookstore that published Ulysses and served as a lending library to the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos and other members of the Lost Generation who made their way to Paris following the first World War.

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Water fountain outside Shakespeare and Co.

It was at Shakespeare and Company, though, that things went a bit awry and we found ourselves caught up in that very thing you think will never happen to you, namely, a terror attack.

I was standing in the middle of the store reading Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers (they have like five copies–try finding any Cohen book in any US bookstore), Sujata was at the register with an armful of books (she chose Wright’s Native Son) and the kids were somewhere in the store, I wasn’t exactly sure where.

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The Shakespeare and Co stamp inside Sujata’s copy of Native Son

I was really enjoying the first few pages of Beautiful Losers and even contemplating getting my own copy when Sujata sidled up to me and asked, “Did you hear that?” No. I didn’t hear anything. “Gunshots.” Oh. I carefully put the book back on the shelf and looked around the front of store where an employee was calmly shutting the front door. He turned around and in a voice as calm as the Seine, he announced that there was a shooting at Notre Dame and could everyone please stay in the store?

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The scene after the doors were closed

No one said a word.

There was some scuffling of feet and of course everyone whipped out their cell phones. We didn’t get SIM cards at the airport so we had no data and of course there was no wifi in the store so we just kind of moved to the back of the store, looking for the kids. We found them in the back, quietly reading in the kid’s section, so we sat down with them and waited it out.  I, bizarrely, picked up a copy of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution (don’t ask!) so to take my mind off whatever the hell was happening outside, cracked the spine and tried to read.

You could hear sirens in the distance, but the people in the store, just stood in groups, chatting quietly and flipping through books.

Some people in the store started quietly narrating events: a man with a hammer attacked a police officer in the plaza in front of the cathedral. Later, we learned that the assailant was “neutralized” (dead? handcuffed?”) but the area was sealed off and folks were under no circumstances to go near the cathedral.

I’m not really sure what I was thinking. I wasn’t scared and I certainly wasn’t thinking that the store would be stormed or anything like that. I figured that we’d be okay, but I do remember worrying for the people who were at Notre Dame (we were just there!) and hoping no one was hurt.

Then I just got disgusted.

Here we were, holed up in a store, listening to sirens pass by, following the news on phones and wondering what exactly was going on. Plus, we have been wandering around the world for the past year. I have seen exponentially more acts of kindness and grace then I’ve seen or been a party to acts of stupid bullshit like attacking someone with a hammer and I just became internally furious to think that in my country a semi-elected cretin (not Cretan!) is holding us (and the rest of the world) hostage and now here, in Paris, we’re held hostage by idiocy on a whole other level.

After a time (it felt like around 30 minutes), the back door swung open and an employee told us that we were free to leave the store, if we wished.

Minutes before we were allowed to go, the skies opened up, delivering a tremendous Parisian thunderstorm. It rained earlier in the day, in fact, on our walk from Notre Dame to Shakespeare and Company and as we stood under oak trees, watching the rain bounce off the sidewalks, I remarked to Sujata that these are the things they used to write songs about. Despite the rain, we walked out of Shakespeare and Company, away from the cathedral and on a roundabout way back to our flat. I opened our umbrella and Sujata noted that that probably wasn’t the best time to leave the store (on account of the rain), but I just wanted to get out of there at that point.

The mood on the streets was cautious. Mothers were still out there pushing prams, but they were walking with a purpose, heads down, home on their minds. Couples sat at the outdoor cafes, sipping wine and smoking cigarettes, but the sips seemed like gulps and the inhales seemed like long drags. We walked quickly and quietly, looking back over our shoulders periodically.

Later that evening, as we ate dinner in our flat, the children said they were nervous, but definitely not scared.

Our friends from Denver came to visit us in Ireland last week. After they left us, they flew to London so they were in the environs when the terror attack happened on the London Bridge.

I guess this is the new normal. As we were walking back to our flat from Shakespeare and Company, I watched the kids as they walked ahead of me, arm and arm with Sujata. What will this world look like when they are my age, I wondered? Will they even be able to bring their children to Europe and retrace our steps?

I hope so. It’s just so damn beautiful here.

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Walking home, across the Seine, on streets wet with rain

6 thoughts on “Paris and the Unexpected

  1. Eric,
    John and I have enjoyed reading each and every blog! We are looking forward to seeing you and your family soon!
    Sue

    1. Hello Sue, thank you so much for reading our blogs–it means a great deal to us. We, too, are looking forward to seeing you very soon. All the best!

  2. Very graphic.. We in Delhi get terror alerts practically every day. One gets used to it.. I am interested to know that finally the West is witnessing what we are passing through all these years and stop making distinctions such as good jehadi and bad jehadi.

  3. This is so evocative; I’m glad the new normal isn’t dimming your family’s fire. One typographical note: Trump is a “cretin,” (and he is!), not a “Cretan.” I’m quite confident the residents of Crete do not want to claim his as their own.

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