Friday, November 27, 2015

Enfants de la patrie


I moved to France four days before 9/11. I remember watching the same footage of the Twin Towers over and over again from my Paris apartment, unable to believe it was real. The overwhelming horror of it only truly manifested in my mind years later, when I finally gazed down into the gaping holes of Ground Zero; only then did I truly weep.

Two weeks ago, horror came to my adopted home. Once again I was absent, having gone to Barcelona with my husband and son to celebrate the eighth anniversary of our first date. We had just finished dining on a restaurant terrace and strolling hand-in-hand through the Barri Gòtic, enjoying the unseasonably clement evening air, when the first hideous news caught up with us. Worried text messages began pouring in; friends I hadn’t heard from in ages were suddenly inquiring if we were safe. We hunched over our tiny screens, looking to the internet for answers. And as the minutes ticked by, the gut-wrenching truth came.

Having made sure that our family members, friends and colleagues in Paris were all out of harm’s way, we fell into an uneasy sleep and left for the airport the following morning. A chill wind and spitting rain greeted our arrival at Charles de Gaulle, where we boarded a bus into the city. We saw no armored tanks, no machine gun-wielding soldiers; only shuttered storefronts under gray skies and a handful of tourists milling about, seeming to be blithely unaware of the monstrosity that had taken place mere hours before. They continued to pose, grinning, before their selfie sticks—but stepping down from the bus, to me the very air had changed.

I didn’t know any of the victims of the attacks, but after nearly 15 years living in and around Paris, I sure do know the neighborhoods that were targeted. Dear friends of mine long resided in apartments located mere blocks from the shootings; I earned my graduate degree from a Grande Ecole in the very same area; and what self-respecting resident of Paris hasn’t picnicked along the nearby Canal Saint Martin on a warm summer’s eve? Day by day, the heartrending details of the lives lost were disclosed by the media, and as they were, thoughts of that could have been me or those could have been my friends were replaced by those were my friends.

Being an expatriate in France is 90% fantastic, and 10% incredibly difficult (all right, maybe 85/15). For me, much of the more difficult bit has revolved around building a sense of community, making a place for myself in a foreign land, and more fundamentally, simply being accepted. Most if not all of us immigrants agree: being accepted by the French is notoriously compliqué (not to say impossible). Yet in the wake of these barbarous murders, which have shaken Paris to its core and me along with it, I have come to the unexpected realization that amid all the delirious highs and crushing lows that have marked my love affair with this country, somewhere along the way this people became my own.

Today, as the nation bows her head in homage to those who fell on Friday the 13th, I mourn with her and for her. I mourn the loss of precious life; I mourn the appalling attack on an art de vivre as inseparable from France as Paris itself; and I join the French in giving an emphatic bras d’honneur to all those who would dare place in their evil cross hairs the simple joys of living in this vibrant, timeless city. But, as a beloved friend reminded me in recent days, devastated though we may be, wounded though we may be, this shall not end in death. This city, this country—and all of us who call it home—will come through these tragic events stronger, prouder, more unified and more in love with life than ever.

Lest the forces of darkness forget, Paris will forever be the City of Light.