I was 16 years old the first time I visited Paris.
I had known I wanted to visit for as long as I could remember. It was basically the sole reason I elected to take French my freshman year of high school. I don’t exactly recall where this desire came from, aside from a biological need for every teenage girl in America to dream about Paris, but by the time my junior year rolled around, I knew several facts to be absolutely true:
- Mulder and Scully were totally in love.
- Someday I would marry Leonardo DiCaprio.
- I was going to Paris.
That first trip to French soil began in Nice, where we touched down one sunny morning in April 1998. I dipped my toes into the crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean for the first time and gawked at the yachts and the women dressed in designer clothes and could only think “when are we getting to Paris?” Our trip meandered north, into Avignon and Aix-en-Provence and Arles, and still, all I could think was “When are we getting to Paris?”
And then we arrived in Paris, and I never wanted to be anywhere else.
I knew the moment I left that I’d be back. I continued to take French, I worked as hard as I could, with one singular goal in mind: studying abroad in the City of Light. I didn’t have many other goals in college. I didn’t know what else I wanted to do with my life. But I knew I was going to study abroad. It was as definite to me as anything else in my life was or ever would be; to this very day, I have never been more sure of a decision than the one I made to study abroad in Paris during my junior year of college.
And so off I went, on January 6, 2002, mere months after 9/11, leaving the country by myself during what was a very strange, difficult time in this country; my travel journal makes note of my parents not being able to escort me to the gate anymore. I wasn’t fearless or resolute, but rather anxious and apprehensive. As much as I was sure this was what I wanted, that didn’t change the fact that I was a 20-year-old girl boarding a plane to a foreign country to spend four months away from her friends and family and everything she’d ever known.
I have that travel journal with me here in New York. It’s one of a few treasured mementos I allow myself to have in my tiny apartment; I literally don’t have the space to keep many relics of the past with me at the moment. But that one I have here, because it’s important to me. It’s important to keep as a time capsule of a young woman during a specific time in history. It’s important to me as the last personal journal I was diligent about keeping. And it’s important to me the way the city of Paris is important to me: timeless and frozen in time, beautiful and colorful and full of music, a city that belongs to the entire world and also only to me in the distinct way I remember her.
Paris was where I learned to be independent. Paris was where I learned about coffee and wine and Nutella. Paris was where I first appreciated art and where I struggled to understand how one building had stood for far longer than my country had existed. Paris was where I made the decision, for the first real time in my life, to try absolutely everything – every restaurant, every trip, every outing. It’s where I tried salads and Moroccan food and spent Chinese New Year in a Chinese restaurant with friends in Paris’s version of Chinatown.
And Paris was where I rediscovered writing – where I could spend hours with one café au lait, my journal, and a pen and simultaneously shut out the world and observe and write about it. I spent hours upon hours writing in Paris – in cafes, in gardens, on trains. I wrote about the museums I visited and the food I ate and what it was like to watch “Friends” dubbed into French. I wrote about weekend trips to Amsterdam and London and Normandy. I wrote about class and work and, because I was a 20-year-old girl, boys. I wrote about being homesick and not wanting to go back home.
Paris is a city that holds a special place in my heart, unlike any other. So it goes without saying that the shootings there hit me in a place that these things usually don’t. I’ve mostly become numb to shootings in the U.S. I hate saying that, but it’s true. Each one makes me angry – each one of hundreds too many – but I have to confess, it’s exhausting to stay angry. I have no idea how to fix the world; it’s too overwhelming to thnk about. I feel like there are too many stupid people out there, too many people who think their guns are more important than my safety, too many people who think only in extremes. I see these people on Facebook every day. I have arguments with them when I visit home.
But Paris? Paris is supposed to be different. Paris, despite being a living, breathing city, exists in my mind as a perfectly preserved specimen. My mind knows that if I were to visit, the same bars and restaurants I frequented would not be there; the metro would feel different; I would no longer know my way around. Yet Paris remains in my heart and soul an idealized version of itself, possessing all of its best attributes without any of its worst.
Mass shootings and terrorist attacks aren’t supposed to happen there.
Right now, you might be thinking I’m naive or selfish or downright crazy. I can assure you I am none of these things – just someone who thinks of a certain city as the highest ideal of what she wants out of life and is shocked when reality breaks into that fantasy. Shootings happen here. Terrorism happens elsewhere. But, in my mind, not in Paris. Not in my Paris.
That fantasy bubble was punctured a few days ago, and yet all I could think of Friday night was how badly I wanted to be there. It’s been ten years since I set foot inside her city walls, and for the last few days, I’ve wanted nothing more than to be there once again. To drink her wine and eat her food and wander her winding streets. To gaze out at the city from the foot of Sacre Coeur and stroll over the bridges of the Seine past the gargoyles of Notre Dame at night, when the City of Light is her most beautiful.
I still dream of ending up there – of winning the lottery, quitting my job, and moving into a small apartment on the Left Bank where I can live out my F. Scott Fitzgerald fantasies while crafting the next great American novel. I want to someday take someone special there with me, to show him the places I spent the last years of an innocent youth before shit got tough. I want my mom, my brother, everyone I know to visit her so they can see what I’ve been in love with all these years.
Till then, I will sit in my Manhattan apartment, sipping a glass of wine, listening to a French playlist on Spotify, and allowing the sound of the accordians to trick me into thinking I’m in a cafe on the hills of Montmartre, writing on the lined paper of a hardcover journal, rather than here on the screen of an iPad. Paris will still be there for me, whenever I am able to return, because, just like me, she is strong and proud and resilient. She has survived through wars and revolutions. She will survive this.
Paris’s city motto is, in Latin, fluctuant nec mergitur, which, translated to French is, elle est agitée par les vagues, et ne sombre pas:
“She is tossled by the waves, but does not sink.”