City of Light

My sister and I, along with one of my closest friends, were wandering the streets of Paris, admiring the lights of the season in the City of Light. It was magical. It was Christmas Eve, 2010.

We made our way to Notre-Dame Cathedral. The streets radiating away from the square in front of the cathedral were filled with French police officers sitting in well-lit white police vans, each one eating a rather fine-looking dinner from a take-out container. We approached the cathedral. A pair of cops eyed us carefully as we walked between them to enter the church.

It was unnerving, to say the least. The scene was repeated on New Year’s Eve when my friend and I crossed the Seine in front of the Eiffel Tower. We stopped to take photos of the tower, then I began taking photos of the police officers once again eating fancy dinners in white police vans parked along the bridge. I hadn’t taken more than one or two shots when the driver’s door of the van I was photographing opened. The officer got out and began to walk towards me, and I quickly tucked my camera into my pocket and turned away. Message delivered, the cop returned to the warmth of his van and his waiting dinner. My heart was pounding.

On Christmas Eve, after we exited Notre-Dame Cathedral, my friend marched up to one of the police officers standing nearby. These were big guys. They had big guns ― bigger than any I had ever seen up close. I had no idea what she was planning to do. But as soon as my friend asked (in French) for directions to the nearest Métro entrance, the cops smiled and laughed and showed us their friendly side. It was a welcome relief from the gravity of their security duties.

“I was beginning to feel so uptight,” my friend told me later. “I had to put a voice to the men with the guns.”

As it turned out, the officers sent us around in circles ― to be honest, I think they were less familiar with Paris than we were because they pointed us in the exact opposite direction that we needed to go ― but eventually we found the Métro and made our way home.

This was five years ago. It seemed to us like your usual Christmas Eve, but we were intimidated by the heavy police presence. Thinking about it later, I surmised that the high-level security must be routine near Parisian monuments on nights that attract large crowds. But because it was unlike anything I’d seen in my own country, the sense of intimidation I was experiencing made me feel like a naive Canadian who knew nothing of the real world.

If my heart was pounding then, what would it be doing now, in Paris’s current state of emergency?

Ten months ago, I wrote about how I was at a loss for words to express what I was feeling about horrific events in Paris. This week, once again, I am feeling just as lost. I contacted my Parisian friend who lives here in Vancouver, anxious about what he would tell me because I knew he, being of the same age and social stratum as most of the victims, would know someone affected by the attacks.

I was right. He did. Although all of his friends and family are safe, one of his friends lost someone at the Bataclan. What is that ― three degrees of separation? It feels closer.

The arrondissement that was attacked last Friday night is not one where tourists typically hang out ― it is where young Parisians of all backgrounds live and work and play. It was a neighbourhood not unlike the one where I spent three months ― what Parisians refer to as bobo (short for bourgeois–bohemian) ― and not unlike my own neighbourhood here in Vancouver. All weekend I wondered how I might have reacted had attacks of this nature occurred while I was living in Paris, while my friend and I enjoyed our glass of wine in a café in my arrondissement.

And, as I wondered, I thought again of how inadequate words can be at a time like this. This time, however, as soon as I heard about the attacks in Paris, I thought immediately of a photo I had taken that holiday season almost five years ago.

It was the one I took just before the French police officer frightened me into putting away my camera.

Eiffel Tower

If you take anything away from the words I’ve written here, it’s this: Paris is, and always will be, my city of light.

And only light can overcome darkness.

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