The first news of the Paris attacks reached our living room late afternoon, Friday, November 13. My husband and I were winding, sitting on the loveseat watching The Paul Finebaum Show. In the midst of reporting the surprise news of Gary Pinkel’s resignation (for the non-college football fan or fans outside the SEC, Gary Pinkel is/was the head football coach at the University of Missouri), the news streamed across the bottom of the television screen: Explosions heard outside the France versus Germany soccer match.
The streaming snippet had to cycle back around before the news sunk in and my husband grabbed the remote to start searching for a station carrying the developing story. We finally landed on CNN and watched, mouths agape at the unfolding scene. At that point in time, the Bataclan was still under siege by the terrorists.
My mind immediately went to thoughts of my niece who had been in Nantes earlier in the week and I checked Facebook to be sure she was safely back in Switzerland with her family. I thought of former European colleagues and again I used Facebook to reach out to a few of them and wish them prayers and good thoughts.
The next day, I got a text message from Dad: “Re:Paris Love you & Chris. Stay safe. Maj. Dad” (texting is still a new skill for Dad but at least this time he didn’t call me to make sure I got the message). My husband didn’t say anything but I know he was thinking it was good I was no longer in a job where I traveled overseas. Dad echoed the same thought a few days later when we spoke.
In the week or so that has passed, so much has been said about the Paris attacks on television and the internet. Some of the news has been uplifting, illustrating the resiliency of humanity and the refusal to be cowed by cowardice. Some of the news has been disheartening, illustrating humanity’s amazing capacity for stupidity, hatred and hypocrisy. The rest of the news is noise; there is still so much to learn about how it all went down.
Last week I found myself reminiscing about my experiences in Paris.
My first time in Paris was my birthday, June 23, 2000. I was actually in Brussels for two weeks training new sales people in the Europe office. The weekend in the middle of my stay was mine to spend as I pleased and with the help of a colleague, I booked a ticket on the early morning Thalys high-speed train for Saturday. My day started at 2 AM when my hotel room phone rang, startling me out of a deep sleep, with my parents singing “Happy Birthday”.
Funny aside, the hotel operator originally connected them to the wrong room and they sang the whole song before the gentleman whom they woke up politely said in broken English, “Sorry, wrong room.”
Four hours later, I was on my way to Brussels Midi station to take my first train ride and to Paris, no less! On the way, I discreetly studied my Fodor’s Pocket Paris, which included some basic phrases (I took Spanish in high school and college but am only capable of conversing, poorly, in present tense); points of interest and handy little maps of the various arrondissements.
My goal was to look like I belonged there so if worse came to worse, I would keep my mouth shut and walk around the same block ten times. I was a little wary about taking the Metro so the plan was to walk from Gare du Nord to the Arc de Triomphe from which I would hit as many sites as possible.
I have always been bad at math and accordingly I misread the scale conversion on the guidebook map. I thought I’d be taking a leisurely stroll down the Rue La Fayette and then the Boulevard Haussmann. Instead, I ended up doing a ten-mile hike. OK, I exaggerate. I just checked the distance and I only walked three miles. It just FELT like ten.
By the time I got to my destination on the Champs Élysées, I wanted to cut off my feet. Instead, I hopped on one of those red, double-decker tourist buses; the ones where you pay a flat rate for the day and can hop on and off at your leisure while the bus loops around to various sights.
From the Arc de Triomphe to the Eiffel Tower (where I proudly ordered a sandwich jambon-fromage) to the Hôtel des Invalides then round to Ile de la Cité where I proceeded on foot to Notre Dame. After spending a bit of time at The Church, I bought a big fluffy scarf from a street vendor near Pont Neuf. The day had turned cloudy with sprinkles and the scarf kept me warm and made me look more French, or so I imagined. I crossed the Seine and strolled the courtyard at The Louvre, up through the Tuileries and to the Place de la Concorde before heading to catch my train back to Brussels.
Thoroughly exhausted yet giddy with the excitement of my whirlwind day, I anticipated my next visit to the City of Light.
A month later, I was back. This time, I had two specific missions in Paris. One, I spent the day at The Louvre. I maximized my time there by taking the early train and braving the Metro. From top to bottom, I absorbed the museum and its works. I employed my limited knowledge of French and Spanish (they’re both Romance languages so I improvised) to read every sign by the pieces of artwork.
Two, I had to find self-tanner by Yves Rocher.
Yeah. So, a woman on Mom’s tennis team swore by this self-tanner by Yves Rocher, which apparently was not available in the U.S. This woman had purchased her supply in Québec. Mom called me the week before I traveled and asked if I could look for it while I was in Paris. If I found it, I was to purchase a few bottles to bring back to the States.
I was taking a late afternoon train back to Brussels so I figured I had no more than two hours after my Louvre sojourn to seek out this miracle of faux sunshine. Right outside the Louvre, I found a general cosmetics store (like an Ulta or Sephora) and inquired. Which means that I spent ten minutes repeating the phrase, “Yves Rocher, S’il vous plaît?” while the sales woman looked at me quizzically. I finally wrote it down and she declared, “Ah! Oui! Yves Rocher!” and shook her head. Apparently you could only get Yves Rocher at an Yves Rocher store and she graciously gave me directions. In French, of course, but I caught the name of the street Rue de Rivoli and continued my quest.
I had no idea in which direction I should go on the Rue de Rivoli so I decided to turn left and walk for 30 minutes. No dice. I turned around and walked back the way I came continuing down the street. Within ten minutes of passing my starting point, I saw the sign outside the store, white with green letters: “Yves Rocher”!
To my delight, not only did I find the magical self-tanner but also it was on sale: Buy one, get one free! Merveilleux! I loaded up my shopping basket with two-dozen tubes of the stuff and checked out, handing over my credit card with a smile and a “Très bien!”
Two and a half years later, I made my first post-9/11 visit to Europe and it was to Paris. My friend Kathy and I found a great deal on-line. $500 got us a round-trip flight and three nights hotel. Since we had both been to the city before, we spent our long weekend just hanging out. We walked through neighborhoods without a destination. We dined at sidewalk cafes and tried out our French on the natives. Our hotel concierge helped us get reservations for a dinner cruise on the Seine. We felt welcome and carefree. Our biggest dilemma all weekend was I forgot to plug Kathy’s curling iron into the voltage convertor and melted it. Literally, melted it.
It would be over ten years before I returned to Europe but I have not had an opportunity to return to Paris. But the memories of my delightful adventures in the city are as fresh as if I just stepped off the plane. To see this city ripped apart in such a brutal manner as happened over a week ago is heart wrenching.
“Liberté, égalité, fraternité”: The national motto of France meaning “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” It is one the world would do well to remember.