What Paris Means to Me

As I watched the horrific November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris unfold from the safety and comfort of my home thousands of miles away across the vast Atlantic Ocean, I was overtaken by a profound sense of shock, sadness and loss.

Although we quickly received confirmation that our family was safe, we found out that my brother-in-law and youngest nephew, who is Chloe’s age, were in the audience watching the soccer match between France and Germany at the Stade de France that night.  They were oblivious to what was happening outside the stadium gates until after the game was over. It took them much longer than usual to get home, but they did make it home a few hours later, unlike the 130 people who died and scores of others who were wounded in the attacks.

When the media listed the names and ages of the victims after the massacre, I noticed how young most of them were. In the prime of their lives, celebrating the start of another fall weekend in the most banal of ways. A drink with friends at a café. A concert. A meal at the corner restaurant. I thought about my older nephews and niece, in their late teens and early 20s, who live in and around Paris. It could have been them.

It was hard for me not to obsessively track the latest developments as the investigation into the attacks progressed. But after a few days, I was determined to think happier thoughts and write about the Paris I’ve loved for more than 30 years. The result is below – my ever so modest way of conveying a personal “fuck you” to the terrorists who tried to break the spirit of the city I adore.

What Paris Means to Me: An Essay in Photos

My love affair with Paris officially began in 1984, when my 9th grade French class took a trip to France. I was 15 years old. Below is the first page of my quaint photo album from that magical trip, mislabeled sites and all. From the very first moment I stepped foot in Paris, I knew I would return. Paris was my future.

I’ll always love Paris.

Memories of my first trip to France, 1984

Return I did. In 1989 for my junior year abroad. I fell in love with a French man that year. I lived with a lovely family in Neuilly, but spent most of my nights in his tiny studio apartment in what was then a seedy neighborhood in the 9th arrondissement near the Folies Bergère. On clear days, my fellow students and I enjoyed going to Montmartre to take in the sweeping views of the city from the steps leading up to the Sacré Coeur basilica. I took art history classes at the Louvre and read Baudelaire’s poetry in atmospheric hole-in-the-wall cafés. It was romantic and thrilling.

I’ll always love Paris.

On the steps leading up to the Sacré Coeur Basilica, 1989

The day after I graduated from college in 1991, I returned to France and stayed for five years –  five of the happiest years of my life. And the French man I fell in love with during my junior year abroad?  We lived together for four of those years in a slightly larger studio apartment than the one he had as a student and we got married in 1994. We couldn’t afford to have a wedding reception at one of the picture-perfect fairy tale chateaux you see in the Michelin guide; instead our festivities took place in a castle in ruins on the outskirts of Paris. It was exquisite.

I’ll always love Paris.

Our Wedding at the Château du Vivier, 1994

I became a French citizen. We moved to the States in 1996 because I wanted my husband to experience life in America. We thought we’d stay a couple of years and return to France. Yet almost 20 years later, we’re still living in the U.S.

We try to go back to France every 2-3 years. Chloe was seven months old the first time we took her to France. Sophie’s inaugural trip took place after she had just turned one. We introduced the girls to the joys of café culture when they wee little tikes.

I’ll always love Paris.

Bastille Cafe
A Café Near Bastille, 2006

The Eiffel Tower has always brought out the inner clown in our girls. Why wouldn’t it? It’s a crazy feat of engineering that just begs for people to tease it.

I’ll always love Paris.

Eiffel Tower, 2006
Eiffel Tower, 2011

We have always loved the beauty and serenity of the Place des Vosges, and make a pilgrimage there every time we visit Paris. The girls will never be too old for the adorable little playground inside the park’s gates. And we will never be too old to reminisce about the fleeting yet heartwarming moments we’ve spent there as a family.

I’ll always love Paris.

Place des Vosges
Place des Vosges, 2006

Not a trip to Paris goes by without our taking in the sprawling vistas of the city’s marvelous rooftops. I took the photo below from a ferris wheel in the Tuileries Gardens. Chloe accompanied me on that ride – she was 10 years old at the time – and now she takes photos of the Parisian rooftops, too.

I’ll always love Paris.

Paris Rooftops from the Ferris Wheel in the Tuileries, 2011

I was first introduced to French humor through my future husband’s modest comic book collection. Replete with puns and whimsical illustrations, the books were a study in silliness but a great learning tool for a young American eager to improve her French language skills and immerse herself in all aspects of French culture.

I’ll always love Paris.

French-Belgian Characters Gaston Lagaffe, Astérix & Obelix (photo taken at the Marché aux Puces, 2013)

When I lived in Paris, I used to work next to the Champ de Mars. I’d often take a sandwich to the park during my lunch hour and soak in the sea of humanity as I ate. Children with their parents and caregivers, tourists from all over the world, other young professionals like me catching a few moments of fresh air before returning to work, retirees out for a bit of exercise. I’d marvel at my good fortune. I was living out my teenage dream.

To this day, whenever we return to Paris we spend a lot of time strolling through the parks and walking along the Seine. Those outings are an important reminder to me to slow down and enjoy my life in the here and now.

I’ll always love Paris.

Luxembourg Gardens, 2013
Bassin de l’Arsenal, 2015

A few weeks ago, I posted a photo essay about the trip we took to France in October. I ended it with a reverie about a day in the not-too-distant future when my husband and I might return to live in Paris for good. The events of 10 days ago have not made me second-guess that dream. If anything, they’ve strengthened my resolve to spend my later years the way I spent my younger ones: living in a place of astonishing beauty and history, where bonhomie, love and an unflinching joie de vivre are the rule and not the exception.

I’ll always love Paris.

Hôtel de Ville, 2015


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