A Parisian in America

Before I go anywhere, I know exactly where I’m going, how to get there, and what I’m going to wear. It’s all part of the preparations that make me a successful traveler. I like to be spontaneous, but not about those fundamental basics. I am thrilled to report, though, that I can still be a successful traveler even after I throw a bunch of clothes into my bag and run out the door.

I wanted to pack and plan my characters — long story, but the terrorist attacks in Paris were more important, and so I sat, riveted to my desk, reading reports on my phone, watching the CNN app on my Apple TV, and refreshing Google News every three seconds. The reports kept getting worse and worse, and after I saw a picture of a corpse wrapped in a white cloth on the Rue de Charonne, I had a full blown anxiety attack. This is a disaster anywhere, of course, but this was my home turf. Like I tell you, and like I’m always telling you that I’m always telling you, Paris is my hometown. It’s my city. To see bodies on a street where I like to go buy Opéra cake was a great affront to my psyche. Every emotion I know, and several that I don’t know, coursed through my veins as the reports of more and more shootings came through. It was too much.

I tossed a few things into a bag and tried to sleep for a few hours, but I can’t say this was a great success. I felt like shit. The ride to town with Granny was nice, but I felt like shit. Security was a breeze, but I felt like shit. My latte was decent, but I felt like shit. The massacre in Paris permeated every thought. I was miserable and glum and angry. I didn’t even have fun when I was upgraded to the exit row or when I hissed in a stage whisper, “HE THINKS THE PYRAMIDS WERE A GRAIN SILO!” at my neighbors who were debating the merits of Ben Carson. This caused them to squirm, but I still felt like shit.

Truly, I have rarely had a smoother time going anywhere. Not one flight was delayed, I was upgraded, Newark airport was calm, the train to the city was timely, there was a puppy shop along the way down 8th Avenue, and I stopped to admire posters in a shop window.

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The mummy one is $400 and it needs to be mine. But I felt like shit.

There were Germans and Belgians and then all of a sudden, as I approached Jane Street, there were French people all over. I heard it in the air and I thought I was having some kind of attack. The shops were called things like Bien Real Estate and Aux Merveilleux de Fred.

Aux Merveilleux de Fred?

I SCREAMED.

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I am obsessed with this bakery. It’s one of the places that I always go in Paris. I get a chocolate merveilleux, and I stuff it directly into my mouth. They don’t last more than a minute. These are light confections made of meringue and whipped cream and joy. I was so happy and shocked to see these pastries and the kindly staff. Of all the street corners in the world, how did this shop end up on the end of Jane Street when I needed to see it the most? It forces you to wonder about coincidences and the Universe and all those mystical things I don’t know if I believe in.

The head chef came to say hello after I mentioned how much I enjoyed the shops in Paris. We chitchatted a bit in French…and then I didn’t feel like such shit. We made vague allusions to the tragedy, but I don’t think he was any more ready to talk about it than I was, and I was glad, because I was already getting all misty-eyed as I clutched that distinctive box to my chest and made my way down to my hotel.

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After checking in, I decided to have an early dinner before walking down to Times Square (a place I never have any interest in visiting; it’s worse than the Champs-Élysées) to catch the evening showing of An American in Paris. (Planned well in advance, so this was another peculiar coincidence that unsettles me.) I sat down to have a nice meal at the Café Gitane, ordered some couscous and Chardonnay and had a very nice time.

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I did some thinking about a novel I want to write in my series about the immortal Desmarais siblings that I love crafting so much, and then I realized why I was feeling like such shit.

It’s perfectly clear that terrorism should make a person feel bad. Whenever a tragedy of this sort strikes, you have to feel compassionate for the victims and for the situation. Awful things happen every day. They happen all the damn time. But people never stop to think about them for long or do much about them. Sipping my Chardonnay, I finally understood why these events struck me so much more than the usual disasters I hear about. It may seem apparent to you, but you aren’t me. I was incredibly bothered because this easily could have been me dead on the Rue de Charonne. I know the area well. I walk through it regularly. I do my damnedest to visit Paris once a year, if not more. Paris is my city. I know where the Bataclan is and though they made no impact on my mind, I’ve passed by those restaurants and bars innumerable times. If it had only been a few months ago, I would have been in the exact same area.

I have always had an immortality complex. I don’t think anything bad will ever happen to me, and I don’t think I’ll ever die. It’s irrational, and I’m well aware of it, but that’s the fact of the matter. I went walking alone through Egypt in the aftermath of the Arab Spring without a worry, strolling through a ghetto doesn’t phase me, I’m always myself no matter where I am even in situations where I shouldn’t. I’m not saying I’m some super brave person or better than anybody, this is just my personality. I realized then, sitting at my table in the café, that it easily could have been me. And that wasn’t sympathetic speculation. It really could have been me dead on a street. I could have been in a pile of bodies on the news. I could have been blown up by an extremist. Me. It’s selfish, but that’s what it’s about.

And as soon as I understood my feelings, I started to think. I thought about my Paris and eating Berthillon ice cream while watching the sunlight fade on the twinkling Seine, my mosque where I sip too much mint tea, Miss Manon and the wonderful old woman who is always there, the Louvre and all the art I love, my school, all the friends I’ve made and all the friends I’ve fallen out of touch with. I thought about the quays, the midnight walks through the Marais, the Chanel shop on the Rue Cambon, the green chairs in the Jardin des Tuileries looking on the Place de la Concorde, lemon cakes and Pierre Hermé macarons, getting drunk and dancing in front of Notre Dame. I thought about Anne and Sue and the champagne bottles we downed in front of the Jardin du Luxembourg, and I thought of people I’ve never introduced you to, and I thought and I thought. And then I felt such a great outpouring of love. It was rather overwhelming.

If I was shot in the head, I would not give a single fuck, because I have lived. Paris, that wonderful city, made me into the man I could never have been without her. She woke me up and made me brave and good. And she’s always going to be there waiting for me no matter what happens or how old I become. Paris is my family and the greatest love of my life. She’s Madame Betty and the pyramid in front of the Louvre, and all the things I don’t remember loving until I’m there, like Métro 5 or the green fountains outside Père Lachaise. She’s everything to me. And no matter where I go, I’ll always have Paris within me. I don’t know if you can quite understand what Hemingway was getting at about his moveable feast until Paris is yours. Paris gives itself completely to you, no matter who you are, no matter where you come from, no matter…no matter.

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I walked blocks and blocks to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, looking in at shops and loving the world, and I had the most happy time. If only the terrorists knew how their attacks would awaken the world! The world loves Paris so much. And I understand what people were saying on the Internet about similar situations happening in Lebanon and Syria, but I think they do themselves a great disservice when they try to tell you what catastrophe should be the most important. We live in a culture where even being sad is a competition, and I think that’s a great tragedy. All you have to do is be kind, but our species has a very difficult time doing that. I think that perhaps everybody feels that Paris is theirs, just the way that I do, and that is why there has been this incredible outpouring of sympathy and love for France. Not a lot of people have been to Beirut or Iraq, so they don’t connect like they would to a European disaster. It might not be fair, but that’s the truth. So, if you’re one of those people who try to complain about the attention Paris has received in wake of the slaughter of innocent people, kindly fuck off. (I don’t usually curse this much, but I’m very passionate about this.)

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I sat in St. Patricks for a long time. I don’t know how long. I’m not religious, though I’m a reverend, but churches draw me instinctually. Like cemeteries, I seek them out and find great comfort in their grand opulence and serenity. This one had recently undergone a restoration and is more beautiful than ever. After gathering my thoughts, I hurried down to Times Square to the Palace Theater, but not before joining some drunk girls in a rendition of One Direction’s “Drag Me Down.” It was a good time and we did a lot of pointing at each other and then one of them screamed, “ZAYN!” It wasn’t him.

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The theater was absolutely stuffed to bursting. I wondered if this is the usual situation or if it was like that due to the events across the Atlantic. Regardless, I already had my ticket, and I scurried up to the balcony. The seats were much better than I had anticipated, so I was happy. I had seen the film of An American in Paris years ago, but I must have fallen asleep, because I had no recollection of anything but a café. My expectations were not huge, but the play was immensely satisfying.

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The opening scene, which takes place shortly after the French Liberation, had tears streaming down my cheeks. There were so many obvious parallels to the events of the night before that the audience was rather swept up. It spoke of the scent of gunpowder and misery in the City of Lights and…goodness…then a massive French flag the size of the stage was unfurled and we all roared in applause. I have rarely felt so surrounded by such unity of feeling. It was incredible.

A little while into the play, sirens could be heard from outside. They lingered uncomfortably and the audience was silent as a graveyard. We held our breaths until they finally went away. It was horrifying.

And the play continued to be fabulous and blissfully lighter of heart, though still plagued by the aftershock of the Nazi occupation. I was so enraptured that I didn’t take any notes through the play, so I lost out on some of the quotes that made me choke on my sobs, but there were are few that I recall:

“I’m missing my train…kinda sorta on purpose.”

“My responsibilities are this…my art…to be in Paris.”

Needless to say, I absolutely loved it.

After the cast took its bow, one of the principal actors made a stunning impromptu speech about my favorite city. The play had its off-Broadway beginnings in Paris itself, and so the cast had learned the city well, and I could tell that they felt the same way about it that I do. They worried about their friends and about the dead and what the terrorists had done. And they reached the same conclusions that I had: to spread love and kindness. To do the exact opposite of what extremists hope you do. They want us to cower and be afraid and let them conquer us with every little action they do, but there are always going to be more good people than bad. The world is inherently good.

Times Square was as bright as the day at 10:30 pm, and jam packed. By chance, I passed the theater that shows Les Miserables as the audience was coming out and my heart stopped in my chest. They were all waving cheap plastic French flags. I didn’t even think to take a picture, I was too gobsmacked by the moment. I hope somebody out there did, because it was powerful. I turned onto 8th Avenue and there was the Empire State Building’s antenna lit up in blue, white, and red, and I felt like I was in Paris.

I walked back to my hotel in a cloud. Awful things happen; it’s inevitable, but no matter how things change, I will always remember them the way they were. Paris will always be my Paris even if it is scorched from the earth. But it won’t be.

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