This piece was written by Kim Paschen who worked for Untours for many years, coordinating French Untours and then as Marketing Director. She recently returned from Paris and reports on the city she found in the gap between the November terrorist attacks and the international climate talks.
Friday, November 13. I won’t forget where I was when I first heard the breaking news of the Paris attacks. I was buying a six‐pack of beer at my local bottle shop when the texts started coming in from my parents alerting me to the death toll and from friends making sure I was OK (since I’m known to frequent my favorite city).
Fast forward six days. I’m at Philadelphia International Airport getting ready to board a flight to Europe. The plans were made well in advance of the Paris attacks. And the very last thing in my mind to do was cancel. In fact, one of my very first stops would be the Bataclan, the site where the most carnage occurred on that terrible night.
Arriving in France, I noticed that daily life was pretty much going on as normal, just maybe a touch subdued with a definite increase in police presence. Of course the French are a resilient, proud bunch and Paris is a buzzing, vibrant world capital, so I would have expected this.
What was most interesting to me though, was something I can only describe as a new level of humanity in the French. Known to be a formal people to those outside their close circles of family and friends, the people of France seemed to be kindler, gentler towards one another as strangers, as if their cultural tendencies had been peeled away and what was left were hearts that beat to the tune of the same drum: love for one another, the desire for peace, and the joie de vivre that the French do best.
While there, I felt not one moment of fear. Instead, I felt a mixture of deep sadness, shock, and outrage. Lighting a candle in front of the Bataclan, where the Eagles of Death Metal marquee was eerily still up, I experienced profound grief. The building, you see, has special significance for me. I spent many weeks in one of its upper floors more than a decade ago. I considered it one of “my” neighborhoods. But standing there silent with so many people…well, I also felt love and unity.
But I also felt this intangible need to express “Frenchness” in anyway possible. And that need manifested itself into going up to the top of the Eiffel Tower (arguably a tourist attraction, but still so symbolic and no lines!), drinking champagne on my birthday (a French tradition!), and appreciating this magnificent city for all its sights, sounds, and yes, smells, by walking its streets (as any good flâneur would!).
Just like Americans after 9/11, the French, while heartbroken over what has happened, are stronger than ever. I was still there on November 27, the day designated for paying tribute to the victims of the November 13 attacks by displaying the French flag.
Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
Arise children of our Nation,
The day of glory has arrived!
To see the French tricolor everywhere, in a country where its citizens rarely display their country’s flag at their homes, their national anthem rang defiant in my ears. Have these most tragic atrocities changed France and its people? Yes, but quite the opposite of how those who caused the tragedy would have wanted. Rows of flowers and candles and handwritten messages and photos of those lost, and a rain‐soaked copy of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast were proof enough that love will always be stronger than hate.
This piece is part of an occasional series called First Person Account, in which people in the Untours community recount their life and travel experiences as they interact with current world events and history. Read Cathrin’s memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall and Dee’s memories of Cuba just before the US normalized relations with the country. Or contribute your own to firstname.lastname@example.org.