Back in 1976, a woman took her two kids on the trip of a lifetime. Although it was the Bicentennial year, she took her 9-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son to her native land. France. The girl, who already wanted to be a writer, kept a journal on that month-long visit. The journal and photographs help to clarify her memories of France. Her uncle and aunt lived in a town called Meaux, on the border of the Champagne region, an hour or so from Paris on the fastest trains she'd ever even imagined. Uncle Jean-Jacques was a jewelry designer and manufacturer. Her aunt Lucienne was the epitome of an elegant French lady, keeping their 200 year-old house in immaculate order despite having three sons between 8 and 18. The house was the most beautiful place the girl had ever seen, with black and white tiled floors, ancient wooden beams, and a pond with a fountain in the back yard.
Not many American kids get to spend a month in France. Everything about France was enchanting. For one thing, the store came to the family, not the other way around. Each day was a different truck--dairy, meat, seafood, vegetables. That led to the kids trying foods they would have rejected back home--smoked eel, foie gras, deep fried chamomile flowers they picked themselves, grenadine, frogs' legs and escargot. Everything had HISTORY--so weighed down with ancient significance that the kids were rather intimidated. They saw great chateaux and backwoods farms, formal gardens and sprawling vineyards, convents and Notre Dame. There was so much to explore, and yet it was so easy to get from one important place to another! The town of Meaux had quaint cobblestoned streets and a huge medieval cathedral with crypts in the catacombs beneath it. Twice they went to the seashore, but children of the deep South weren't able to tolerate the frigid waters of the English Channel. One afternoon, they drove into the Champagne country, where in between the long green vines were planted poppies. The stripes went on as far as the eye could see--red, green, yellow, green, red. And although the boy was easily bored, the girl drank it all in--especially at Versailles and the Petit Trianon. Her French grew fluent enough that one day, after receiving permission from the Mother Superior at the school her cousins attended, she spent an entire day in a French classroom. She answered some questions in halting French, tripped while jumping rope and skinned her knee, and let the teacher read her journal when asked. When the teacher saw the line, "School in France is HARD!!!" she laughed for about five minutes.
Twice a week, they went into Paris on the trains. They loved the train, especially when the train went underground on the outskirts of the city. There were posters on the subway walls with a can-can line--not all women, but workmen and kids too. They thought the pictures were funny. While they could both understand French well and spoke a little, neither could read it. So every time they saw one of those advertisements, the kids laughed and started to sing the can-can song. "Duh duh duhduhduhduh da da dadadada--"
I'm sure the other people on the train thought those kids were crazy.
Every trip to Paris was a new adventure. They rode the somewhat scary elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower, where they could look in any direction and all they could see was the city. They posed together before the Arch de Triomphe, next to the eternal flame of an unknown soldier. They spent days in the Louvre, and while the girl wandered around and looked at the paintings and sculpture and history, the mother and little brother went to the King Tut exhibit, which was there at the time. There was even an exact replicate of the boy king's burial chamber, with hieroglyphs painted on the wall. It tells you something about the time--and the girl, who could speak fluently enough to get help if she needed it--that their mother felt comfortable enough to let her strike out on her own.
They left the Louvre and went to the Tuileries, where the kids rode the carousel and tried to spear the brass ring just as their mother had thirty years before. And every day, they went to eat someplace different--including one special day when they went to the Palais Garnier, which was just across the Rue Auber from the restaurant their grandfather had owned. That was a memorable meal, especially since their grandfather was dead--shot by the retreating Nazis because they thought (accurately) he was helping endangered people to escape Paris.
There were only two things that could top all of this.
First, the patisseries. In Paris, desserts look like art. The shops were long, narrow, lined on one side by long cases with glass fronts stocked full of any baked good you could possibly imagine, and with small tables on the other. How long it took to decide on a pastry, and how much better it tasted than the humdrum cake and cookies back home.
For the girl, at least, only the doll shops could compare with the bakeries. There was one certain shop that sold nothing but dolls--and what dolls! There weren't any Barbies on those shelves. Instead there were only costume dolls--dolls dressed in the native costumes of the regions and cities of France. Those dolls are still prized possessions, occupying a case all their own to this day.
In fact, I can see them now. A few have passed on already, to my girls and their girls, but those first three dolls were the beginning of a sizable collection.
This is the France I remember. A lot more happened on that trip--it would take me months to tell the whole story. I actually pulled the photographs out from our trip today, as the book I'm currently working on is set in pre-Revolution France--during the reign of Louis XV. So when the news broke about the terrorist attacks in Paris, I guess it was proportionately harder for me to fathom. The same neighborhood I'd once walked with my mother were under siege, and scores of people were felled by gunfire and explosions.
There's no way to adequately describe Paris, no way to give someone who's never been there a real sense of the city. Paris is alive, electric and defiant and elegant, I've lived in New York, and while that city is the busiest I have ever seen, it was so apparent to me even at the time that NYC's a thoroughly modern city. Paris is just as modern, but the history of thousands of years compels Parisians to insinuate that modernity into the classical beauty that is its more enduring landmark.
Today, I was reminiscing fondly over the pictures of our trip there in June of 1976, but tonight I saw in front of the television and I could no longer see those photos in my mind. Instead of monuments and cathedrals and vineyards, all I could see of Paris tonight was blood and tragedy.
I try not to get too political on this blog. I try to keep those kinds of opinions to myself. But as I write this, there are two thoughts jostling each other for top billing.
First off, people need to keep in mind that not ALL Muslims are terrorists, the same way not all white people belong to the KKK. You cannot lump an entire social group together with the evil-minded people who are a minority within it. Blame those who are truly responsible for this savagery--the terrorists, not the people who bore them. Not all Muslins are terrorists, just like not all Caucasian people are skinheads.
And second, enough is enough. We can no longer afford to sacrifice our citizens' safety. The 'war on terror' has dragged on for 13 years. There were supposed to be fewer terrorists, not more. The time for euphemisms and psychological victories is past. The time has come for our governments to protect us--and each other. Tonight in Paris, hundreds lost their lives and hundreds more were injured. Some were maimed for life. The US took out Jihadi John this week for our psychological victory. ISIS took out innocents in at least seven different locations for their psychological victory.
Which one, do you think, was the most successful?
We need a solution--one that differentiates between the refugee families fleeing out of the Middle East and the terrorists who are insinuating themselves into that flood of humanity. We need to obliterate the terrorist bases and training camps. We need to seize their funds. We need to drive them out of their dens, and then hold them responsible for every single innocent death.
Does this mean war? I'm not sure. I have a strong suspicion that we are dangerously close to WWIII.(no, I'm not a doomsday prepper) It may come to that. With Putin declaring that Russia is ready to work with Washington to shut ISIS down, perhaps we should consider it. Perhaps it's worth fighting in order to rid the world of this scourge upon humanity. With a son-in-law who's already done two tours of duty in the Middle East, that's not an easy thing to say.
But nothing about any of this is easy, is it?
Paris, the City of Lights, is dark tonight. Very dark. And our world has dimmed as a result.