The five nights in Paris had not been magical, necessarily, but they had been pretty nice. We rented a small third floor flat on the Ile St. Louis, an island in the middle of the Seine just upriver from the Ile de la Cite, where Notre Dame and Saint Chappelle draw crowds and lovers proclaim their love by locking cheap brass padlocks to the railings of the Pont des Arts. Our flat overlooked a small courtyard entered through a massive wooden doorway that opened onto the Quai de Bourbon. Just across the quai steps led down to a tree-lined walk along the Seine. To reach the flat we climbed an exterior, semi-enclosed stairway with wooden steps worn by the feet of generations of Parisians. It was a cozy little space, with red clay tile floors and massive wooden beams, a small but well-equipped kitchen, a bathroom, a living area with a queen-sized bed behind a wooden partition, and a small bedroom with bunk beds. Best of all the bathroom held a clothes washer and drier—our first access in three weeks except for a pay-by-the kilo service in Amsterdam, where the four of us washed three outfits each—and a well-stocked bookcase, mostly in French, except for several old guidebooks and maps, and a non-fiction book titled Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik, a writer from the New Yorker magazine whose name I recognized. Based on the sound from adjoining flats, at least one neighbor offered guitar lessons to students of varying skill. One night I lay in bed and listened to the rhythm of a conversation, in French, between a man and a woman in the adjoining flat.
On the next block, the neighborhood shifted from residential to commercial, and the sidewalks were always busy with people going about their business. We were a few minutes away from a bank with ATMs, a pharmacy, a couple of upscale souvenir stores and several downscale ones, a really nice patisserie, three or four gelato shops, upscale wine and liquor stores, a newsstand/bar, several hotels and restaurants, and even a puppet store. Every evening we walked a couple of blocks to a nice little grocery with fresh vegetables to pick out our supper, then crossed the street to buy fresh baguettes for supper and breakfast from the boulangerie. In the evenings we enjoyed the apartment, luxuriating in the comfort of spending five nights in the same place after three weeks of one, two, and three night stands separated by long bus and car and plane rides. After a day of walking, Lisa and I caught up our journals and read, while the girls usually watched television inported from the United States through the magic of NetFlix.
We spent our days doing the predictable touristy things—touring Notre Dame and climbing the tower to pose with the gargoyles, seeing the stained glass at Saint Chappelle, wandering among the Impressionists at the d’Orsay (the Van Gogh especially enjoyable after learning about his work at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam), visiting Monet’s water lilies at the Musee de l’Orangerie, eating lunch at the Christmas market at the base of the Champs Elysees, ascending the Eiffel Tower, and touring the palaces and walking the grounds of Versailles.
It seemed odd, as always, to see small groups of soldiers patrolling the grounds of Notre Dame or walking between the legs of the Eiffel tower, wearing full field uniforms, berets, and with machine guns slung by straps over their shoulder and cradled in their arms, ready for use. In some ways it seemed like overkill, because the most obvious threat beneath the Eiffel tower seemed to be the gangs of mostly Middle-eastern and African hustlers hawking cheap souvenirs spread on blankets on the sidewalk and rattling wire hoops strung with miniature Eiffel Towers at tourists. Whenever a police officer approached, warning shouts would sound down the sidewalks and the hustlers would bundle their wares and sprint across a lane of traffic and wait on the median until the police left, then drift back across and set up shop again. All in all, an enjoyable spectacle for the tourists.
Of course, this was a few days before a couple of lone wolf terrorists who, in separate incidents, drove into Christmas market crowds in the cities of Nantes and Dijon. Those provincial towns were miles away from Paris, but we had spent two nights in Colmar, France, in the Alsace region near Germany, wandering the Christmas markets, and it seems to me now that a lone wolf attack could have just as easily happened in Colmar as Dijon. France holds a population of over 5 million Muslims, many raised in the former French colonies of North Africa, or the children of those immigrants. The Muslim population has long suffered from high unemployment, poverty, and a Europe increasingly hostile to outsiders.
The day we left Paris was almost exactly a month before two men burst into the offices of a Paris satirical newspaper, murdering twelve editors and nationally known cartoonists in a well-coordinated, Al Qaeda backed attack, in response to a long history of the paper’s editorials and cartoons directed against extremist Muslims (as well as Jews and Catholics on the extreme edge). The days we had spent in Paris were regularly punctuated by the claxon wail of sirens, and more than once I saw a train of police cars and paddy wagons flashing through the streets with full lights and sound. When I looked up the address of the newspaper Charlie Hebdo, it turned out to be a few blocks from the Bastille market, where we spent the morning of the last day of our trip shopping. I can only imagine the confusion that Paris streets posed for tourists that day.