Nov 15 2015

Under Attack

I am not done with Paris. That conclusion I came to just over a week ago, when I was there on a last minute trip, a quick overnight visit provoked by an administrative errand. Usually I pack my schedule with lunches, drinks and dinners, taking advantage of the time on the ground to catch up with Parisian friends. This last trip I organized very few appointments. I’ve a lot of work at the moment and I didn’t metro_signwant to orchestrate every minute of my visit. I wanted to be in Paris with a bit of time on my hands. The way it used to be. Just being there.

Standing in line to board the flight, I cringed at the weather forecast: chilly, cloudy with showers. This was one of the main reasons for relocating to Barcelona. We craved a warmer, sunnier climate. The cold and gray of Paris can wear you out. But luck was with me, the forecast was inaccurate. The Paris weather was milder than predicted and the sun had only a few clouds to hide behind. Walking across the Pont Notre-Dame to the Prefecture for my appointment – one that had been assigned to me so I had no choice but to make the last minute trip – I took in the majestic vista of Paris’ bridges arching over the Seine, and all the familiar landmarks, Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Conciergerie. No matter how many times I make the walk between the left and right banks, I am still struck by the stunning beauty of the city. Second only to the friendly upstate New York village where I grew up, this is the place that feels most like home. It was home, for eighteen years of my life.

~ ~ ~

Our try-a-year-in-Barcelona turned into two years (one was not enough to really get a full experience of the city and culture) which then turned into three years (it takes more than two years to feel at home) and who knows, now, how long we will stay. We’re set up comfortably, in a roomy apartment, walking distance to the school, a mere block away from a forested mountain that leads to a track where we love to run, bike and walk the dog. New friends aren’t as intimate or familiar as those we knew in Paris, but there is potential. I am not unhappy in Barcelona. Our life is lovely. But it isn’t what my life was in Paris. And I do miss that life.

De-facto was out playing basketball on Friday night and Short-pants and Buddy-roo and I heaped ourselves together on the couch with Winston to watch the an episode of our latest favorite Netflix series. It was a text message from a faraway friend that alerted me to the attacks that were unfolding in Paris. I plugged into news coverage of Liberation and the BBC and Al Jazeera. I scanned my Facebook feed to see which Parisian friends were online and sharing updates – partly to hearparis_runs their perspective, mostly to confirm they hadn’t been caught in the mayhem.

It was hard to go to sleep and harder still to wake up in the morning to the tally of dead and injured and the stark images of a vibrant city shut down by terror and bloodshed. When Short-pants delivered my coffee – a Saturday morning luxury – I pulled her into bed with me for a morning hug. It made me think of the days just after 9/11 when we were glued to the TV, the altar for our grieving. I was breastfeeding Short-pants – she was only two months old – and while I watched the news, I’d glance down at her little mouth seriously at work taking in nourishment, her tiny fists banging against me and wonder what kind of world we’d brought her into. Now, fourteen years later, I held her (considerably) taller body in a long embrace and wondered, again, what kind of world she was inheriting. How will this ever go away?

~ ~ ~

It’s remarkable how a network of friends reaches out to support one another at a time like this. I was desperately texting my Parisian friends on Friday night, unable to get to sleep until I’d heard from them that they were safe. Saturday morning I woke to a full inbox myself, messages from friends who weren’t aware that we’d moved to Barcelona, or who know I often go back to Paris and that we have many close friends there who might have been hurt. It made my heart grow. In the midst of this horrible tragedy, little pockets of kindness make all the difference.

Later, at lunch, I asked the girls what they thought about what happened in Paris the night before. They both had the same first instinct: to ask why someone would want to kill so many people with such violent attacks. I struggled to respond. How to convey the complexity of such a convoluted reasoning – the perfect storm of anger, hate, disenfranchisement and indoctrination? How to share my indignation, my fear, my grief, but without fueling their prejudice and creating the fear and hatred that only perpetuates a cycle of terrorism? How to tell them the truth without scaring the bejeezus out of them? I always tell them, “Be smart, not scared,” when it comes to dealing with danger. But is that enough to keep them safe from this kind of arbitrary violence? go_paris

I am relieved that my family and I are safely away in Barcelona, that we weren’t subject to the immediate fright of it, the menace of proximity to such a massacre. And yet a part of me is aching to be there in Paris, now, to witness for myself what has happened, to be there not only in spirit but in person, showing my solidarity with some of my dearest friends and with the city that was my home for so long, and in my heart, still is.

But are we really safer here? Any European city – any city at all – might be subject to the same terror as Paris. There’s nothing to do but return to our routines, taking it all in stride, just like we numbly take off our shoes and place our liquids in plain view at airport security, running through the motions of protecting ourselves from a mid-air terror, when simply sitting at a café with friends can be just as deadly. How do I explain that to my daughters?


Mar 22 2012

Just a Minute

It happens unfortunately rather often these days, a lone gunman goes postal, sending a battery of bullets into a crowd full of innocent people. It’s horrible; a dreaded disbelief grips me when I hear this kind of news. There’s an extra groan when it happens at a school or involves small children. Then there’s proximity, when it’s closer to home it’s a real wake up call. Bad things can and do happen. It could have happened right next door.

On Monday De-facto made lunch and turned on the television – his ritual moment for absorbing local news – and we learned of the fatal shooting of four people, including three students, at a Jewish school in Toulouse.

Given that we live in one of the Jewish sections of Paris, it’s easy for me to imagine this happening. Almost every school in our neighborhood has a plaque posted near the door, often adorned with flowers and tri-color ribbons, commemorating the young students who were deported to the Nazi concentration camps. The maternelle school just behind our apartment building, where Short-pants and Buddy-roo both started, is often selected to host the somber ceremonies of remembrance for government dignitaries. The school our children attend now has a Catholic flavor – though in typical French style you can opt out of the religion part – but I could imagine them being at the wrong place and the wrong time here in our very own neighborhood and being caught in the crossfire.

We didn’t mention anything to the girls. That wasn’t a deliberate decision. De-facto left for a business trip shortly after lunch that day, and I was busy preparing to leave for my own voyage d’affaires the next morning. I still had to prepare my valise, and with De-facto already gone it also meant attempting to get Buddy-roo ahead on her homework, leaving notes for babysitters and organizing the next day’s wardrobe and backpacks for an early-morning-drop-off at a neighbor’s house so I could make a train that left Paris before school started. In the flurry of activity, I didn’t bring it up.

In my hotel room on Tuesday night, I read and watched the news, with poignant images of the vigil in Paris and mention of a minute of silence in the schools across France. I was only in Luxembourg, a short trip on a fast train, but all this made me feel too far away. I do appreciate the break from my children, except when something happens that makes you want – need – to put your hands on them and hold them close.

Last night I dropped my small suitcase – my mother’s old little rollaway gets a lot of use – in the foyer and was rewarded with the stampede of bare, just-bathed feet down the stairs and young girls pummeling themselves against me. That welcome home hug is worth every travel hassle you have to endure, and it felt especially comforting this time.

I beckoned them to sit on the couch with me, one on each side, and I turned back and forth, asking about the two days of their lives I missed – how the geography test went (Buddy-roo had to map out the mountain ranges of France), how was the spelling coming (Short-pants has nearly memorized 12 pages of spelling words), and then my big question.

“Did you have a minute of silence at school?”

Lots of nodding yes.

“Did they tell you what it was for?”

Lots of nodding no. Then the two of them talking at me at the same time with different stories. After settling the debate about who would go first, here’s what I learned: One teacher simply said that this was something being observed at all the schools in France, so Short-pants had no idea she why she was participating in a minute of silence. Though Buddy-roo’s teacher referred to the event in Toulouse, it was obvious that she still didn’t really understand what had happened. One of her classmates was cited as a source of additional information; you can imagine the facts were jumbled, though reported to me with enthusiastic certainty.

I don’t want to conjure up unnecessary fear in their young minds about a lack of security at school or in the neighborhood. I don’t want to impose the weight of a terrorist act on them. To speak to children of such atrocities feels unfair, like I’m robbing them too soon of their innocence, tarnishing their sheer belief in the goodness of people and the world. But to shield them from what happened seems equally unfair, especially if it means they hear snippets from someone else, someone ill-informed or ill-equipped to inform them with the age-appropriate sensitivity.

I asked them if they wanted to know the reason that there was a minute of silence in school the day before. They’ve said no to questions like this before, for instance when I was explaining the birds and bees to Short-pants and at some point I said, “Is this enough, or do you want to know more?” With just a few seconds of reflection she said, “That’s enough for now. You can tell me more later.”

They did want to know why, so I told them about how a really crazy guy, someone not right in the head, had taken out a gun and shot at the people in front of a school, how the moment of silence was to honor the four people who were killed, to think of their families who were grieving. Of course I was bombarded with whys, and I did my best to explain in simple terms the idiocy of religious and racial violence.

“But it’s all the same God,” said Short-pants, “what does it matter?”

Then a barrage of questions about guns. “Why do people have guns? Why were guns even invented? Why would someone take a gun to a school, and shoot children?”

I couldn’t come up with a good answer, at least not one I believed myself. “That’s another reason to have a minute of silence,” I told her, “so that maybe people will ask themselves just those kinds of questions.”

This morning after dropping the girls off at school, I stopped at the nearby café where parents who don’t have to rush to work gather every morning and catch up over coffee. I brought up the minute of silence, which met with mixed reactions about how the school and the teachers had handled it. One parent referenced interviews with French psychologists saying that there’s no reason to burden young children with this news event. But how can you avoid the inevitability that they’ll hear about it and be terrorized more by what they don’t know than by what they do know?

For a minute, I wondered if I did the right thing, explaining it to the girls? I guess I made a choice to respect my kids rather than protect them. There’s probably no single right answer to that question. I just wish it was one we didn’t have to ask.