Like most people in the world, the terrorist attacks in Paris last night left me speechless and horrified. I was heartbroken. A city I love dearly had become the latest victim to hatred and I found myself unable to continue watching coverage as the body count grew higher and higher. I quickly checked all social media to see if my Parisian friends were okay, and thankfully them and their families are all accounted for and safe. But so many weren’t so lucky.
I listened as places I knew and had walked were the latest targets and watched as neighborhoods and landmarks I recognized were flanked by police instead of tourists. It was surreal and I felt so helpless. Of course there was nothing I could do, but I wanted to do something.
So I want to talk about Paris, because Paris is very important to me.
Paris took care of me when I was truly lost and had little to no options.
Back in 2012, when I was living in London, I made the stupid mistake of letting my student visa expire and then leaving the country. I went to Belgium for a weekend with the intention of coming back just on a regular tourist visa until I left to head back to the US. Even though I said I was going to leave, I had no proof, and after five hours being interrogated in Calais, I was refused entry to the UK.
I was left at Calais ferry depot at 5AM with nothing but my belongings on my back. I couldn’t get back into the UK. I had no Euros on me. My laptop and phone were both dead. I was exhausted. So I sat on the floor with fellow travelers and homeless, waiting for things to make sense. It took a few hours for the shock of everything to wear off and for me to get the gumption to figure out what to do. I had promised the customs agent that I wouldn’t walk into Calais, but I didn’t have money for the bus and the currency exchange was closed. So I charged a call to my flatmate in London to ask him to call my boss that I wasn’t going to be coming into work and made my way out the door.
I didn’t actually know where I was walking, I just headed towards what looked like town. I walked past refugee camps along the way, keeping my head low, unsure of what to do. I was stopped along the way by an old French gentleman asking for directions that I couldn’t give, and eventually found myself into the center of Calais and then to the train station. I had friends in Paris. If I could get to Paris I could at least begin to figure out what to do. I managed to find wifi and the news of my refused entry having spread, I already had an offer for a place to stay for the night. One charged train ticket to Paris later, I was a step closer to figuring this all out than I was a few hours before.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been to Paris. When I studied abroad in my junior year of undergrad, I went there for Thanksgiving weekend to meet up with my best friend who was studying in Florence at the time. I immediately fell in love with the city, not that it’s hard to fall in love with Paris. There was a transportation strike happening at the time, and being 19 and adventurous, it just added to the experience. It was three wonderful days of history, culture, and a lot of bread. I adored it. I wanted to go back immediately.
It would be a few years before I would return, and this time by accident as my train from Calais pulled in to the Gare du Nord. I charged my phone at a cafe along the Seine as I waited to get the address from my friend, slowly making my way to her small apartment in the center of the city. She hugged me. She fed me. And then she put me to bed. I woke up the next day rested but still restless, and it was then I learned that the local Sherlockian group would be meeting that night. She brought me along despite my French being practically non existent beyond “Je suis désolé. Je ne parle pas français.” And I’m so thankful she did because no sooner was I there and everyone heard what had happened were they talking amongst themselves about who could take me in. And suddenly I had two more places to stay and I nearly cried at the table. These were mostly people I had just met or didn’t know beyond exchanging a few words online. I was overwhelmed to say the least.
I’d end up spending a week in Paris between three apartments. I cried, I laughed, I wandered around a lot, imitated a few statues to make myself and others laugh, but ultimately I felt loved. Paris and the Parisians had welcomed me with open arms and the experience cemented my loyalty to the city. Of all places to be loved in, Paris was not a bad choice.
I would go on to spend five weeks in Leipzig, Germany with a friend and find a home away from home, but I will forever be indebted to Paris and the kind people there who took in a scared young woman and let her know that she’d be taken care of.
I did get back to the UK eventually, a new visa in hand and a new respect for customs laws. And I would return to Paris many times in the following years. Whenever someone would come to visit me, I would take them to Paris. I had to take them to Paris.
From Montmartre to Les Invalides to the Louvre and Saint Denis, Paris will always be part of my being. It’s more than a place I visit every once in awhile, it was a home and a place of comfort when I desperately needed it. To hear and see what has happened there hurts my soul.
Paris will heal, because it always does.It’s seen horror and pain time and time again. But I hope it heals this time with the knowledge that it and its people are loved, and all our hearts are with The City of Light. Because Paris’ light will never extinguish, it will only burn brighter.