Tomorrow will mark exactly two years since I launched this blog. Like any other day of personal relevance, I remember November 16th, 2013 perfectly. It was a Sunday, a colder Sunday than the one in Paris today, a gloomier one as well. I published the first post and went to meet my friends at Musée d’Orangerie to see the Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera exhibit. We were too late to get in, so we crossed the Seine and made our way over to La Palette on the Rive Gauche. I have a photo of my friend balancing on one leg on Pont des Arts, laughing in the freezing cold.
We had come to Paris to study, to chase our dreams, to escape our realities, to live out our youth. No matter how difficult the classes or intimidating the language barrier or frustrating the bureaucratic logistics, we thrived on the city itself. We lived for the aimless ballades, the inebriated brasserie sit-arounds, the heated debates, the unexpected rencontres and the crazy, erratic nights. I knew that every problem I was facing would somehow fade into the pink (polluted) sunset during a well-timed walk by the Seine. I never felt afraid or alone in Paris, the way I did in London, with its sprawling Thames and gazebo of neighborhoods, or even in my vast and ever-changing New York. Paris was small, it was predictable, it was a village, a fairytale village, even – it had castles all over it, for God’s sake! Paris was our playground. A city of lovers and dreamers and maybe, sometimes, douchebags – it doesn’t really matter. It was our safe haven.
Some of this changed as I lived there longer and came to acknowledge l’esprit français to be far more complex, and, in a way, far more disheartening, than what meets the eye. Some of this changed at the beginning of this year, when the violent attack on the Charlie Hebdo office chimed like a warning bell of an evanescent innocence. And yet, never did I feel the city, and the third pillar of the French motto, fraternité, as much as I did that following Sunday, walking alongside two million fellow Parisians in a stance for unity. We saw the deaths of those journalists as symbolic. We walked to say that we are not afraid. We hoped, at least those like me, who saw the world through (polluted) rose-tinted lenses, hoped that we wouldn’t have to be afraid.
After the events of Friday, November 13th, we are all afraid. Afraid of the insanity that has now become our daily reality. Afraid of the world we are bringing our future children into. Afraid of both the notion of evil and the physical manifestation of it. Parisians are afraid, New Yorkers are afraid, my friends in Russia are afraid as well. Let’s not mask it with hashtags and profile pictures and faux bravery. We are all terrified. And let’s not confuse this with not being courageous either, because, in the words of Nelson Mandela, “courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” We will triumph, we will vanquish, we will overcome and we will rebuild. History of humanity has taught us this much.
There is an honorary title that was awarded to twelve Soviet cities for outstanding heroism during World War II. It is the title of a Hero City. They were given to the cities that fought the hardest, that suffered the most, that lost the most people, that paid the price for the rest. I was proud to grow up in one such city – Leningrad, now known as Saint- Petersburg, a city that almost starved to death during a three-year siege. Today, I am proud to have live in another one. Paris is the Hero City of our waging war, and we salute it with our deepest respect, bowing down to the memories and the families of each innocent victim.
Like any war hero, Paris now has wounds. They are still bleeding, they will take awhile to heal, and, even when they do, they will leave permanent scars. But we find beauty in scars, don’t we? We romanticize them, just like we romanticize wistful memories and broken hearts and pink, polluted sunsets – not because we are stupid, but because this is the only way to keep going. And that’s what Paris is, essentially. Paris is for the romantics and the lovers and the dreamers and the aimless wanderers, in each and every one of us. So, please – for Paris, for our future children, for the world – today, more than ever, let’s keep on dreaming.