“They are coming into our midst
To cut the throats of your sons and consorts”
The global outpouring of grief over the weekend is testament to the fact that Paris really is probably the world’s favorite city, at least in the imagination. Living here, it’s easy sometimes to forget or ignore the beauty of Baron Haussmann’s street architecture after a long morning dealing with some oblique bureaucratic administration, or a bruising encounter in a cafe with a brusque waiter, or an interminable journey from east to west on a packed and smelly commuter train. Too few open spaces and occasional levels of pollution to rival those of Beijing can make the city an oppressive place to live. Still, on a balmy autumn Friday evening, the anticipation of the weekend can make the air seem truly softer, the light brighter, the art de vivre more perfectly realized, than any other place on earth. For weeks now, the sky has radiated an extravagant, almost impossible blue, and the temperature has rarely dipped below 65 degrees. Every day has felt like a small celebration of life.
On Friday all that changed. The intelligence services knew something was up; in the morning the five-star Hotel Molitor, with its Art Deco swimming pool made famous by the movie Life of Pi, where the German football team was staying before their friendly match against France, was evacuated for several hours. At lunchtime the Gare de Lyon, an underground and mainline railway station in central Paris, was evacuated. In the early evening the Boulevard de Sebastopol, a major artery also in the middle of Paris, was closed, leading to traffic chaos.
They knew something was going on. They just didn’t know what, or where, or when.
In Paris, as in London, Madrid, Jerusalem, Mumbai, Beirut, Nairobi, or New York, we live with the vague but constant fear of terror attacks. We endure wearying daily interruptions of metro stations being closed or shops briefly emptied as another unattended bag is investigated. Museums and many public buildings now have airport-style security, which means that at busy times visitors to the Pompidou Center or the Louvre might have to wait in line for up to two hours, and that’s before they start queuing for tickets.
It didn’t used to be like this. Jittery, a week or so after the London bombings in July 2005, I remember nervously telling a museum guard at the Palais de la Découverte that I had seen what I thought might be an unattended backpack in another gallery. He looked at me coldly, and curtly replied: “And? This is Paris, you know, not London.”