My French neighbor, Solène, had tears in her eyes when I answered her knock on the door. “I’m so sorry for what has happened,” she said, embracing me and kissing me on both cheeks. That was back on September 11, 2001.
I was surprised, and touched, that she would leave her young children in front of a cartoon and slip away to my house to keep me company for a few minutes. We were both expatriates, foreigners in our Shanghai neighborhood, watching the events unfold on our television sets that evening like a bad movie, so far away.
Last Friday afternoon, on the way to the grocery store in the Chicago suburb where I now live, that same unreal feeling washed over me, as I heard the first reports of the Paris tragedy come over the radio.
The weary voice of Eleanor Beardsley, NPR’s longtime Paris correspondent, summed up the city’s confused reaction as news of the attacks began to circulate: “We’ve been through this before [with the Charlie Hebdo shootingsCharlie Hebdo shootings, in January 2015]…Here it is happening again, and no one can quite believe it.” Soon, American friends started texting me, “have you heard?” and asking about my French friends and family in Paris.
Back in my kitchen, I live-streamed the France Info radio station, glued to my computer, refreshing my Facebook page. One after another, the people I cared about in the French capital were marked “safe.” My husband’s two goddaughters, our cousins, and finally, Solene’s two sons, Louis and Armand, now university students in Paris.
Before my husband and I went out to a party later that evening, I rummaged in my jewelry box for the little pin with joined French and American flags and attached it to my dress. And on Saturday, when I sent Solène my simple email message of solidarity, I had tears in my eyes, too. For those who hadn’t been saved.
Last night, my 18-year-old daughter was doing her history reading for school. “Rousseau was a boss,” she muttered, referring to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose political philosophy profoundly influenced the Enlightenment in France. I usually chuckle over her running commentary about the characters she meets in her European History textbook. But this time, I stopped cold. I went over to the kitchen table and read over her shoulder.
Individual freedom. Religious tolerance. Plain as day, in that chapter about the French Siècle des Lumières. Ground-shaking ideas from the minds of philosophes like Rousseau and Voltaire. Ideas that sowed the seeds of the American Revolution—and, later, that of France—and values that have bound the two nations together ever since, despite brief bouts of historical amnesia (Freedom fries, anyone?).
When my daughter left for school this morning, she printed out her history homework, and pinned the French-American flag pin to her shirt.
The Age of Enlightenment. The City of Light. A place whose motto has been Fluctuat nec mergitur—Tossed but not sunk—since the Middle Ages.
Whatever the future holds, perhaps now is the time to go to Paris, if you’ve ever thought of going. Now is the time to shine the light, not dim it.