As a young man I didn’t place much importance on the City of Light.
I knew it as the home of the French Revolution, the cradle of the Enlightenment, a place of love and rivers and religion (or a famous cathedral at any rate).
And so I didn’t travel there until I was 35. When I did the city I encountered bore some resemblance to the cast-in-absinthe Paris of the popular imagination.
The guide-booked Eiffel Tower, Ile de la Cite, Sacre-Couer and Montmartre were present and correct, busy with July tourists.
But in the 10th and 11th arrondissements, where we stayed, ate and drank, the city was faster, pushier, live, loud. This Paris was traffic and dirt and people – office workers, beggars, mothers with strollers, groups of teenagers. An aroma of cheap pizza and cigarettes blew above the pavements; more than once I dodged dogs’ deposits underfoot.
This was the moving city. It was – and is – a city of difference. The walk from Gare du Nord station across Boulevard de la Chapelle and onto our apartment at Rue de Clignancourt took us past north African, west African and Asian homes and businesses.
In a side street in the shadow of the Sacre-Couer my wife and I ate bun bowls at a tiny Vietnamese cafe. Sitting in the shadow of Notre-Dame, on the Quai Saint-Michel, I had a lunch of falafel above the Seine. Searching out breakfast on a Sunday morning we came across a small cafe on Rue Lamarck, which served a mix of French, Greek and Indian food.
We visited, ate and drank, the other Paris too, of course.
But as the news worsened by the minute last Friday night my thoughts went back to the 11th, and to the last morning I spent in the city, walking in the light through the Sunday morning Bastille market, surrounded by a mix of faces, languages, cultures and foods. The morning’s hundreds shared a common tongue, a place, a sense of tradition.
And a feeling that, of all the world’s places this was Paris, and there was nowhere else to be.