Darkness and Wonder in the City of Lights: Paris

Just spent ten days in Paris. It’s a wonderful city and my favorite destination even though flying internationally is hardly a joy.

Most poignant memory of it is the last night I was there. I was coming back around 10 p.m. from sitting outside at the La Rotonde brasserie on Rue du Montparnasse and turned onto Rue de Rennes. Earlier that day I had said goodbye to my 4-year-old grandson who was heading home. I had spent a lot of enjoyable time with him taking him to the wonderful playgrounds at the parks and gardens.

I noticed a woman who had her head covered with a shawl which made me believe she was a Muslim sitting on the sidewalk against a building. It is not usual to see people sitting on the Paris streets with cups in front of them looking for a handout or some who are standing with their hands out. Walking by her I glanced down and saw a young boy around the age of my grandson quietly sitting next to her.

My heart broke for the youngster being in such a perilous situation. Tears came to my eyes thinking of that boy and my grandson. Young boys are supposed to be free from want and happy and not sitting on the sidewalk late at night. This young boy knew none of what we Americans take for granted. It should not be like that but it is for many of the poor people in the world especially those fleeing from war zones or areas of food scarcity. Sometimes we forget what it is like for so many of the unfortunate people in the world as we bicker over silly things.

Perhaps that is the trouble with America. We don’t really know what trouble is. We have become a pampered people. We have too much freedom from want and hunger that we concentrate on things that are trivial. We become selfish thinking only of ourselves and begrudge others things we have.

After having gone a short distance past the woman I would return to her and hand her some small amount of Euros. She reached up to take them and looked at me. Her faced showed great weariness and her eyes were filled with sadness.

I had been to the Louvre earlier in the day. I was intrigued by the different portrayals of Jesus’s mother Mary. She wears a shawl in almost all of the paintings like the Muslim woman. A photograph I took of Mary was quite striking in its similarity to that of the woman I passed by. How strange a coincidence after viewing painting of Virgin Mary and Jesus to see the likeness of her with a boy later that night.

Of course that is not the usual memory one returns from Paris with. There are though many others. The city is a walkable one. How best to enjoy Paris than to be on the streets with the people. There are hidden treasures almost every block of the way. On Rue du Bac in a courtyard I looked into I saw what looked like a church. I went into it. It belonged to the Paris Foreign Mission Society. Down two flights led me to a room with the most gruesome paintings I’ve ever seen. They were of the martyrdom of some of the members of that society most of which  took place in Vietnam.

Everything is relatively close. The Louvre was a half an hour walk from the hotel, the Eiffel Tower about the same, the Luxembourg Gardens even less. A delightful part of walking is stopping at a sidewalk brasserie and having a beer or wine and watching life pass by.

Mostly I enjoy the bakeries or boulangerie, No day passes without a baguette or two or some pastry. My favorite is a pain au chocolate especially the one I discovered at a bakery which I walked by on a Sunday and noticed the line was as long as one waiting to buy a new Apple iPhone. This trip was especially wonderful because I was there with most of my family.

We’ve all heard how the French dislike Americans. Not true. I’ve been to France many times and never found anything like that.  All that I’ve run into are quite friendly and willing to help so I’m at a loss how it has that reputation. One change I noticed from the last time I was there a couple of years ago when there was a very obvious military and police presence on the streets that this time it was hardly noticeable. Although one is always aware that Paris will always be a target perhaps because it epitomizes more than any place the harmonious intermingling of all races and the joy of peace which alienates and offends those who want to dictate to others how they should live.

With all its brilliance and fine things as I’ve noted Paris has its underclass and supplicants. In the City of Lights there are many dark corners. If only it weren’t so.

2 thoughts on “Darkness and Wonder in the City of Lights: Paris

  1. Matt, welcome home! Yes, Paris is a great city. Magnifique! The Seine, great architecture, great museums, sidewalk cafes, friendly people, walkable, as you say.
    You paint a moving portrait of the poor among us, poverty amid so much splendor.
    Stark contrasts!
    But who has the answer to poverty, disease, war, terrorism, fanaticism, injustice?

    Nations and societies strive to do better (fairer distribution of resources, medical advances, conflict avoidance, equal protection); throughout history, Western Civilization has alleviated much suffering (technology, medicine, just laws), elevated the masses through education, but also engaged in too many wars and oppressed too many innocents (peasants, serfs, slaves). We acknowledged its pitfalls (Vietnam War) and hope to steer clear of the past errors (WWI). We know mankind still has far to go. But look how far we’ve come . . . just think of life expectancy increases; think of vaccines; think of free speech, the right to vote, fair trials (never perfect), in-door plumbing, heat, electricity, books, schools, clinics, Mother Theresa and Albert Schweitzer. Where there’s life, there’s hope!

    2. Smithsonian Magazine has a great article by Ian Frazier on Russia (100th Anniversary of 1917 Revolution, which he says few ostensibly are celebrating). He ascribes 60 million excess deaths to Lenin-Stalin’s Bolsheviks, the late-not-great-Russian Communist Party.

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