(Editor’s note: This isn’t a ‘travel’ story as much as an appreciation for those who live life unbowed, unintimidated and unafraid … and that includes the people of Paris.)
Ten years ago, our expat family – my wife Cheryl, young daughters Lucy and Lale and I – traveled to Paris from our home in Germany in defiance of the anti-French frenzy that swept the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, then the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Ten years later and living once again in Europe, my wife and now-grown daughters are back in Paris in defiance of the extremists, the nihilists and the angry losers who are targeting France. The most satisfying part of our latest whirlwind trip is knowing we’re far from alone. We met other travelers who’d resolved to make visiting Paris a personal statement of defiance against those trying to disrupt our lives.
The most satisfying part of our latest whirlwind trip is knowing we’re far from alone. We met other travelers who’d resolved to make visiting Paris a personal statement of defiance against those trying to disrupt our lives.
This letter from Paris is not about politics. It’s not about religion. It’s about the resolve of travelers to visit country still dealing with fresh attacks, and living under a state of emergency.
Here’s how Taylor, a 23-year-old student from Oregon we met in the Louvre, put it: “Living in fear is just letting them win.“
Taylor, a recent University of Southern California graduate, and his brother Keegan, 18, a University of Oregon freshman, weren’t just visiting Paris. Oh, no. They were on their way to Munich days after the shooting there.
It was the brothers’ first trip to Europe, and they had resolved not to let terrorists determine how they’re going to live their lives. “We want to stay optimistic and innocent,” Taylor said.
There was the couple from England we met in the Tuileries gardens who told us they’d never considered canceling their honeymoon to Paris.
Finally, there was David, who’d brought his family to Paris from a town outside London. “And it gets worse than that,” he said smiling as we chatted beneath the Louvre’s glass pyramid. “We’re headed to Antibes, just down the coast from Nice!”
Asked if he’d had second thoughts about avoiding France, he said: “It never occurred to me to cancel. Of course, you wonder, ‘Is it safe there?’ But really, is it safe anywhere?”
If my little unscientific sampling of about a dozen people is anecdotal “proof,” then we as travelers are indefatigable in our determination to not let terror shrink our world. Unfortunately, the data indicate we’re in the minority. Tourists (as opposed to travelers) are staying away in droves.
As of June, Parisians had seen an 11-percent drop in visitors since January compared to the same period last year, according to CityLab, the global urban reporting project of Atlantic Magazine.
That’s about a $500 million hit on Paris’ tourism economy.
Though this was well before the Quatorze Julliet (Bastille Day) Nice attack, the data indicates this is a Paris phenomenon, because tourism outside the city rose by 1 percent. And, surprisingly, the number of Americans going to Paris actually increased! I’m thinking it’s because hotel rates dropped, and we Americans absolutely cannot resist a bargain.
Just as New York is the 9/11 city, Paris will forever be identified with the Bataclan attack of 13 November 2015, and the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
Most people simply have a limited capacity for risk, as CityLab author Feargus O’Sullivan observed last month in “What’s Keeping Tourists Away From Paris?”:
Major tourist sites were not affected, but November’s shootings all happened in the sorts of cafés, restaurants and venues that any mildly adventurous tourist might wander into in search of the “real Paris.” The wave of sympathy for Parisians was huge, but potential visitors can hardly be blamed for being spooked.
Yet the Paris I found isn’t spooky at all, much to my surprise. Am I recommending that you go? No. Paris remains too tempting a target for those across the political and religious spectra set on destroying western civilization starting with the French economy.
All I can do is tell you what I saw and experienced, then let you decide.
I have to say I expected a suffocating security presence across the city. That was not the case anywhere we went including the Louvre. The only visible security presence there was a squad of bored but alert soldiers at the entrance. About noon, they disappeared into the museum … I’m guessing to eat lunch. And a group of three police on patrol, one of whom was carrying the odd little Ruger Mini-14 carbine that looks for all the world like a pellet gun.
As someone who used to deploy to the worst places on earth, I like to reconnoiter tourist attractions for risk assessment. I watched several areas and was sort of stunned to see … nothing. First, it was August, so the Parisians were all at the beach. Second, I saw a lot of not-so-subtle French plainclothes security people. The young guy sitting on the sidewalk in front of the government building with his suitcase, just watching the crowd. (Was there an MP5 in that tiny suitcase?) The young African “hustler’ on the Champs-Élysées with an earpiece and a barely concealed Sig sidearm.
Third, I saw mostly families. There were no one-offs wearing bulky, unseasonable clothes walking around with backpacks … which always makes me nervous.
My take is for the average person, crime in Paris is a much greater threat than terrorism. The first day we arrived, there were media reports of six robbers using tear gas to rob 27 Chinese tourists on a bus near Charles de Gaulle Airport. Guys selling trash and trinkets were more aggressive this year than I remember them being, coming inside the entrance area at the Louvre, which they’re not supposed to do.
Finally, there are areas around the Grand Palais, the Pont de la Concorde, the Place de la Concorde and other high-traffic areas where Romas gather, pretending to ask tourists to sign “petitions” for the deaf and blind, or donate to Oxfam. They’re after your wallet or purse. Just say no ….
CityLab writer O’Sullivan notes under Mayor Anne Hildago, Paris is going through renaissance meant to cut pollution, make the traffic-choked city more bike-friendly and possibly get skyrocketing rents under control. France has spent millions to totally reconfigure the once-sketchy area around Centre Pompidou and Les Halles. In short, there are always new reasons to return to Paris.
On some level, after years of living and working in Muslim-majority countries, I look to the fatalism of my Muslim friends for reassurance the Boyds are doing the right thing, defying the ISIS apostates who claim the moral high-ground as they spread terror in God’s name. My friends believe death comes to us all at the appointed time, saying, “Good soul, come out to the forgiveness and pleasure from Allah.”
If that’s the case, then I’ll go happily … and I’ll be disappointed if heaven isn’t a lot like Paris. After all, doesn’t Champs-Élysées mean the field of the gods?
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.