I arrived in Paris in the afternoon and easily found my way to Karens flat. She was waiting outside. I knew I would like her, she was a friend of Graces and when I was in Ireland Grace had arranged for me to stay with her. I had been planning to hop a plane or train to one of the cities on my mental list of interesting places and just sort of coin toss the details of those three days but instead I found myself with Karen who will now be a lifetime friend.
Her son is 4 and speaks mostly French but Karen and Fred are trying to get him to speak more English. I read French better than I understand it spoken and I speak only about twenty words, sadly they all involve food, drink and the toilet none of which I would be discussing with this four year old. Karen made dinner so Azriel and I danced to Michael Jackson in the front room. I kept saying “Little dude, I don’t speak french” and he kept saying things I didn’t understand but we danced and I read him bedtime stories, in English, and played with play dough and I got a hug and a kiss goodnight and permission to sleep on the floor.
Karen is an expat, with a French husband living her dream in Paris as a tour guide and one of the funniest people I know. She owns a company that does walking tours of the city and she invited me to join her on the tours she has scheduled over the weekend. A Jewish tour, and a night tour. She tells good, moderate and bad jokes along the way, the kind that make you laugh even though you don’t want to.
I am not Jewish and have a hard enough time keeping track of what I did yesterday let alone studying Jewish history in Paris so I learned a LOT on Karen’s tour. Since Charlie and the recent hostage situation in which several Jews were killed in the supermarket, the streets are lined with military and police, especially at the synagogue entrances, even the lesser known ones.
The family that booked this tour were from America. A couple who wouldn’t say where they were staying or who with. “With someone who works at the embassy” was all of the information they gave. We ate at the most famous Falafel restaurant in the area. It was, of course amazing.
I was convinced that I wanted to go to the Louvre, I figured that I couldn’t possibly visit Paris and not go. Karen tried to talk me out of it. The plan was that I would take the train there alone because she would rather eat lightbulbs than go to the Louvre. Later in the day she would meet me at Pere Lachaise Cemetery and show me the graves of Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde before meeting the group for the night tour.
The wait to get in, even with an advanced ticket I could buy from tobacco shop that Karen knew about, was over two hours. Karen got an “Ok, you were right” text from me as I stood in the courtyard in the pouring rain surrounded by french men trying to sell me umbrellas and more asian tourists with selfie sticks than I could ever count smiling with the giant inverted glass pyramid in the back round. Karen in her not-so-gentle-jewish-mother-tone said “I tried to tell you”….. She met me for an impromptu full tour of the cemetery which was far, far better than the Louvre could have been.
We walked from Pere Lachaise to Place de la Republique where the Charlie Memorial is. That was sobering. There is an enormous statue in a large square. Marianne, which is the name traditionally given to the French Republic is on top holding an olive branch and a sword. The symbols of Ladys Liberty, Equality and Fraternity surround the pedestal. Thousands of candles, flowers, photos and letters cover the bottom levels. The statue has been painted and drawn on since the attack and will now forever be a memory to that day. People have written all over the stone and bronze. In French it says “Mohammad would be ashamed of his brothers”, “Make art not war” “We are One”, “One Love, one world” and everywhere it says “We are Charlie”. I didn’t realize the global impact of that day in France until I saw that statue and Karens photos of the march through the streets that closed a large part of Paris.
I don’t feel it is right to mock a persons beliefs or religion but I most certainly don’t think it is right to be killed for it. Twenty five years ago I worked for the Comic News, a satirical, mostly political biweekly newspaper not all that much different than Charlie Hedbo. In fact, very, very much the same. We often chose not to publish certain cartoons as too not offend but others we ran for that very reason. As I walked around the statue I thought that each of those candles was placed there by the hands of a person who was filled with grief and fear and anger and the desire to unite and speak against terrorism. Each word written on that stone had been written by someone. A person not that much different than me. For three years and while pregnant with Maraya, I did the very same work as those people who were killed for publishing the voice of the left. I left the square thinking, I’m not French but I too am Charlie.
We sat in a cafe and had coffee while waiting for the night tour family. A woman from Kenya and her English husband and their two grown sons. We walked the streets of Paris at dusk and spent sunset at the Pantheon. From there we walked down a narrow, dark street where once a barber shop stood. Young men would go into the barber shop and never return until one day a man left his dog tied up outside while he went for a shave and a trim. After a while the dog started barking and didn’t stop which of course drew the attention of the police who discovered that the barber, we will call him the real Sweeny Todd, was selling the boys to the butcher down the road where they became meat pies.
On that same road a stone building had collapsed trapping a mother dove and her babies in the rubble. Her mate brought her food until she was freed by people who watched this amazing act of devotion take place. There is a plaque and the story is written on a wall explaining that the people who witnessed this were so moved by it that they began a sort of occult type worship of the birds. Eventually bird worship was banned. I imagine young man meat pies were as well.
As we stood overlooking the Seine Karen pointed out a butchers tower and told us the legend of a beautiful British girl who would meet young men in the park and invite them home with her. They, being young men would eagerly follow her home only to disappear forever. A detective finally sent out a young man as bait, to wander the park alone looking handsome and available. He was eventually approached by and invited to the home of the beautiful British enchantress. One inside she suggested that she would slip into something more comfortable and disappeared behind a changing screen. The young bait followed and to his horror found the heads of the twenty six missing men. German medical students were studying what a head looks like at death so this enterprising woman was selling heads to the students and bodies to the butchers.
Karen reminded us that Napoleon had said “history is a bunch of lies we all agreed on” and we walked on wondering.
We walked for three hours on this particular tour and saw most of the main sights including Notre Dame, the outside of the Louvre and the old jail with gold rimmed chandeliers, after hearing the meat pie and severed head stories I wondered what they had fed the prisoners in Paris. Karen and I would be meeting her family and their friend Jacques soon. He would be driving us to the places to far to walk. It was cold and windy and I was relieved when we said goodbye to the Kenyan Brits and got into the warm car.