An Ode to Paris


A bird flies in front of the Eiffel Tower, which remained closed on Sunday, Nov. 15, after French President Francoise Hollande declared three days of national mourning in Paris. (Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP)

Paris woke up this weekend shrouded in a veil of mourning, and all of us who love France and its great democracy are grieving together, as if we share one shattered heart. Parisians gathered Saturday night at the Place de la République, as they did in January following the terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. People have been laying flowers, candles, and remembrances around the square since the massacres. Four of the assaults were carried out close to this crossroads, the geographical and emblematic heart of all that is young, fresh, and happening in the Marais, Bastille, and Canal Saint-Martin neighborhoods of Paris.

In the center of the Place de la République rises the bronze statue of Marianne. As the symbol of France’s Third Republic, Marianne represents freedom, democracy, and defiance against all forms of tyranny. Her right hand lifts an olive branch, and her left holds a tablet inscribed with the words Droits de l’Homme — Human Rights. She stands on a pedestal, around which, carved as human figures, are Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité — those values that the Parisians fought for and are determined to uphold in the hours, days, months, and years ahead.

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Paris and her aching beauty have been profaned by violence, and it is too soon to talk about healing and getting on with life, just as it was in the bleary days in New York City following 9/11. But it is certain, after the painful edges of shock, grief, fury, and fear wear down with time — as it does after tragedy — Paris is going to recover, ever sorrowful but mightier still. For the sake of mankind, for all of us who depend on Paris as a touchstone and an icon, it must and it will retain its proud and eternal spirit. The magnificent city on the Seine has always been far more than a place on the map. It is the repository of our dreams, the place we envision ourselves when we crave a fuller, bigger, more beautiful life than the one we are living. We admire Parisians, indeed want to emulate them, precisely because we believe they possess powers that no one else on earth can access. They inhabit a world of unattainable beauty, so they must themselves be unearthly creatures. The city has to heal if only to continue to set this example for all of us about what living — living — really means.


The word “peace” in six languages is projected at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris on Saturday, Nov. 14. (Photo: Michel Spingler/AP)

We are transformed by Paris, because we revere its loveliness and respect its constancy. We drink in history and beauty there, because it is everywhere. We seek out places that elicit our most sensual, curious selves. Our brain is on. Our senses are on. We are comforted by the ease of the Metro, dazzled by majestic buildings, drawn to the open and plentiful green spaces. We let go. We walk for miles and never get tired. We explore. In Paris, we spend our days participating in the city’s twin gifts of lightness and profundity. We eat the bread, the cheese, the dessert, we have another glass of wine late at night at a bar on rue Saint-Dominique. We spend money on perfume without regret. We stare at Monet’s Water Lilies and wonder if anywhere on earth, there is an image so exquisite. Paris forces us to slow down but while there, we don’t waste a single minute. We laugh, we are moved, we stroll the narrow streets and feel again, whatever we need to feel. Alive, most of all. This is the place Parisians are privileged to inhabit, and their spirit shapes the humanity that envelops the city’s elegant, indestructible bones.

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My heart is in Paris right now, especially in my old neighborhood near where the killings took place. My husband and I were married in the mairie of the 3rd arrondissement, where we lived at the time. The building was adjacent to the Place de la République. The mayor who presided at our wedding was in his 50s and told this anecdote.

“I am proud to officiate at the marriage of Americans, right here near the Place de la République. In 1944, when I was a boy of 6 years old, I saw freedom in the faces of the American soldiers marching right here in my neighborhood, past the statue of Marianne, as they came to liberate Paris.” His voice cracked as he told this story, and the rest of us were in tears. How sad that this square, a symbol of deliverance, peace, and salvation has turned into a shrine. If I could, I would be there now.


People gather at Notre Dame cathedral on Sunday for a national service for the victims of the terror attacks in Paris. (Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP)

In the meantime, I believe in the spirit and resilience of Paris. Today, the Seine still flows under gilded bridges north to the English Channel, as it has for many years. The city’s great monuments to civilization — the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the basilica at Sacré-Coeur, the shining dome of Les Invalides — retain their dignity and poise. Perhaps they even appear to stand taller and more noble in the aftermath of tragedy, as if to encourage its citizens to not be diminished by fear. All over Paris, the weary and the sorrowful are gathering hope from a world that worships and needs — more than ever — their magnificent city. I feel certain that based on history, Parisians will be united in strength as much as in grief.

Related: Paris Closes the Eiffel Tower and Other Tourist Sights Indefinitely

In 1941, when the Germans occupied Paris, the writer Colette was holed up in her apartment overlooking the Palais Royal. In her essay, Paris From My Window, she wrote: “We did not know that the blows destined to fall one day upon a country so filled with beauty would reverberate through each and every one of us. We know it now. It is with this kind of love as it is with the other: We find out very little about it from the joyful times. We are certain of its presence and its power only when it brings us pain.”

Marcia DeSanctis is the author of 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go.

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