I first visited Paris on my honeymoon, a gift from my in-laws. The first days of the trip, however, were anything but romantic. One of those in-laws had suffered a serious heart attack the night before the wedding, putting the honeymoon in doubt until his wife insisted we go. The next night, our wedding night, was spent in what would have been a comfortable hotel except for the malfunction of the central air conditioning in the heat of June. That meant a second night with little sleep. The third night, the flight to Spain, was my first trip overseas and I sat up wide-eyed the whole way. It took our four days in Madrid for us to accustom ourselves to the time change. We slept much of the day and aroused ourselves in time for dinner.
But then came four days in Paris—where we woke up. One evening, we sat on the steps to the Basilica of the Sacré–Cœur at the top of Montmartre, the City of Light sparkling below us. Nearby, a group of American students sang sixties songs to the accompaniment of a guitar.
Thus began my love affair with Paris.
We’ve only returned three times over the years since, but I’ve walked many miles there: all through the Île de la Cité and east along the Left Bank to the University of Paris and west to the Eiffel Tower; on the Right Bank east to the Père Lachaise Cemetery (where the famous medieval lovers Abelard and Heloise are buried and yes, The Doors’ Jim Morrison), west to the Arc de Triomphe as New Year’s Eve cherry bombs exploded unnervingly around us.
I’ve also set two novels there, one unpublished, the other A Stone for Bread.
Violence isn’t new to Paris. The city was occupied by the Nazis during World War II. A Stone for Bread is partially set in the Paris of the mid-1950s, a particularly turbulent time for the city. I knew an American tourist some years back who was nearly caught in the cross-fire of a terrorist-style attack on a government building. Paris hasn’t always been friendly to Americans either. On our honeymoon, a protestor followed us through a subway tunnel shouting obscenities about America’s role in Vietnam.
Yet, Paris is a city I love.
So, of course, in A Stone for Bread, my protagonist, Henry Beam, a young man up from poverty and on a post-graduate fellowship in Paris, loves it too.
From the novel: “He barely slept, spent every waking moment exploring the city. He wound his way up Montmartre, was propositioned by whores in Place Pigalle, took mass at Notre Dame though he was raised a Baptist, and tracked along the Left Bank and down its narrow streets near the river to St. Germain. A full two weeks were given over to the Louvre. He took it room by room, studying each masterwork carefully, as if to leave one unnoted might offend the artist. He ate while he walked, grabbing bites of food from street vendors or in the small groceries and charcuteries, staggering exhausted to his room late each night. He climbed the Eiffel Tower by foot, not once but whenever the mood struck him, usually after dark following a few drinks at a café. On one of those nights, half drunk, he ran the steel steps, gasping for breath and, to his surprise, shouted Baudelaire to the filmy sky and the delight of lovers snuggled in the tower’s recesses.”
Henry will soon learn, however, that the City of Light possesses its own arenas of darkness. As we have learned from the recent Paris terrorist attacks, as we know about our own American towns and cities and from the frequent shootings .
Pray for the murdered and wounded of Paris. The murdered and wounded of San Bernardino, of Charleston and Colorado Springs and Roseburg, Oregon and Chattanooga, of Sandy Hook and in the far too many American towns and cities. Pray for the world where the murder of innocents grows so rampant as to appear commonplace. Pray for us all, now and at the hour of our death.