This post is a personal one. And it was not one I expected to write. It’s about a city that was my home for years, and whose streets and cafes have happily captured hours of my time. My beautiful home away from home. Paris.
It’s difficult to know where to begin and what to write in times like this.
It was less than 2 months ago that I was walking the streets of Paris. Returning, as I try to do each year, to the city where I began my adult life. Each trip is a wonderful mix of the old and the new. I like to go strolling down memory lane, visiting my old neighbourhood and favourite cafes and then head off to discover new streets with restaurants and places that I’ve never seen before.
And I was eager to share with you my new discoveries. The latest cafes and shops that I think you would love. Which is originally what this post was going to be about. But for now, it seems impossible to write about Paris without acknowledging the tragic events that the city has just experienced.
How everything has changed within a week.
Streets where I used to wander every day are now the sites of terrorist attacks. My neighbourhood was the 11th arrondissement of Paris – a bustling and busy area filled to the brim with life. A noisy concoction of cafes, restaurants, and bars that was always packed on a Friday night – just as it was last Friday night. I lived off the Rue de Charonne, where innocent people were killed at a popular restaurant whilst they ate dinner, and around the corner from the Bataclan, a concert venue I had visited several times in the years I lived in Paris.
On any other day, it could have been me.
One of the most important things I’ve learnt in the last few years is the power of staying engaged in the present moment. Each day I make a conscious effort not to focus on my past or worry about my future and I try to be 100% present in everything I do. And yet, the attacks on Friday night shook me to my core and I found it impossible not to travel back in time. Back to the very streets that I have walked a thousand times, to the restaurants where I’ve enjoyed the most delicious food and to the Bataclan where I’ve danced the night away. It’s hard to fathom that these places, which hold so many happy memories for me, are now stained with the blood of innocent victims.
And so, where to from here? How do we make sense of the senseless?
I believe that the best thing we can do in times of darkness is to focus on the light. To bring our attention to the ways in which the world has come together to show their support and stand in solidarity. To the deep lessons in human compassion and empathy, as people all over the world have mourned these losses as if they were their own.
And whilst it’s true that this incident has highlighted once again the injustices in the world in that certain causes are given more weight in the media than others, now is not the time to be engaging in a compassion competition. There is no city, no country, no culture, and no people who are more deserving of compassion than any other. An innocent life lost is an innocent life lost, and every one of them is utterly tragic and deserves to be mourned. But we must remember that in times of mass grieving, it’s important to allow people to grieve openly without passing judgment. It’s not the time to make people feel guilty that they’ve grieved this loss more deeply than others. In fact, passing judgment and making people feel guilty is never okay.
After all, it’s entirely normal to empathise with those that we feel a connection with. That’s the very definition of empathy – being able to understand another person’s condition by placing yourself in their shoes and feeling what they are feeling. Just as a mother is able to empathise with a new mum who is struggling and sleep-deprived and a recovering alcoholic is able to empathise with an addict, it’s much easier to place ourselves in another person’s shoes when we have actually experienced what they are going through. And this is one of the reasons why there’s been such an outpouring of grief over the deaths in Paris. Not because we feel that Parisian lives are more important than any other lives, but because for so many of us, we can remember what it was like to be in Paris, wander those very streets and eat in those restaurants. Paris is still the most visited city in the world, and there are literally millions of people all over the globe with their own memories of Paris. And when you’ve been to a place, met the people, connected with them and shared moments together, your ability to empathise with them goes through the roof.
So the question then becomes, how can we learn to widen our capacity for empathy? How can we empathise with those whose lives feel so far removed from our own? How do we develop a deep level of understanding and compassion for the countries, cultures and people that we’ve never met?
One of the wonderful things about travel is that it really opens your eyes to the truth that we’re all connected. The more places you visit and the more people you meet, the more you begin to recognise the familiar in the foreign. It isn’t the different traditions, customs, beliefs, physical appearances and long distances between us that define us – it’s our common humanity. No matter where you travel, sooner rather than later it comes to your attention that we’re all part of this one race. The human race.
And when travelling to far off places isn’t an option, what then?
We need to share our stories. And we need to LISTEN to each other’s stories. The more we can hear the personal stories of those who are living radically different lives from ours, the more we will be able to see ourselves in parts of their story, and begin to imagine the shoe on the other foot.
And so to Paris, a city that has seen so many of my tears and who I’ve cried for over this past week, you will always be the city of light and love. You have opened our hearts and reminded us of the human capacity to love, to feel, to be touched, to be moved and to grieve.