When I first heard the news, I didn’t fully understand it. I was driving up California’s coast and I couldn’t allow myself to think too much about your pain, lest I crash the car. The words of the attacks passed through me like a curious rumble in my stomach. I heard them, but I couldn’t yet grasp what they meant.
It was only later, after I sat alone in my car and read the first news article detailing the night’s events, that the horror of what occurred finally sank in. Once it did, I felt my heart break—slowly, piece by piece, as memory after memory of your magic came flooding back to me.
You were the first place I wanted to visit when I realized there was a world beyond where I grew up. I fell in love with your language long before I knew anything about your history, geography, or culture. So I studied French throughout my childhood, savoring each word as it slipped from my lips, tucking each new phrase I learned in my pocket like a secret.
When I was old enough to dream about living in your neighborhoods and studying French in one of your universities, I felt giddy with the promise of adventure, knowledge, and growth.
When I finally arrived at the age of twenty—unprepared for your high fashion standards in white sneakers and jean shorts—I was young, bright-eyed, and utterly smitten with you, despite knowing nothing about you beyond the stereotypes the world presented. You weren't easy to get along with at first. Your metro stops heaved and swelled with grumpy, sweaty people exhausted from the day’s work, your streets were covered in cigarette butts and scraps of trash, and your train stops carried in them the faint stench of shit.
The accommodations you offered were small and extortionately priced. I lived in an international foyer in a tiny room with three other girls. We had rock hard mattresses, lumpy pillows, and one window that, when opened, ushered in an occasional spider and the noise from the bar across the street.
But hidden beneath the initial disappointment I felt upon arrival was the first lesson you taught me—that experiences are more valuable than space. That the crisp fall breeze kissing my cheeks will always be better than the soft cotton of a pillow. That eating a greasy ham and cheese crêpe on the street tastes better than the food I cooked in the crowded common kitchen.
That sitting along the Seine sharing a bottle of wine with new friends trumps watching a movie alone on my computer. That the freedom to frolic and run and dance and sprawl on the grass in the Bois de Vincennes matters more than having space for a reading chair in my room. That the gleam of shop windows, the unexpected loveliness of ivy growing on a building corner, and the stale smell of old paperback books is far more interesting than a dresser full of things.
You taught me the importance of exploration and discovery, of taking initiative to learn the things I wanted to know. You taught me self-sufficiency, too. It was in your unfamiliar neighborhoods that I learned how to find what I needed, how to be resourceful, how to be thrifty, and how to be smart and savvy.
But you also taught me the necessity of indulgence. Sipping a pot of red flowery tea at Mariage Frères, splitting a plate of oysters with a friend on a Wednesday afternoon, buying a thick yellow-gold scarf just because I liked the feel of the fabric against my neck—you taught me that these small moments of luxury and self-giving are special and important.
Every day that I traversed your cobblestoned streets, metro stairways, and narrow, crumbling sidewalks, you helped foster my independence and innate curiosity. You’d show me a glimpse of a storefront or the curved back of an artist painting swift strokes on a canvas and I’d be lost to your wonder.
It was among your streets, brimming with people of different ethnicities and races and nationalities, that I first discovered the meaning of diversity. It was in your museums, standing below Monet’s famous water lily pieces, that I first felt truly awed by art.
It was in your bookstores, fingering the tattered pages of French books I couldn’t yet read, that I first felt motivated to become fluent in another language. It was in your metro stations, where I once witnessed a group of strangers gently lift and carry a man who had fallen on the tracks, that I saw the inherent goodness in humanity. It was in your parks, sitting on a cold metal bench and writing in my notebook, that I first felt inspired to document my travels.
It was in your churches, staring up at the intricate stone ceilings, that I first felt mesmerized by architecture’s complexity and beauty. It was in your cafés that I first learned what it means to slow life down, to pause, to take time to breathe and absorb what is in front of you. It was in your bars and clubs that I first felt sexy and liberated. It was in your crêperies and cafés, where I met people who gave me loving advice and free glasses of Moroccan mint tea, that I first felt the warmth in receiving a stranger’s unsolicited kindness and compassion.
It was in your universities, a French dictionary in my hand, that I first felt empowered and capable. It was in your restaurants and outdoor markets that I learned to appreciate food in a way I never had before. It was along the Seine, during my long solo walks, that I first felt the world spread out before me like a blank canvas and invite me to paint it. It was you, Paris, who first made me feel unlimited.
And everywhere I went, you introduced me to people who made me feel unlimited, too. I met best friends and confidantes and temporary teachers. I met interesting, vibrant, ambitious people from different countries, families, and socioeconomic backgrounds. I met people I’d never see again who changed my life in an instant and others who would alter my life slowly, over the course of years of friendship and mutual love.
You, Paris, were the solid foundation on which I built my castles of dreams. You still are. Each time I come back to you, you teach me something new about myself. You charge me with creativity and passion; you stimulate my senses; you invigorate my soul.
Even now, in this impossible time of loss and inexplicable cruelty, you remain for me a beacon of hope. Your streets, though they be stained with the blood of innocent victims, still carry the promise of wonder and discovery. Your cafés, though they be riddled with bullets, still represent the beauty of life’s simple pleasures. Your people, though they be crushed with grief, still hold the city’s vibrance in their hearts.
No one, not even someone whose blind hatred motivates him to kill, can take that joy away from you. You may be weary and you may be wracked with despair, but you are not broken. Take comfort in the fact that you have given peace to so many wanderers, inspiration to so many artists, meaning to so many lost souls, and companionship to so many lonely hearts. Your spirit is resilient and effervescent. Your treetops, streets, and people will forever reflect and honor the memory of all those who were lost.
Do not let this senseless violence dim your inherent light, nor let the hatred you witnessed make you fearful of living. Take your pain and mold it into something new. Shape it into compassion for every single person who walks your streets, French or otherwise. Craft your pain into love.
Let this renewed love flow through the Seine, flutter through the wind, seep into the gutters, and illuminate the streets. Let your love fill the minds and hearts of your people, so that they may reflect their own pure, powerful love back out into the world.
And know that everywhere across the planet, we are sending you our own love, so that you may use it to remind yourself of who you are: peace, not violence, unity, not detachment, compassion, not cruelty.
And I know that with this love you will shine anew. You already have.
Je t’aime, Paris.
A note: I am grieving for all the recent attacks that have taken place and for all the innocent lives lost, both in and out of Paris. I chose not to include other cities in this letter because I wanted to reflect on my very personal connection to Paris and my experiences in the city I still consider a home away from home.
P.S. How to channel your helplessness into change.