I've been going back and forward about whether or not to write this post. I wanted to say something about the recent horrific events in Paris and yet, I didn't want it to feel like I was making it about me. But, as Stephen Colbert pointed out on the Late Show, it's ok to try and find a connection with the city, to show solidarity in whatever form you can. So this is my tribute to Paris. It is what it it. It's only tenuously about photography, but it's a subject that I hold dear, as it's a city I hold dear.
I love Paris.
It's probably my favourite place in the world. The city on the seine has a special place in my heart for several reasons but probably the number one reason is that it was the very first place outside of Ireland that I ever visited.
My first trip there was originally to go to the Apple Expo in 2001. I was excited at the prospect of seeing Steve Jobs in person. The Expo was due to take place in October if I remember correctly, but it was cancelled due to the events in New York a month earlier. I decided to go anyway, as I had friends who lived in the city and it was a good excuse to see them.
I still remember every vivid detail of my first time arriving in Paris. I was destined for the town of Abbesses in the suburb of Montmarte. This was the area made famous by the movie Amelie, which, incidentally I hadn't actually seen at the time of my trip. I remember emerging into the night air from the metro. I remember the smell of coffee from the nearby cafe and I can still see the leaves of the trees blowing in the gentle breeze of the warm October night. And I remember the sounds. The sounds of people talking and laughing on the terraces of the nearby cafes. The square in Abbesses into which the metro emerged was full of people, and across the square the, cafes were full of Parisians enjoying the evening.
I even remember the dinner we had than night at a small little Pizza cafe. It was a rustic little family affair, and I can still see the red and white table cloth and the little old Parisian woman that served us. I even remember the amazing pizza that she served us. The whole experience was so different from what I was used to in Ireland at the time, and It was such a shock to the system that it's etched in my mind forever.
Over the years I returned to Paris many times. I spent weeks, not so much doing the touristy things, but just hanging out in the city. Parisians have a reputation for being rude, or snooty, but my experience thought me that nothing could be further from the truth. The people I met were all lovely.
When I stayed in Montmarte I would go to the same cafe every day. The Cafe Saint Jean. In the mornings I would stop at the newsagent next door and buy my copy of the International Herald Tribune (the only paper they had in English) from the sweet old lady that worked there. She put up with my poor French and was always nice and friendly. In the cafe I would sit outside on the terrace and enjoy my breakfast and "Cafe Creme". By the end of the week, the manager of the cafe would greet me with a handshake every morning, showing me to a table and even guessing my order.
On another trip I stayed beside the Luxembourg Gardens. I would go to the tea rooms in the park every morning for coffee, and would be greeted by the burly laugh of the burly waiter who worked there. In the evenings I would sit at the terrace of the Hotel Luxembourg, having dinner and watching the crowds go by.
This is the paris I know. The paris I love.
I even love the metro. The quintessentially Parisian subway, with its art deco entrances, and tiled corridors delving deep into the earth. I love the smell of oil and electricity as it mixes with the oder of coffee and chocolate from the streets above.
I've walked among the banks of the Seine in glorious sunshine as the boats go by. I've sat on Pont Des Art and watched the painters an other artists (before the love locks ruined it). I've walked the halls of the Louvre at night. I've lit candles in Notre Damme and St-Sulpice. I've walked the Champs Elysee and watched the sunset from the top of the Eiffel tower. I even eventually got to go to the the Apple Expo and I got to see Steve Jobs speak in person.
Paris is by no means perfect. Like all major cities it has its problems. It's once perfect sheen has a gritty undertone in many parts of the city and that's ok. Paris has been through a lot too. The french republic had had its violent birth here, through the guillotine and the storming of the bastille. The spirit of Paris has survived wars and reformation and it will certainly survive this.
I grew up in Ireland during the 80's at the height of the "troubles". Being from a little town outside of Dublin, we were afraid to go to the capital. As a kid, you didn't really know the politics of what was going on, but you knew the fear.
Fear is the only winner in these situations. It is a voracious animal that lurks in the shadows waiting to pounce. It takes the tragedies of these kinds of events and feeds on them, its vile tendrils taking the fears of normal people and spewing out racism, xenophobia, anger and hatred, which in turn just further feed the beast that is fear itself.
A few days after the horrible attacks someone asked me would I go back now. I would absolutely, in a heart beat. As individuals we may feel powerless in the face of such barbarism. But we can fight against the power of fear. We can fight by flaunting our humanity and not hiding from it.
And where better to show the world that humanity is brighter than fear than in the city of culture, the city of art, the home of the Mona Lisa, and the resting place of Victor Hugo and Jim Morrison.
The last trip I took to Paris was two years ago, at christmas time, and it was the first time I got to share my love of the french capital with my wife. I hadn't been in a few years, but even In the cold of winter the warmth of the city and its people filled my heart with the wonder and joy I have always had for the city of light.