For four days in April, I was in Paris. A trip to the Eiffel Tower. A visit to Notre Dame Cathedral on Easter Sunday. Later, a night-time boat ride down the Seine, the City of Lights all twinkling in the cold, cloudless night.
It was easy to love Paris in the early spring. Actually, it would be hard not to love Paris at any time of the year. And now, it's hard to watch the news unfold for those like me who see the beauty of this city.
My trip to France, and later to Spain, was made even more special because I was with my daughter and a few dozen of her classmates and chaperones on a high school trip. Most of us had never been to Europe before, but it didn't take long for me to feel so at ease, so at home in this special place. You hear so much about the snobbery of the French, but I saw none of it, though I have to confess to sticking to the touristy areas. Those I met were some of the most friendly and welcoming I could have wanted. It was a pleasant surprise.
Not a surprise to me, though it was to my daughter and many of her friends, was the security we saw in some places. Soldiers carrying machine guns, dressed in military gear, could at times be spotted near places like the Louvre Museum or on the Metro.
The events of this past week have brought a lot of those memories into focus again, not just because of the horrific attacks on Nov. 13 that left 130 dead and hundreds more hurt, but because it serves as a stark reminder about the differences abroad verses here. Europe has long been on the front lines of war and terrorism. While I was in France, there were still reminders of Hitler's Nazi troops moving through Paris 70-plus years earlier. I'm guessing that the French seem to understand the vulnerability more than some here might, so much so that during our visit to Versailles, the palace had to be evacuated because of a bomb scare. A museum worker there told me it was a regular occurrence. Translation: This was a part of daily life.
It was sad to hear it expressed with that kind of tone of both reality and resignation. I'm not sure if any of the students heard what the worker said, but I'm pretty sure it would have disturbed them. Most of them were just getting out of diapers during the Sept. 11 attacks and can't quite grasp what happened that day 14 years ago. Sure, they see increased security at airports and national monuments, but I don't think there's an immediate connection to the kind of possible terrorism we saw on our televisions last week in Paris. It's likely true for most Americans. I wonder how many think of Sept. 11 as an aberration, some kind of once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. It's a nice thought, one that we all pray remains true. But while we once could feel more protected with two great oceans as our defense, the world is a different place, made even scarier in the events of the past 10 days.
After Paris, we went to Madrid, another beautiful European city. Our hotel there, coincidentally, was directly across the street from the train station where 191 people died and about 1,800 were wounded in a 2004 terrorist bombing. Aside from a monument to the fallen that day, you might not know what happened there a decade ago. Life there moved quickly, as in most world cities, with people running for their train or walking past the station to work or to places such as the Prado museum a few blocks up the street.
Just like New Yorkers did and just like the Parisians will eventually do, life in Madrid moved on from its attack. Not out of disrespect — life continued because it must. Not out of naivete that it can't happen again but out of hope that the world will be better than what we saw in Paris on that Friday night. We need to recognize that these kinds of terrorists attacks might never fully go away but that our vigilance to stop them is now part of our routine. And it shouldn't dim our hopes, particularly for me, for another beautiful spring day in Paris in the years to come.