Postcard from Paris

Photo by Rob Potvin on Unsplash

Photo by Rob Potvin on Unsplash

Paris and me, we have history.

On a sixth-form trip, walking with friends down the Champs Elysées in the spring sunshine, it seemed Rimbaud had written his poem for us: ‘On n’est pas sérieux, quand on a dix-sept ans / Et qu’on a des tilleuls verts sur la promenade’ (‘No one’s serious at seventeen / When lime trees line the promenade’). I’d never seen anywhere so beautiful or so alive.

The next time I visited I was studying French at university, and I arrived with a boyfriend – who dumped me without ceremony on the first day of our holiday. I made an excuse about making a phone call and left him for hours as the city welcomed me back. I walked until I was lost and re-found my sense of self.

I returned a few years later with another boy, and we fell for Paris together. On the next visit there were three of us. Our daughter was three weeks old and neither she nor I had a clue what we were doing. Sleep-starved, dazed and hormonal, I walked the boulevards with my arms wrapped round her while her dad worked, and began to see how life could begin again.

Well-loved friends moved to the city and – purely for the sake of loyalty – we went to see them often, and Paris became a city of playgrounds and boat rides and parks with wild strawberries where our children tried out their first (tiny) rollercoaster.

That first daughter is about to leave home in a few weeks, and we’ve brought her and her younger sister back to Paris, while their brother cycles the tree-lined roads of the south for a few days. 

Paris has been a place to which I always return, a distant constant when the rest of life has whirled and swirled around me. She’s a city of contradictions: elegant and seedy, grand and intimate, full of light and shadows, grime and glory. Her streets are alive with creativity, with the ghosts of philosophers and artists and writers I once studied, and loved for their humanity and wisdom. One of her bridges buckled recently under the weight of locks bearing lovers’ initials attached to them. She’s the city of love and longing, and she always has been. 

But this visit she’s shown a different side. 

We drove in from the north, scanning for that moment when the Eiffel Tower first comes into view. 

The road took us through a strobing tunnel to Porte de la Chapelle, and a makeshift camp of hundreds of tents under a flyover, where people walked, stood and sat at the edge of the dual carriageway. 

A woman with a cardboard sign asking for help weaved between closed car windows towards us. A boy washed the windscreen and came to the window for payment. We gave him 5 Euros but he leant in and demanded 10, then grabbed the wing mirror, threatening to tear it off if we didn’t give more. 

Groups of men stood in huddles, just yards from police and soldiers with boys’ faces, body armour and machine guns.

We googled ‘Porte de la Chapelle’ and read about the repeated rounding-up and removal of those seeking sanctuary in the city, including dozens of unaccompanied children. The issues are clearly messy and confusing, complex and nuanced. Around a hundred migrants arrive each day in the area, and the conditions they live in are unsustainable and insanitary. Criminal networks are quick to exploit the needs and vulnerability of the newcomers, and women who live nearby have found themselves harassed and endangered. The place is tense and brutal, and ugly.  

As Europeans we have raised our eyebrows at the words beneath the statue France gifted to the American people on their independence, ‘Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses...’, and what seems to be the current US administration’s betrayal of its country’s dearest values.

But those masses are also here, in Paris, and the government's response is to keep them at the end of a gun, to don hazard suits to sift through the debris of broken lives after another dawn round-up.

These Eritreans and Sudanese, Syrians and Afghans cannot simply be defined and dismissed as members of the wrong club, who lost the birth lottery and are now cluttering up the streets. 

They are people – with the guts to get out of a war zone, to seek a way out of endless violence, poverty and fear, to reach the city that champions freedom, equality and brotherhood. 

But the clarion call of the republic, emblazoned across every hotel de ville in the land, rings cracked and hollow in Porte de la Chapelle.

An evening walk took us into the heart of the city, past a family on a mattress, a boy covered in burns and a mother holding out a cup for coins.

I know that the first family I saw sitting together on a mattress at the side of the road tore at my heart, and that within a couple of days I was speeding up to get past them. I know that in the four days of our stay I saw no one stop to give money, or food, or exchange words. I know that they will have watched my family walk past awkwardly on the other side of the road, our younger daughter asking why the story of the Good Samaritan plays out differently on a Parisian avenue. 

I am bitterly aware that I don’t have answers. But the questions are howling round the boulevards and bridges, the parks and squares of Paris, and they demand a response that is concerted and compassionate, not ill-conceived, populist or panic-prompted.

The Musée d’Orsay houses the paintings of Van Gogh, a broken, impoverished foreigner, overlooked and undervalued his whole life through, whose works now draw millions from across all the countries of the world. Where life left him in despair he saw stars that lit the midnight blue and light it still for those who come. 

If only Paris, city of light, would now choose to extend her promise of liberté, égalité and fraternité to those who are huddled, and bruised, and grieving, and far from home, just like he once was. 






Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required

Five ways to get through dark days

Fight Trump.jpg

It is strange now to think that we once called 2016 callous for stealing David Bowie and Victoria Wood from us.

Looking back, it becomes apparent that the year stole so much more than that, with the killing of Jo Cox, the fall-out of the Brexit vote, the mowing down of 86 people on a warm Nice night, mass drownings in the Mediterranean, protracted conflict in Syria and Yemen, drought and hunger across the Horn of Africa. 

Many of us watched with mouths hanging open as the year closed with the election of a former reality TV host to the White House, the rise of an emboldened far right and a spike in hate crime, division, and distrust.

Destabilising forces are at play, including a sustained and cynical undermining of the free press. While fictitious news is disseminated on an industrial scale, powerful people choose to describe genuine reporting as ‘fake’. It’s staggering to think that ‘MSM’ – mainstream media – is now a pejorative term.

Meanwhile, we find ourselves retreating into bubbles – intentionally or not. 

Algorithms construct echo chambers for us on social media that we narrow further as we unfriend or mute those whose views we don’t share. 

Ads and suggestions for the next thing we should watch or listen to or buy are minutely tailored to our online profile. When profit is the only driver this can leave people exposed and vulnerable. An MIT Technology Review article in May this year reported evidence of Facebook’s use of sensitive user data to target particular ads at teenagers experiencing feelings of worthlessness. 

Our moorings are creaking as the connections between us weaken and our reference points blur. Divided and dazed, it becomes hard to see the way forward.

But it’s worth drawing strength from the fact that many before us have lived through dark days and found their way through them. 

John Woolman was a Quaker tradesman in slave-owning colonial America. His sensitivity to what he called ‘the operations of Divine Love’ led him to become an advocate for the abolition of slavery and a refusal to benefit from consumer goods produced by slave labour and unjust trade practices.

In November 1758 he stayed in the home of Thomas Woodward after speaking at a Quaker meeting. When he learned that the household servants were slaves his response was neither to openly confront his host, nor to turn a blind eye. 

Instead, during the night he rose and wrote a note to his hosts explaining why he could not accept their hospitality, went to the slaves’ quarters to pay them for their service, and made his way out into the night.

In the morning, the note was found and, deaf to his wife’s objections, Thomas Woodward set every slave free.

There’s a star in the constellation Ursa Minor called Polaris – also known as the lodestar or north star – which remains in a fixed position throughout the night. For centuries it has given travellers the means by which to navigate in the darkness.

John Woolman had found his north star. In days when people openly traded in humans, it gave him courage and conviction when it was only too easy to compromise or be passively complicit.

Actions like Woolman’s that are kind and bold and good – and have the power to reverse vicious circles – are vital in these fragile, volatile days. 

They’re evident in the open-hearted responses of the people of Manchester and London who opened their homes to those affected by the recent attacks, drove them home, worked round the clock to give medical care. In the actions of those who took the time to lift a girl in a wheelchair to safety as people fled from the Manchester Arena, and in the man who pledged to return to the restaurant he was eating in on the night of the London Bridge attack to pay his bill and tip those who served him. Under fire they knew what they held dear.

But, away from the headlines, we make a thousand tiny decisions each day that mould and define the world we live in. How do we find and stay true to our north star in the face of fear and fragmentation?

Here are five ideas that come to mind:

1. Lift your head up. You can’t see the way with your head down. Leave your phone behind and go somewhere you can see for a long way. Intersperse noise and busyness and 24/7 media consumption with the ancient rhythms of rest, reflection, and refuge in the world’s wildness to reclaim a sense of perspective.

2. Actively seek what’s true. Hunt it out in the midst of all that is distracting, shifting, immediately appealing or absorbing. When you find it, let it shape your choices, words, and actions. 

3. Be willing to go against the flow, against the grain. Ask questions. Don’t operate on autopilot. We need intentionally to check our reference points against the constancy of our north star to make sure we’re not being blown off course by the influences around us. 

4. Defuse. Woolman chose not to shame his hosts but to convict them. In Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, Jewish prisoners were forced to work in arms factories manufacturing bombs to be used against the Allies. Elmer Bendiner, the navigator of a B-17 bomber, tells the story of his bewildered gratitude at emerging unharmed from an attack by German anti-aircraft guns in which shells pierced his plane’s gas tanks but failed to explode. When the shells were sent for defusing they were found to have no charge. Eleven were empty; one contained a carefully-rolled piece of paper with a message in Czech that read, ‘This is all we can do for you now.’

5. Break out of your bubble by joining in and reaching out. Find places and events that you wouldn’t normally go to, where people are different from you. Support what other people are doing, like The Great Get-Together on 16-18 June inspired by Jo Cox’s belief that ‘We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.’ Lend your presence and your support. Build bridges not walls.

Darkness is disorientating but light is always more powerful. Martin Luther King said ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’. Let’s keep our eyes fixed on it. 

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required