The perch of the 1937 world’s fair Trocadero complex on the Seine offers a stunning unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower where thousands gather to stand in awe, snap photos, and face an onslaught of relentless souvenir hawkers. But when we went this past Friday night, the peddlers were still there, but not the tourists. I’d never seen the area so desolate.
We came to pay our respects. The tower is temporarily basked in red, blue and white lights, symbolizing the French flag, a moving statement of stoic patriotism in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13th. Normally the tower becomes a spectacle of glittering, festive lights each hour, a show that was put on hold after the murders of 130 people at the hands of ISIS gunmen.
The lack of crowds at the Trocadero shouldn’t have been so surprising. After all, we weren’t sure if we were even allowed to be there. France’s state of emergency following the terrorism prevents assemblies of large crowds. Would one of the city’s most popular tourist spots be included in the ban?
Perhaps an official ban is not needed at all. A week after the attacks, Paris is eerily quiet. Neighborhoods that would normally be teeming are empty, with shops, bars and restaurants closed when they would typically be packed. Tourism business is down by 40 percent or more, according to some reports. Understandably, few in Paris feel like carousing these days.
My husband Jerry and I arrived in Paris for a brief stop as part of a long-planned trip. When the terrorist attacks happened some of our friends and family urged us to cancel.
“It’s so violent over there,” more than one person said.
Paris? Dangerous? I refused to accept this. Yes, the horror of terrorism had struck the French capitol — twice in one year — but it made no sense to suddenly dismiss the entire city as unsafe. After all, American cities are consistently far more violent and deadly. Chicago is one of my favorites, and this year has had more than 2,000 shootings, resulting in more than 400 murders. And America is not immune to acts of terror that kill innocent strangers. My nephew once lived in Aurora, Colorado, just a short distance from the movie theater massacre where a dozen people were murdered watching a Batman film. He could have been there.
Statistically, America is one of the most dangerous nations on earth, even when taking into account the terrorist scourge in other nations. We’re fooling ourselves to believe otherwise.
So we kept our plans to visit Paris. At the very least, we could show our support by not cowing to the agenda of the terrorists who’d hoped their attack would also result in a blow to the French economy.
After the Eiffel Tower we went to the Arc de Triomphe, which is normally surrounded by visitors. I spotted only two people standing at the eternal flame memorial to fallen soldiers. We walked down the Champs-Élysées, the boulevard famous for its luxury stores. Retailers were illuminated for the holidays with entire buildings wrapped like Christmas presents, but few were around to be dazzled.
Heading toward the Place de la Concorde we wandered into the massive annual Christmas Village, fully staffed but without customers. And as we meandered through the stalls we noticed a complete absence of children, even in a play area filled with animatronic displays of animals and Santa’s helpers — a surreal scene that played out in my mind like something from a dystopian novel.
We then made our way to the Marais, a neighborhood packed with restaurants, bars and cafes. We passed Les Glaciers de Paris, considered the best ice cream in all of France, where a line of eager foodies normally stretches out the door. Not tonight. It was closed.
“It must be too cold for ice cream,” Jerry said.
But it wasn’t too cold. In fact, many places were shuttered that would usually be thriving on such a temperate fall night. The streets were void of crowds and we struggled to find a place open for dinner. Cafes that would normally serve until the wee hours were bringing their chairs inside, locking up, and conceding the truth: Paris was closed.
Later that night I met a Parisian friend for a drink at one of the few nearby spots that remained open. He talked about how the city remained on edge, and he’d felt it himself. A few days earlier he was at a Starbucks when reports of gunshots sent patrons there scrambling under tables and hiding for their lives until the police came and cleared the scene. It was a false alarm, but for several tense minutes people genuinely believed that they too might die. Some wept.
“I’m okay,” he said when I expressed concern. I didn’t believe him.
I looked at my watch. It was 1:07am and we were the only customers left at the bar. The staff were noisily cleaning up, a signal that they were eager to close and go home.