Here’s a 21 October 2020 excerpt from my forthcoming An American in Pandemic Paris. A Coming-of-Retirement-Age Memoir, available at your favorite book-purchasing location by 25 November.
“It’s strange walking to the 8 p.m. Eiffel Tower twinkle in the streetlight-lit night. Instead of studying architectural details, I now focus on shop windows and apartments. I adore gazing into apartments; I’m curious about how others live. Some leave the wood of their half-timbered ceilings unpainted, while others coat them in ceiling white to create visual coherence. These apartments have lower ceilings and generally date to the sixteenth or seventeenth century. Those with high ceilings and floriated plaster borders around them date to the eighteenth or nineteenth. Some have crystal chandeliers, built-in bookcases, and overdoor panels painted with bucolic scenes that evoke palatial elegance; others suspend paper-balloon ceiling fixtures and are outfitted from IKEA, evidencing a modern economical aesthetic.
Usually, amber lights define the contours of the Eiffel Tower beginning at dusk and change to white twinkling ones for five minutes on the hour like so many blinking stars affixed to the steel beams. Tonight, it switched to unlit. No twinkling. Eiffel’s Tower of Three Hundred Meters became a strange, black silhouette against the darkening blue-grey sky. I looked around to see if there was a blackout but no, apartments and streetlights remained illuminated. I suddenly realized it was likely a moving, if witnessed by few, commemoration of martyred history teacher Samuel Paty, beheaded by Islamic terrorists on October 16th. Earlier in the day, a march was held in his honor ending with a memorial service at the Sorbonne, where Macron gave a poignant tribute.
Paty was assassinated because he held a discussion about freedom of expression in his junior high school class. The subject centered on the terrorist attack of Charlie Hebdo offices, an event that inaugurated a bloody year of Islamic terrorism in France. On January 7, 2015, the Kaouchi brothers, members of al-Quaeda, entered the office of the provocative satirical weekly just before lunchtime. They executed eleven journalists in retaliation for the newspaper’s publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. Since its founding in 1969 in the wake of the student riots of 1968, Charlie Hebdo has published many caricatures of religious and political figures past and present.
I stood alone in the darkness for the full five minutes paying homage to the dedicated and compassionate teacher. I gazed at the respectfully darkened silhouette of Paris’s most iconic symbol, reflecting on the unconsidered risks taken daily by teachers dedicated to fostering open-minded examination of societal values and individual rights in democratic societies. The sudden re-illumination of the Eiffel Tower snapped me out of my reverie. As in meditation, I lost track of time during those five minutes, which seemed much longer as my mind wandered the labyrinth of unanticipated dangers involved in educating youth. Certainly Paty, the father of two small children, could never have imagined even in his most dystopic dreams how his last day would end. I hurried to make it home before the 9 p.m. curfew, too absorbed in my thoughts to window gawk.”