Paris is a beautiful city. But of course, you don't need me to tell you that. We've all heard the stories, and seen the films. The accordion hums gently in the background as a bespectacled man takes a slow drag on a cigarette, his lover adjusting her scarf. You can almost smell the croissants coming out of the oven, fresh and light, waiting to help you start your day. In my case though, the beauty I found in Paris was its ability to retain its sensibility in the wake of tragedy. In the mere days after the peace of the city was shattered, I still felt at relative ease alone in the city. I still saw old men reading news papers over coffee, and children playing soccer in the park. All of the Parisians I spoke to told me that they wish I had seen the city in its prior state. That the police presence was now crazy and super intense. Even before I went, there were a chorus of voices expressing their reticence at my continuing the trip. But in this case the old New York adage of "If you can make it here you can make it anywhere" seemed applicable. Not so much that New York is some sort of proving ground dispensing impregnable people, but more so that nothing seems crazy after life in New York. Walk through Penn Station and it feels as if skid row has somehow been placed within the jurisdiction of every law enforcement group ever. NYPD walk by New York County Sheriffs, who in turn tip their western era caps to the military police in full fatigues. If the zombie apocalypse goes down, I'm heading to Penn Station, because that place is practically an armory. Comparatively, Paris felt like a police free zone. Sometimes I forget the overwhelming and constant presence of law enforcement in the U.S., particularly NYC. A regular Tuesday morning involves swiping your metro-card only after opening the contents of your bag to an assault rifle clad officer.There is an intensity to New York, for better or worse, always swirling about in the air. All the moments are filled with a certain sense of pressure, like a metropolitan sauna. Stepping out of that, if only for a moment, felt freeing.
That sense of weight off my shoulders comes as a result of varied factors present in each city. The biggest factor? The historical and ever present racial climate in the U.S., and my existence as a black man within that system. Part of my ease in the Paris revolved around the lack of the racial history I've spent my life navigating. There is something to be said about being in a land that you know your direct ancestors were not slaves in. To know that you have never had a cross burned in your yard here. A place where the American Civil War was watched from afar. Even in my few days there, I understood to a greater degree the draw the great writers and jazz musicians felt, like Ta-Nehisi and Baldwin before him. I felt a certain sense of freedom, unsettling in its unfamiliarity.
That is not to say that it is some utopia. To be black in France is generally to also be of African descent, though on average there is a much more unpolluted lineage. A more concrete historical identity. No matter the strength of your identity however, to be the darker brother is to be subject to the negative perspectives of others. But for me as a Black American, I felt that many of the looks directed my way were no longer to ascertain my role as a black man (as it is in the states), but now the first mental inquiry was whether I was potentially Muslim. Brown skin. Bald head. Full beard. I saw questions flitting across the faces of passerbys. Sadly, this trepidation concerning a brown person's Faith is one of the ever present aspects of current society.
Pain and ignorance often beget fear. It's just crazy that it felt good to not be the subject of the old fear.