Living without Fear in France


Before I left for my first extended stay in France several years ago, people would ask me if I was afraid.

At the time, they wondered if I feared immersing myself in a foreign culture, of tackling another language, of living far from home.

I wasn’t afraid. Far from it. I looked forward to seeing how others lived, to feeling my way toward how they felt, to grappling anew with a language I’d studied decades earlier. As for living far from home, I would make my home wherever I was.

“I couldn’t do what you’re doing,” one friend said. “I have too many responsibilities.”

I wasn’t exactly fancy-free, myself. But he meant that as a father he couldn’t up and leave his family, his job, his way of life. It’s true that my life didn’t have the same burdens as his (the way he mentioned his responsibilities, with a tinge of remorse, it seemed as if he’d have been happy to abandon everything if he could have done it without consequence). But our lives were different, and our choices were individual. I chose to live in hope rather than regret (or I should say I finally chose to do so, after a life of squandered opportunities and bad decisions). But I also had the feeling at the time that even if my friend had been free of family obligations, he’d not likely have taken a leap into the relative unknown. He’d prefer to be discontent while believing he’d always be safe. People fear what they don’t know.

They also fear what they think they know.

More recently, following certain terrorist attacks in France – the killings in Paris at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket a year-and-a-half ago, the slaughter at the Bataclan theater and at several restaurants in mid-November – people have asked me if I were afraid to return.

Again, I’m not. I can’t be. I don’t want to limit myself in that way. Having witnessed up close the attacks of September 11, some 15 years ago, I know that I can’t hide from uncertainty or cower in the face of the uncontrollable. It’s not as if I consider a terrorist attack to be like a lightning strike – unlikely to hit you twice. It’s just that if you always think in terms of annihilation you refuse to embrace the possibility of enchantment.

I have also come to believe that if I close myself off from experience because of the chance that something might happen, then I will already have given up on life.

A lot of people have recently cancelled trips to France because they are worried about potential terror attacks. And some people I know here in Paris are reluctant to travel to the U.S. because of gun violence. It’s true that you’re more likely to be killed by gunfire in America than you are by terrorists in France (or just about anywhere), but that doesn’t mean you should simply conceal yourself out of uncertainty.

We’re living in an age when some public figures stoke fear of the other. But each of us is the other, and yet each of us expects to be given the chance to be known, or partially understood or at least acknowledged as someone who simply wants to get on with life. And some of us want to do that by stepping out into the daylight elsewhere.

The other night, I had a coffee on the terrace of La Belle Équipe on the Rue de Charonne, one of the restaurants that terrorists had attacked last November. Gunmen there killed 20 people and injured many others who were enjoying an otherwise-ordinary balmy Friday. This evening, perhaps like that evening, La Belle Équipe was busy. A woman next to us was working her way through that day’s Libération and a nice-sized cheeseburger. A group of smokers at another table were chattering on about the Euro Cup and France’s chances against Iceland the next day (France won, by the way). A sign at the back of the bar made note of the attacks of last year, with a line of poetry whose meaning was evident to those who were aware of what had occurred. But other than that, it was business as usual. People weren’t living in fear.

Yet signs of fear are here and there, even if perhaps slightly less obvious than before, though your bags are still searched when you enter certain supermarkets and department stores, and you go through metal detectors to visit the Louvre. The soldiers who used to stand guard at the discreet little synagogue across the street from this apartment have left. Or they’ve taken a pause. They’re still on duty around the corner, in front of a small Hebrew school on the Rue Barye. But even these “vigipirates” aren’t as frequent a sight as they had been. The risk of attack might have lessened, or the soldiers might have moved on to look over other sites. Or perhaps the government realized that nothing says target as much as a group of armed soldiers standing watch before an unmarked door.

In any event, life goes on. Whether you’re fearful or not.

Most of the Parisians at La Belle Équipe the other night, who were having a drink, sharing a meal, reading a newspaper or talking about soccer, certainly recalled what La Belle Équipe signified. For some others it was simply a charming restaurant on a quiet street corner in a cozy part of the 11th arrondissement. And for others still, those who remember and those who forget, La Belle Équipe is a place where you order a coffee, sit on the terrace and pause to appreciate the world around you as life unfolds in all its delirious uncertainty, knowing that fear is overrated in the face of actual experience.

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