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Tribute to Paris

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” 
 Ernest HemingwayA Moveable Feast

Hemmingway’s phrase is quite applicable to me.    I arrived in Paris in 1997 right after my 28th birthday after a short previous visit 5 years prior.     Because I am a Vietnamese-American, people would assume that I probably have more personal connections to Saigon, Vietnam where I was born.    I haven’t been back to Vietnam since I left in 1983 and I don’t have any close relatives or friends back in Vietnam.   Paris is different.     It has become my home away from home in San Jose, California.   I have been back to the city many times and I have many close relatives and friends there.     My family connection to Paris goes back almost a century.   My grandparents visited Paris during the 1920s.    My uncles and aunts went to Paris to study when Vietnam was still part of French Indochina.     Some stayed and some went back to Vietnam after their studies.   They shared with me their fond memories of Paris.   Other close relatives later came to Paris as political refugees fleeing the oppression and brutality of the Communist regime.    I feel at home in Paris.    One time I took my friends around Europe and the final stop was Paris, a friend told me that I appeared happier when we arrived; I told him I felt like I have arrived home.

Paris has been home to many Americans.    Thomas Jefferson, America’s founding father and our 3rd President, arrived in Paris in 1784 as a trade minister.     Accompanied him was James Hemings -- an African-American and Jefferson’s slave – who became one of America’s greatest chefs of the 18th century having learned the culinary art in Paris.    What he found in Paris was the freedom that he didn’t have back in the slave-era Virginia.    In Paris, he socialized with free blacks, businesspeople, respected artists and craftsmen.     After him, another generation of Americans came to Paris.    In his book “The Greater Journey:   Americans in Paris,” David McCullough, America’s master historian recounts the stories of a group of distinguished Americans who set off for Paris between 1830 and 1900 when America was a cultural and economic backwater and Paris was the center of Western world.     From Charles Sumner – the Senator, Samuel Morse -- the inventor, Mark Twain -- the writer, to Mary Cassatt – a famous American woman painter of Impressionism, what these American pioneers brought back from Paris would profoundly alter American history and society.    Henry James, one of America’s greatest writers, spent his years in Paris honing his writing craft.   In the aftermath of World War I, American jazz made it home in Paris by African-American GIs who decided to stay in France to escape the widespread racism in the United States.     Then came the years between the two World wars, a whole new generation of Americans took residence in Paris.     Among them were Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Scott Fitzgerald, etc.     The 1960s was the age of American Rock & Roll stars in Paris.    While in the city, I often came to Café des Flores and Café des Lilas just to absorb the Parisian atmosphere that Hemingway was experiencing.   

When I first came to live in Paris, my cousin advised me “When you take the subway, be vigilant and make sure that nobody puts a bomb under your seat.”     I was perplexed since she was born in Paris but she sounded like someone from a war zone.    Just 18 months before, there was a bomb place in the train as it approached the St. Michel station – the gateway for the Latin Quarter and Sorbonne University – a very popular tourist spot especially for American tourists.     She was a student at the Sorbonne at the time and she had to take the subway to this station every morning.    If she had taken an earlier train just half an hour earlier, she could have been a victim of the bomb that killed 4 people and injured 68 others.   I lived on Boulevard Richard Lenoir, just a couple of doors down the office of Charlie Hebdo, the Parisian satirical magazine whose staff were brutally murdered earlier this year for having the courage to publish the pictures of religious figures.   

On November 13th, 2015, the city was once again under attack and my old neighborhood was once again under siege.      The terrorists chose the Bactaclan theatre -- a theatre known for its Chinoiserie style and just a short walk from my old place -- because it was owned by a Jewish family and the American rock band the Eagles of the Death from California was performing there on that night.    Upon hearing the news of a terrorist attack at the Bactalan theatre and knowing that an American rock group was performing there, I immediately sent an email to my cousin in Paris just to make sure that they were OK knowing that she and her husband love American culture and American Rock music.   I was afraid that they would be at the theatre.    The Islamic State describes the Bactalan theatre as a hedonistic pleasure palace "where hundreds of pagans gathered for a concert of prostitution and vice."      I can see the collision of civilizations right there.     If they don't like Western culture and its hedonistic pleasures, then don't come to Paris.      I personally find beauty in the hedonistic pleasures that are hated by the Islamic State.       There were times on my way home from work, I walked through Metro tunnels that were lined with huge posters of beautiful nude models wearing nothing but a phrase underneath -- I am wearing nothing but my Chanel perfume.   A street musician was playing classical music on his violin at a distance and it was cold and raining outside and the music resonated throughout the tunnel.    The whole experience was exquisitely beautiful and it's so Parisian.    It gave me a feeling of being in Paris.    The nude posters are a little bit commercialized, but they also represent the open and liberal values of modern Europe that I like.   I prefer this hedonistic experience much more than seeing someone covering head-to-toes in a black Burka with only the eyes visible.     It gives me a sense of unease since that person is devoid of any human expressions that can be seen and it represents an alien culture from a dark age that is an intrusion and a challenge to the open and liberal values of modern Europe.     The terrorists also attacked the Bonne Biere Café (Good Beer) and Le Petit Cambodge restaurant where I used to visit.    As a Vietnamese, I can certainly identify myself with Le Petit Cambodge's owner who fled the brutality and oppression of the Communists in Cambodia, which was also part of French Indochina, to Paris.    Personally I don't understand why the terrorists attacked this restaurant.     What exactly do they want to achieve?     Killing Parisians?    If that's the case, they are aiming at the wrong target.   The Parisians aren't easily intimidated and they are pushing Europe toward the right.

Unlike the stereotypes that some Americans have about the Parisians, I actually like them.    There is a sense of defiance and political involvement of the Parisians that is seriously lacking in America.    Compared to the Parisians, the American public is very politically passive regarding their rights as citizens of a free and democratic society.    I remember there were usually massive demonstrations and protests most weekends in Paris about something they didn’t like.    Several times a year, the whole public transportation almost shut down the city due to labor strikes.     There were times when I became frustrated with these demonstrations and labor strikes since I couldn't get around and hadn’t seen anything like these massive protests in the United States.  I know that they just expressed their rights as citizens of a democratic and free society.   My relatives usually support the strikers.     Corrupt American politicians like our Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren wouldn’t last a day in Paris.     

Our former first lady, Jackie Kennedy arrived in Paris in 1949, just four years after the end of the Second World War.    The city had just emerged from the war years with its hardships.    A student at the Sorbonne at the time, she lived in a house without central heating and no heated water.   Despite the food rationing and the hardships, she described her year in Paris as  “the high point of my life, my happiest and most carefree year.”    When she came back to Paris in 1961 as the first lady and wife of President Kennedy, she took Paris by storm.    She was beautiful, classy, elegant, and she spoke French perfectly.   The Parisians fell hopelessly in love with her.    To them, she was one of the Parisians.    Every Parisian girl wanted to dress and have a hair-do a` la Jacqueline Kennedy.      Madame Claude, who operated a deluxe call-girl ring in Paris with beautiful girls from the Parisian fashion world, struggling students who were looking for a source of income, and bored Parisian housewives as depicted by the beautiful and seductive French actress Catherine Deneuve in Luis Bunuel's masterpiece "Belle de Jour" (Beauty of the Day).    Her client list included the world’s A-listers; she recalled that President Kennedy wanted a lookalike of his wife, Jacqueline, “but hot.”      The Parisians didn’t care for his infidelity, I think, deep down they were amused at the thought of a Parisian girl who is even “hotter” than our first lady.    The Parisians may easily forgive such indiscretion, but they would never tolerate politicians who sell them out to multinational corporate interests.    To them, such transgressions are much more serious.   They are also very demanding regarding labor laws unlike in the U.S. labor law abuses and frauds like the H-1Bs are so rampant.        Perhaps in Paris, one is exposed to history everyday and one becomes more aware of it and knows about the history and why it is important to stand up for the rights that have been fought extremely hard over the centuries.    It’s hard to forget history when one walks by a plague at Place de la Concorde with an inscription that indicates the spot where the head of Queen Marie Antoinette fell or hearing stories about her ghost at the Conciergerie where she spent her final years before facing the guillotine.    

Paris will survive and it will prosper.    By targeting Paris, the terrorists try to destroy beauty, history, and Western culture.   But they completely forget that Paris has survived much longer than they are.    Their acts of terrorism is just a blip in history for Paris.   Two hundred years from now, the city of Paris will still live on and the Islamic State terrorism would just be a tiny footnote in the history of Paris.

I like the spirit of the Parisians, particularly the staff at the Le Petit Cambodge restaurant:

"The Petit Cambodge will reopen, because life has to go on for each of us, but equally out of respect for the clients who on that night were at the restaurant. If we didn't reopen, it would be to give in and to admit defeat which is never going to happen."

I already plan on where I would visit on my next trip to Paris.    Not only will I revisit the old haunts of Hemmingway like Café des Lilas, but I will also sit down at the Le Petit Cambodge restaurant and the Bonne Bierre Café as an old friend and pay a tribute to the victims on that dreadful November night.  

Madonna in her tribute to Paris, ""I came here when I was 20 and it was here, in Paris, that I decided to make music. Thank you Paris for planting that seed in my heart."

The singer Bono of U2 group wrote in his new song – Streets of Surrender – as a tribune to Paris after the terrorist attack of November 13, 2015.

"Every man has two cities he needs to be. The one he can touch and the one he can't see. 

"The one where a stranger's a friend. Every man's got one city of liberty.

"For me it's Paris. I love it. Every time I get lost down these ancient streets, I find myself again….