The thoughts and sympathies of many, myself included, are with the people of Paris today. And with those of Beirut, and Baghdad, and anyone else who is besieged by acts of terror – we do tend to forget about the rest of the world when European cities are attacked. But there are certain places that resonate within our own cultural echoing chamber, that sing familiar songs which tug heartstrings – even if, like me, we’ve only been there once, or not at all. Which is why writers like to write about them, and filmmakers to set movies in them, and composers to make music for them, all of which adds to the idea that we know the place. Paris is certainly one of those iconic spaces – beautiful, vibrant, and oddly familiar.
A significant section of Time Goes By is my love letter to a city I’ve barely seen, so please indulge me in quoting my own work here. Two excerpts from Chapter Thirteen:
There were worse things than being alone with Sam, Olivia considered as they found themselves, an hour later, passing through the last faint shadows of the Eiffel Tower before the light faded and all was shadow. At least they understood each other.
“That’s new to you, right?” she said, glancing around first to be sure no one was listening, and waved at the tower.
“Yes. Built in the eighteen eighties, I believe.”
“Because we’ve missed it so far in the various tourist itineraries.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “would you rather have been sitting on a sofa reading French novels all these days, sparing your feet? I wanted to see the city; you didn’t have to come along.”
“My feet are fine. You make an odd sort of guide, that’s all. ‘Here’s where the Bastille used to be; this was Buffon’s house; my, this neighborhood has gone downhill; blast, another view spoiled by modern building.’”
“I lived here for several months on three different occasions in the seventeen seventies.”
“And here you are again. Can’t hold still, can you?” Twisting his features into a look of disdain was apparently too much effort; they could both assume it done. “Yesterday,” she went on, “when we got to Notre Dame—”
“Olivia, I am allowed to be saddened by this… bloodbath.”
“You were almost in tears. And it wasn’t that bad. Sandbags protecting the façade, windows taken out for safekeeping. Easy enough to fix when the war’s over, if not sooner. No bloodbath in Paris. Une ville ouverte. I do remember that much.” He shrugged. “She was a venerable old lady when you knew her,” Olivia added. “But I bet you thought of her as a brave one. And there she was cowering in the corner.”
Sam nodded slowly. “She has taken her knocks through the centuries. I don’t think I liked to see her protected. Vulnerability is a given, but…” He hesitated, his steps losing their rhythm. “When one starts protecting monuments, it implies that the city can’t go on without them. Whether or not that’s true.”
“Would you rather see them destroyed?”
“Of course not.” He stopped, looking up at the tower. “Boston is my patrimony. Vienna is my home, or the closest I have to one. Paris is… my beloved. And I’ve never thought I could willingly lay down my life to save any of them. But…”
“You could see yourself as one of those sandbags?”
He looked back at her, surprised. “Yes. Foolishly enough. What’s one more sack of guts blasted apart by bombs?”
“What’s one more cathedral?”
Sam finished the phrase and said to the old men, “A fine instrument.”
“Sam!” Eugénie said. “You never told us—”
“I’m very out of practice,” he replied, with a quirk of the mouth at Olivia. “Lack of opportunity.”
“That was beautiful! What was it?”
“It was Mozart,” answered Olivia, who had recognized the piece, one of George’s favorites.
“Un Boche,” muttered Max.
“I assure you he did not wear a swastika on his arm,” said Sam; Olivia could hear the unspoken because I’ve met him. “Also he was Austrian.”
“So is Hitler. Don’t you know any French music?”
Sam tucked the violin under his chin and began playing a faintly familiar tune; Eugénie burst out laughing. “L’Internationale! That is one in the eye for you, Max. Thoroughly French, but you should not play it in public these days, Sam, as Max knows perfectly well; remember the time you got drunk and—”
“Play La Marseillaise,” snapped Max. Sam looked at Eugénie, who nodded.
He began to play, tentatively at first, so that the martial quality of the music was obscured. As his confidence increased—perhaps it was the look on Eugénie’s face—the notes gathered power and aggression, resonance and vibrato. The sound echoed in the cavernous space despite the bustle and despair, and an audience began to accumulate, some listeners merely lifting their heads in recognition and some moving closer as though drawn by the call to arms. By the time Sam drew the second verse to a close with a proud flourish, many in the crowd were weeping. Eugénie brushed her eyes with the side of her hand and led the others in applause.
Sam ignored it, turning to Max. “Written in Strasbourg to honor a German,” he said. “Any more requests? Or no. We all have places we must be.”