Category Archives: Terrorism

The Last Time I Saw Paris

My parents and me by the Seine in the Seventies. (Photo: Duncan R. Munro)

Growing up, Paris was my place of dreams. Particularly the Paris of immigrants and expatriates. The Russian Vladimir Nabokov, the Polish Frédéric Chopin, the Belgian Georges Simenon,  the Dutch Vincent van Gogh, the Austrian Amadeus Mozart, the Hungarian Franz Liszt, the Romanian Eugène Ionesco, the Italian Amedeo Modigliani, the Spanish Pablo Picasso, the Irish Samuel Beckett, the English (but India-born) George Orwell, the West Indian Camille Pissarro, the Chilean Pablo Neruda and countless Americans, from Josephine Baker to Ernest Hemingway to James Baldwin to Jim Morrison. And many more foreigners who lived and sometimes died in The City of Light. All made me think it could be where I, a displaced person, could finally find the kind of creative environment that I intensely craved.

I got to Paris while still in my twenties, but not alone. And not to stay. I was with my then husband as well as my parents. Moreover, my mother, normally an avid tourist, had taken a tumble down a flight of stairs at my aunt’s house in London, so we had to help her along. And there was the usual British baggage-handlers’ strike, so we had to lug our own. And we made the Dover-to-Calais overnight crossing on a hovercraft that segregated sleeping quarters by sex, so my husband and I elected to wander around the boat all night instead. And what seemed like every single person on the crowded train to Paris had a heavy nicotine habit, so that even a smoker like I was back then could barely breathe. So all we wanted once we arrived was to head for bed.

But Paris would have none of that. She provided us with a chauffeur de taxi who exuded joi de vivre. He loved life, he loved Paris and he was determined that we do the same, despite any unpleasantness that we had experienced earlier. So we spoke French, or what passed for it on our part—he was probably the only person that we encountered who did not switch to flawless English after a few of our clumsy sentences—and we started to smile, then to laugh. Looking back at us far more than in the direction he was driving, he pointed out each monument, each building of any importance and even the occasional interesting cul de sac. And a tree or two, warning us that, since it was October, we should expect many large chestnuts to rain down on our heads. By the time that we arrived at our hotel, there was really no question of napping. The only debate that we dealt with was which of the nearby bistros and cafés we would select to while away the rest of our day.

Over the subsequent days, we spent as much time in the streets and shops and restaurants as we did in the museums and galleries. But wherever we went, we—three Latvian-born and one Scottish-born Americans—were accorded the same consideration, invited to share the same joy evidenced by that taxi driver. We stumbled upon a nondescript restaurant, for instance, somewhere between the Père Lachaise Cemetery and the Moulin Rouge, and decided to stop for lunch. Inside, it was indistinguishable from many of the high-end restaurants my husband and I encountered in Boston, except it was frequented mainly by locals. Our waiter pointed out an elegant gray-haired man who came in daily and took two hours to enjoy his midday meal. This waiter also stopped in the middle of taking my mother’s order to bring her a plate of little raw fishes so that she could see what she would get lest she regret selecting an unfamiliar rouget dish. And thereafter brought everyone else’s orders to our table first so that we could better understand what constituted French cuisine.

I remember that taxi driver and that waiter each time that I hear “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” And, since the November 13 terrorist attacks, that song has played constantly in my head. You see, it was composed in 1940 and inspired by the Fall of France, which brought Paris under Nazi Germany’s control. And seems terribly relevant these days since it gives voice to the sadness that comes when a wonderful way of life is suppressed by, basically, barbarians. The lyrics nostalgically recall the dodging of taxi cabs and the sound of their horns. The laughter in the heart of Paris heard “in every street cafe.” The “trees dressed for spring,” when the chestnuts that we saw would be abloom with magnificent creamy pyramids. It does not say, because, of course, no one knew then, that Paris would be back. But it happened in a matter of years, and it will happen sooner now, once she has mourned her loss. After all, she has had the same motto since 1358: “Fluctuat nec mergitur,” which translates to “Elle est agitée par les vagues, et ne sombre pas,” which translates to “She is tossed by the waves but does not sink.”

In the aftermath, as attempts are made to protect her from further assault, I wonder whether my youthful dream of Paris as a site where displaced persons of all sorts can thrive will survive unscathed. Prior to the current attacks, Paris was one of the most multi-cultural cities in Europe. According to the 2011 census, 20 percent of the population was foreign-born. The areas where these attacks occurred were—and perhaps not by accident, as some suggest—vibrantly multicultural and replete with a variety of places where all people could enjoy themselves. I remind myself that terrorism is nothing new. The Seventies, when my family and I were in Paris, was marked by events such as the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics; the bombings, kidnappings and murders by European militant organizations such as the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof Gang; the IRA bombings in Britain; and violence by American groups such as the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army. But neither, alas, is xenophobia and scapegoating during times of trouble.



“The Last Time I Saw Paris,” a song composed by Jerome Kern with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, published in 1940 and sung by Kate Smith.

Satirize Something

Latvian cartoonist Gatis Šļūka’s “Joke About Peace,” 14 August 2014.

While many were posting, Je suis Charlie,” David Brooks was pointing out the hypocrisy of that in “I am not Charlie Hebdo.” The same people championing freedom of expression in France, he noted, are likely less tolerant toward those who offend their views at home. “Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.”

Brooks readily acknowledges that “provocateurs and other outlandish figures serve useful public roles” by saying, “Satirists and ridiculers expose our weakness and vanity when we are feeling proud. They puncture the self-puffery of the successful. They level social inequality by bringing the mighty low.” He even concludes his piece by saying, “The massacre at Charlie Hebdo should be an occasion to end speech codes. And it should remind us to be legally tolerant toward offensive voices, even as we are socially discriminating.”

But, somewhere in the middle, he lets slip how he really feels (and how so many others will feel once the current hoopla concludes):

In most societies, there’s the adults’ table and there’s the kids’ table. The people who read Le Monde or the establishment organs are at the adults’ table. The jesters, the holy fools and people like Ann Coulter and Bill Maher are at the kids’ table. They’re not granted complete respectability, but they are heard because in their unguided missile manner, they sometimes say necessary things that no one else is saying.

Well, dear David, while I defend your right to sneak in such stupid stuff, I also defend my right to disagree. And on all three counts.

First, your Americanocentric concept of common mealtime customs is flawed. Unlike what you see here, the other societies that I have encountered do not segregate by age. Children and adults—even old people!—sit at the same table. Which means that kids start learning about the way that the world works from an early age. And, IMHO, become more circumspect adults. For my part, I learned that firing squads and gulags were not peculiar to my family the same way that I learned that caviar was just fish eggs and eel was a delicacy: while seated at many tables with generations of Latvian displaced people.

Second, satirists are more than silly people. I discovered that at those tables, listening to the DP’s stories. Some concerned my father, who was assigned administrative duties in Valmiera during the German occupation. That did not stop him from writing. Each night before leaving his office, he composed doggerel mocking the interlopers and pinned it to his lampshade; each morning it was gone. His friends feared for his life but recited postings from memory when their superiors were out of earshot. My father was unconcerned, saying he could hardly be arrested for a few foolish words.

Third, only bad satire is hit-and-miss; good satire stings precisely because it is so spot-on. There was nothing accidental about the reaction people had to my father’s verse. Whether it changed anything then, I do not know. But I believe it could now given the multiplier effect of our media. If Tina Fey’s caricature of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin did not determine the outcome of an election, it certainly swayed sentiment. And spawned a series of studies on “the Fey effect.” Which is what Napoleon might have had in mind when he said that James Gillray, a printmaker famous for social and political satire, did more than all the armies in Europe to bring him down.

So, dear reader, know that there are people like me out there who do not have a kids’ table at which to seat you should you partake of Charlie Hebdo. Or Chuck Palahniuk. Or The Onion. Or The Harvard Lampoon. Or Chris Rock. Or even The Interview, if you must. Moreover, they might even encourage you to cook up some satire of your own like my father did, not just be content to consume it. Even our Homeland Security Department exhorts: “If you see something, satirize something.” Or something to that effect. We all know that keeps us safe from an insidious enemy, intellectual and emotional sloth.

You can start with something easy. I recommend a threat from a far-off land or an unfamiliar culture. (I would be pleased if you took on Russia’s remarkable statement that my native Latvia can rest easy, but this is entirely up to you.) Once you master that, you can come a bit closer. Satirize something in your own land or culture. Then home in on your colleagues, friends and family. And, finally, on yourself.

Note: For more about my family and me during the Soviet re-occupation of Latvia and earlier times, see my short story “Making Soup.” My one-month-old narrator definitely deserves her place at the dining table.