Revisiting Hemingway, Paris, A Son and His Traumatized Roommates in the Wake of ISIS

La Vie En Explose

La Grande Roue at Place de la Concorde (Deborah Copaken)
La Grande Roue at Place de la Concorde (Deborah Copaken)

I read A Moveable Feast on my first flight to Paris, back in 1988. I was 22, on my way to becoming a war photographer. The overnight flight was crowded; there would be no sleep. I’d never been to Europe, let alone Paris, so the father of the boyfriend who’d just broken my heart had given me the book as a going away present. “Read this first,” he’d said. “Trust me.”

I trusted him. He was a Pulitzer-prize winning foreign correspondent who’d spent several years living in Paris, like Hemingway, and he had greatly influenced my decision to move there. By the time I landed at Charles de Gaulle I’d inhaled the book with the same gusto and gratitude with which I would inhale Paris over the next four years. In fact, between war assignments, I actually used the book as a tour guide to my adopted city, visiting the places and streets Hemingway had memorialized, starting with the rue Mouffetard, “that wonderful narrow crowded market street” near the apartment he shared with his first wife on the rue Cardinal Lemoine.

The rue Mouffetard, with its food stalls and cafes and students and old timers and bars, became my perfect antidote to war. When I arrived home from covering the end of the war between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union—which didn’t feel like the end of anything but rather a beginning to something much worse—I immediately returned to the rue Mouffetard to immerse myself among the living. Soon thereafter, not far from that bustling, crooked street, I’d share a kiss with the man who would become my husband.

“There’s no shame,” I said to them, “in seeking out help. You lived through a trauma in that stadium. You have to process it.”

Flash forward 27 years. It’s now November, 2015. I’m a 49 year old soon-to-be divorcée climbing up an achingly deserted rue Mouffetard on her way to meet her 20 year old son, who’s studying abroad in Paris. He has three roommates, two of whom were in the Stade de France during the attacks on the night of the 13th. The four of them live atop the cafes on the Place Larue on the rue Descartes, which is what the rue Mouffetard becomes just after it crosses the rue Clovis.

The author and her son in Paris, Pont des Arts
The author and her son in Paris, Pont des Arts

I was going to reread A Moveable Feast on the flight there, but it had been empty enough that I’d been able to stretch across several coach seats and sleep. Charles de Gaulle, too, was empty. My hotel, near the bottom of the Mouffetard, was empty enough that I was given my room promptly at 7:30 AM when I arrived. “Thanks for coming,” the hotelier told me. I was one of the only guests who hadn’t cancelled.

The power vacuum I’d witnessed in Afghanistan back in 1989 had transmogrified into this vacuum, the same way it had killed nearly 3000 people fourteen years earlier in New York, where I witnessed the whole thing from my roof. My 20-year-old son was 6 at the time, and I ended up bringing him to Peshawar that November, just before and during the start of America’s ground war, to hand out money, soccer balls, school supplies, toys, and food to young refugees.

When people ask why I did that, I don’t really have a good answer. We had to do something.

I arrived at my son’s apartment just as he was leaving for his 10 AM lecture on Derrida, which I’d planned to attend but now couldn’t, what with the two tall, imposing men dressed in black standing outside Science Po, checking ID’s with the vigilance of El Al screeners. I’d also planned on walking through the Luxembourg Gardens that morning, but the police had closed that off, too.

Later that evening, I met my son’s roommates amid the normal detritus of college life: empty beer cans, full ashtrays, dirty dishes, piles of books, a pair of male briefs on the living room floor. But far from being annoyed by my presence in their home, never have I seen four young men so thrilled to play host to a middle-aged mother. One of my son’s roommates—the one who’d become separated from the other in the Stade de France during a post-suicide bomb stampede in which someone shouted, “He’s got a gun!”—was in bad shape. Crying often. The other one had somehow escaped the stadium and made it back to the apartment, but without his keys. He wound up standing underneath the locked apartment to catch the wifi signal spilling out of its open window, totally exposed to the terrorists who might have been still roaming the streets.

I tried to envision how anyone could fire one bullet into such life and joy, let alone many.

“There’s no shame,” I said to them, “in seeking out help. You lived through a trauma in that stadium. You have to process it.” The one who couldn’t stop crying went online and signed up for counseling on the spot.

The next night, I took them out for a traditional meal at the Brasserie Balzar, just around the corner from their apartment on the rue des Écoles. The young man who’d sought out counseling still looked shell shocked at the table, his mind and gaze elsewhere. “Hey, tell me about where you grew up! What are you studying? Do you have a girlfriend?” I nearly shouted at him, trying to keep him with us.

After the meal, he pulled me aside to thank me. The food and wine, he said, had brought him back to life. He was ready to be a student again. Just like in A Moveable Feast, I thought, when Hemingway ate oysters as an antidote to his sadness. “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

The rest of our week was spent eating croissants on en terrasse of an empty Café de Flore, taking a spin on the empty Grande Roue at the Place de la Concorde, visiting the empty Pompidou, and having dinner in half-filled restaurants with old friends like Marion, my former editor at Gamma who now works for Paris Match and said she realized she personally knows at least 25 people who lost someone in the attacks. Even our tourist photos were devoid of life, like the one my son shot of me at the Palais Royale.

Meanwhile, sales of A Moveable Feast were suddenly skyrocketing, selling at fifty times their normal pace. Parisians were leaving copies of it at makeshift memorials. An old woman was interviewed on French TV urging everyone to read it in a video that went viral and claimed its own hashtag, #desfleurspourdanielle.

Paris has to come back, I thought. It just has to.

It finally did, sort of, on the night of November 19th, Beaujolais Nouveau day. My first Beaujolais Nouveau day in Paris was a raucous street party on the rue St. Hyacinthe that lasted well into the next morning. The vibe was definitely more tepid in 2015, as a light rain fell on the Place Larue, but the streets were nevertheless filled once again with students and music and sexual energy and soul. My son and I sat in the café under his apartment, listening to a jazz duet playing Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.”

The next night, exactly a week after the attacks, after a meal in the less empty but still not totally filled La Coupole, my son played guitar in his apartment, and his roommates and I sang along to Radiohead’s “Karma Police” and, as a finale, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence,” which he’d played at my father’s funeral.

Afterwards, I walked back to my hotel through yet another light November rain down the rue Mouffetard, now filled with the same moveable feast that had been such an antidote to the wars I’d covered way back when. I tried to envision how anyone could fire one bullet into such life and joy, let alone many. The tears I’d been holding inside, ever since the gap in time between hearing about the attacks and hearing from my son, finally fell. I cried for my son. I cried for Paris. I cried for his roommates and for Syria and for Afghanistan and for Iraq and for Beirut and for everyone who’s ever lost anyone in the cosmic rippling absurdity that is war.

When I die, I want my children to take whatever money they would have spent on my funeral and instead sprinkle my ashes in the Seine, followed by a hearty French meal.

I lasted exactly four years as a war photographer. War was too sad, too horrific to keep revisiting while still keeping one’s soul. But over the past nearly three decades of my adult life, I have returned to Paris again and again. I can’t not. Though I only lived there four years, it feels more like home to me than any other place I’ve ever called thus. I’ve even told my children that when I die, I want them to take whatever money they would have spent on my funeral and instead sprinkle my ashes in the Seine, followed by a hearty French meal.

After I was safe in bed, with the rain now falling heavily outside, I decided to finally revisit A Moveable Feast. I lost my original copy, but the version I now have is the restored edition, which ends with a bunch of fragments of false starts, transcribed from handwritten drafts now stored in the Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.

The final such fragment left me breathless: “There is never any ending to Paris,” Hemingway wrote, “and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were nor how it was changed nor with what difficulties nor what ease it could be reached. It was always worth it and we received a return for whatever we brought to it.”

Yes, I thought. Au revoir, Paris. Even your goodbye carries with it the expectation of a return.

Empty terrasse of Cafe de Flore. (Deborah Copaken)
Empty terrasse of Cafe de Flore. (Deborah Copaken)
Revisiting Hemingway, Paris, A Son and His Traumatized Roommates in the Wake of ISIS