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Author series: Chris Pavone on Paris

Against a backdrop of elegant boulevards and prestigious museums, in a time of crisis the French capital reveals its vital heart and soul.

By Chris Pavone
Published 2 Jul 2019, 15:15 BST
Chris Pavone
Chris Pavone
Photograph by Jacqui Oakley

Most summers, my family take a week-long holiday to a fishing camp on an island in a river in Ontario; this is a trip I decline to join, for various reasons, and a few years ago, I used that solo week to go to Paris. It’s a city I’d visited maybe 10 times. Paris was not new to me.

But new to Paris in 2016 was terrorism: the Charlie Hebdo massacre had occurred at the beginning of 2015, with widespread attacks to follow in November, then just days before I arrived a truck ploughed into a crowd of Bastille celebrants in Nice. More than 200 people were murdered, 600-plus injured.

This Paris was a very different city from the one I’d been visiting for two decades. This Paris was aggressively policed, with clusters of soldiers wearing helmets and flak jackets, carrying assault weapons, patrolling even quiet residential streets. Police cars and vans and motorcycles were constantly tearing around; tourist sites had the appearance of military installations. Metro stations and museums and bridges: uniforms and armour and guns were everywhere.

This Paris didn’t look like Western Europe in the post-national era of the EU. This looked more like Central America in the late 1970s, a place where you wouldn’t — or shouldn’t — be surprised to find yourself tear-gassed (as my family did in Guatemala City), or detained by itchy-fingered military police on an isolated mountain road (yup). This Paris also felt like my hometown of New York in the months following 9/11: a city on edge, tensed for the next attack.

Yet despite the fog of fear, this was still Paris. People in the cafes barely looked up from their kirs and Gauloises when the police zoomed by. I felt a new kinship with these Parisians, people who were living in the same situation that had been so familiar to me 15 years earlier: the jittery aftermath of large-scale terrorism. Paris suddenly became much more real to me, not just beautiful streets and amazing restaurants and world-class culture, but a home for people who bought groceries and cooked dinner, where they struggled with faltering careers and midlife crises, got married and had kids. Where people lived and died, sometimes in terror attacks.

This Paris was a place I wanted to write a novel about, this intersection of ordinary life and extraordinary circumstance in a spectacular setting. I set to work immediately, writing each day for a couple of hours at a cosy indoor breakfast cafe, then I’d take a short break to move to an outdoors, hang-out cafe for another couple of hours, spending my whole mornings with a laptop in this perfect, quiet corner of the seventh arrondissement.

Then I’d set off with the intention of doing touristy stuff in the afternoon. But I kept finding myself drawn back to this story, stopping on sidewalks, scribbling notes on scraps of paper. I couldn’t help imagining myself as one or another fictional characters, this one shopping for food at the farmer’s market I was browsing, that one checking emails from the Hausmannian balcony above me, another carrying a suitcase bomb into the Louvre’s courtyard right here.

Not only were my real-life family thousands of miles away, but their remote island didn’t have phone or internet service, nor electricity. It was impossible to communicate with my touchstones to reality. Each day I felt increasingly seceded from my life, while more deeply inhabiting these make-believe personas.

I bought some fruit at the outdoor market on the Boulevard Raspail; wandered through a St-Germain-des-Prés supermarket. I spent early evening hours writing in the gardens of Palais-Royal, surrounded by families having picnics and playing petanque. I met a friend at a famous cafe on a famous boulevard.

Each of these experiences wove itself into the fabric of the book, all these imaginary characters and me sharing the same terror-stricken Paris. After dinner, I’d return to the hotel and get back to work, trying to wring every last bit of contemporaneous verisimilitude out of the day.

I wasn’t much of a tourist that week. I’d done the museums before, but what I’d never done before was go on vacation and have the most productive work week of my life.

The Paris Diversion, by Chris Pavone, is published by Faber & Faber. RRP: £14.99. 

Published in the Jul/Aug 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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