My European sojourn continued this week with a trip to Paris. I arrived in Paris on Monday morning, just days after the Friday night terrorist attacks. I had been unsure whether or not to come to Paris, and I wasn’t sure what I would find when I got there.
My first impression was that the city was calm and busy getting on with life. Upon my arrival in Paris on the Eurostar train from London at the Gare du Nord, I didn’t notice any increased security or border control at the train station. The Line 4 Métro train from Gare du Nord to the Odéon stop was as busy and crowded as ever. Within minutes of checking into my hotel, I was seated at a crowded sidewalk café just off of Boulevard Saint-Michel, drinking one of those ridiculous little cups of acidic tar that for some reason the people of France insist on calling “coffee” — or, rather, café — surrounded by many others taking in the afternoon air, all of whom seemingly were without concern or anxiety. The peaceful picture of the Cathedral Notre-Dame at the top of the post, which I took shortly after my arrival, captures the mood I felt as I walked around.
While my first impression was that the city had already returned to normal, a further look around suggested that underlying tensions remained. Several of the city’s key landmarks, such as the Tour Eiffel and the Jardin du Luxembourg were closed (as shown in the picture to the left). As I moved around the city over the next few days, I came across various streets that were closed off by the police (see first picture below). There were heavily armed military personnel carrying automatic weapons patrolling various locations – not just places like the Louvre and the Notre-Dame Cathedral, but even quiet side streets like the Rue St.-André des Arts (see second picture below).
I also realized that beneath the surface calm jitters lurked. On Wednesday morning, I was walking past the Galeries Lafayette department store in the Opéra district when the doors burst open and crowds of people came running out of the store, some screaming and crying. (See the picture to the left.) Several people seemed to believe that they were literally running for their lives, as they ran out of the store and into the street, directly into the path of oncoming traffic. It clearly was some kind of panic stampede, because when I came past the store about 30 minutes later, the sidewalk crowds had cleared and customers were moving freely in and out of the main doors.
Because of heightened security concerns and continuing jitters, it came as no surprise that on Tuesday, Advisen, after consultation with the event sponsors and partners, decided to cancel the European Executive Risks Insights Conference, which had been scheduled to take place on Thursday and which had been my primary reason for coming to Paris. While I was personally disappointed with the cancellation, I completely understand and respect the decision, as considerations of safety and security of course must be paramount. In the end, I think the conference date was just too soon after Friday night’s tragic and disturbing events for the conference to go forward as planned.
After the event was cancelled, I quickly scrambled to try to set up meetings with many of the Paris-based conference participants so that the trip was not a complete wash-out from a work perspective. I did manage to set up several meetings, some of which are depicted in the pictures below. In the first picture, I am with Arturo Luna Ibarra of Swiss Re, at the L’Opéra Restaurant in the Palais Garnier itself. In the second picture, I am with Guillaume Deschamps of Marsh and Cris Baez of QBE at the Florica Danica restaurant on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.
While I was disappointed that the conference was cancelled, I did have the consolation of spending several days in Paris, which, as they say, didn’t suck. I personally never felt unsafe or insecure while in Paris during this trip, and so I was quite happy to walk around the city and to roam about on the Métro. The temperatures were comfortable, and even though it rained a bit while I was there, I had several opportunities to enjoy the sidewalk café culture, which appears to have survived even the terrible attacks. I even had an opportunity to attend a concert on Tuesday evening at the ancient Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre church (reportedly Paris’s oldest church structure, pictured to the left). The concert featured a performance by the French pianist, Jean-Christophe Millot, who played several pieces by Beethoven and Chopin. The church’s acoustics are superb, and the sanctuary’s small size and the subdued lighting made for a particularly intimate feel. I was also sitting close enough to watch the performer’s hands, which was absolutely brilliant.
The concert was also relatively short, which afforded me the opportunity to slip away to a nearby bar to watch the International friendly soccer match taking place that evening in London between France and England. Because of the events at the Friday night soccer match in Paris between France and Germany, the Tuesday night game was quite emotional.
Even in the rain, even at night, but especially in the bright sunshine, Paris is a beautiful city. My heart aches for those who suffered loss or harm in the attacks. I am sorry the conference had to be cancelled. But just the same I am very glad I came. Paris has been through very difficult times before and it will get through these terrible times as well. The city has a very special place in the lives of everyone who has ever been there. I can’t imagine ever staying away. (A key to the pictures is set out below.)
Key to Paris Pictures (from the top): 1. Tour Eiffel, viewed from the Palais de Chaillot; 2. La Seine; 3. Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis, Rue Saint-Antoine; 4. La Sorbonne; 5. l’Eglise Saint-Germain-des-Prés; 6. Place de la Contrascarpe; 7. Notre-Dame Cathedral; 8. La Seine; 9. Rue de Buci; 10. Arc de Triomphe; 11. Amour sacré de la patrie.