There were some in Paris who anticipated last Friday's tragedy in their city. Though without specifics, they were neither part of the French government or intelligence communities. They were what we would call ordinary citizens who happened to be part of the Jewish community living in Paris. They have lived with a heightened and continual sense of fear since the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket bombings last January. Their fight to live in the moment became unexpectedly personal weeks ago on a grey drizzly Sunday as I wound my way through the side streets on the Left Bank of the Seine River.
When hailing a taxi it's still more a rarity than the norm to find a woman as taxi driver, whether in Paris, New York City or Washington, D.C. But there she was, a very attractive middle aged woman sitting behind the wheel in the front seat. She appeared to be in her fifties, comfortable with herself and with her rider's not exactly fluent French.
My taxi driver and I never exchanged names. But we talked. Initially it was a brief give and take with me asking where she was from, instinctively thinking it might not be Paris. She told me that she grew up in the Mauritius, a beautiful island in the middle of the Indian Ocean off the eastern coast of Africa. When I asked why she left and moved to Paris, she amicably replied, "Young and stupid". By now we seemed strangely relaxed with each other given our short time of acquaintance. She asked if I was married. I told her I was divorced and had a son. Without missing a beat she said, "Me too", finding we had more in common than originally expected. Our relationship was now a little stronger. She was becoming less a stranger.
The traffic was heavy as we traveled down the Champs Elysees adding more time to our trip. With all that we asked of each other, asking our names did not seem to be part of it. Perhaps that's why the conversation continued as it did. We simply kept talking. "What part of Paris do you live in? " She told me she lived in the 17th referring to the Arrondissment or district of the city, and then surprisingly added "The Jewish area." Without hesitation I told her I was Jewish and somewhat cautiously asked if she was, not knowing for certain. She explained, "I'm Jewish in faith. It's by your mother you know so I am not, but my father is." I asked if she felt anti-Semitism now in Paris. While it's become common knowledge to a point, I wanted to hear from her personally. "Oh yes, I have to hide" she said quite calmly. "I only told you because you told me you were Jewish. We all worry now about anyone knowing."
When I heard her talk about hiding, it took me less than a half second to flash back in my mind to Jews throughout Europe during World War II.
My taxi driver continued to explain, " Look at what happened in January with the bombings. We know the radicals are plotting. You never know when they will strike. I get up at 5 a.m. every morning while it's dark to get into my taxi. I don't feel safe." Then she added something I hadn't heard in a long time. "I don't have a Jewish face. That helps. They wouldn't know I was Jewish by looking at me."
As we arrived at my destination, each of us lingered an extra second as if not wanting the conversation to end. She turned and looked at me as I began to reach for the door. "Be well" she said. "You too" I replied.
It is impossible to forget her or this ride in the City of Light. Tragically her words haunted me in the context of all that has taken place in Paris since last Friday.