Sacré Coeur, 2002
My wife and I considered our first trip to Paris to be something of an introductory course. We were only there for a few days, taking a break from visiting our daughter who was in school in London for the summer. We knew we wouldn’t have time for much more than a cursory look at things.
On our last day, we decided to go walk up to the basilica of Sacré Coeur, located atop the Montmartre hill. Given its dramatic site, Sacré Coeur is an excellent place to get an overall view of Paris. When we arrived, just after lunch, the terrace in front was full of tourists from all over the world. We did a quick walk-through of the basilica and came back out to the terrace for a breath of fresh air. The sky was becoming overcast. The air was muggy. There would be rain later.
This trip took place in 2002, during the summer following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. We had not felt unsafe traveling that summer, but were conscious of increased security measures. We were also aware that the French government was incurring the wrath of the Bush Administration for refusing to allow U.S. warplanes to fly over France on their way from Britain to the Mideast. (Remember “freedom fries”?)
Meanwhile, back on the terrace at Sacré Coeur, we were enjoying the view. All of a sudden, we noticed flying across the low Paris skyline an unmistakably American military airplane, an Air Force tanker, accompanied by two French Mirage jets. Given the icy relationship between the U.S. and France about such flights, my wife and I observed that something must be going on. It didn’t scare us. But I think it’s safe to say it rattled us a little to think that conditions might have changed enough somewhere in the world for an American military plane to be allowed to fly over Paris. We watched the planes as they moved across the horizon.
No one else around us seemed to take note of it. Once the planes were out of sight, we worked our way down the hill and back across Paris to our hotel.
That night we had dinner at a busy bistro near our hotel. There were several other outdoor tables occupied by American visitors. While we watched the street life and listened to the conversations around us, we heard people at each one of the tables of Americans at some point discuss that same flyover we’d seen from Sacré Coeur. They'd seen it from vantage points all over Paris, some out at Versailles and some—yes, I’m afraid—at Disneyland Paris.
Slowly, the English-speaking diners started noticing one another and chatting. We’d all, it seems, had the same startled reaction to the sight of those planes. My wife and I were merely curious. A few had expected to get back to their hotels that afternoon and learn that a new war was under way. As we enjoyed our meal on that warm summer night in Paris, we were all were relieved to have made it through to dinnertime without having heard any such news.