On Bastille Day my wife and I climbed into the back seat of what may or may not have been a Paris taxi. It was at the head of the taxi rank. But it was also not the typical black Peugeot or BMW sedan. This car was long and low and beige. Full of colored scarves and a smell like expensive French cheese - the kind whose flavor might just be worth the stench.
The driver, we learned after sliding into the seat and shutting the door, was a woman in her seventies with a silver wad of hair like cotton candy. She turned in her seat, I gave her directions. She beamed, letting out a blast of something too close to a cackle for my comfort and put it in gear.
As the needle darted between 50 and 0 in an EKG of jerks and jolts, I hunted for the meter. Nothing on the dash. Nothing on the center armrest.
She flung us around a curve, my shoulder colliding with Katy's. The driver shouted French through her open window at other taxis, pedestrians, and a loose dog. She pointed at nondescript buildings and shouted French at us. We don't speak the language well but were either being given an impromptu tour of the city or being shown where her whole family had been murdered.
Racing along the Seine she climbed the curb to allow two tourists on rented bikes to escape with their lives. She cut off a bus, her hands flying from the wheel like a mad conductor. Our trip finished with a tight u-turn in a crowded intersection. Horns and shouts and running tourists. She put it in park, turned and asked for 7 euro. I paid her eight. I was grateful to have survived.
On the street, as our 'cab' pulled away, Katy and I checked for hidden injuries, laughing and holding each other by the shoulders.
"Are we alive?" she asked.
"We are," I said, "but I don't think she was."
"Oh yeah, we totally just rode in a ghost taxi."
We were still laughing by the time we got back to our room. But I was also still terrified. Throughout the ride I'd squeezed Katy's thigh each time the tires squealed beneath us or the tourists squealed beside us. I'd closed my eyes and waited for the crunch. I'd imagined my mom getting a call explaining what had happened to her poor, dead son. By the end of the ride I'd memorized her car, her face, her lunatic cackle. And I'd added this mad woman and her ghost cab to the list of things I should be afraid of.
That list is long, and grows longer every day. It includes:
- Candy from strangers
- The dark
- Strangers walking down the same dark alley as me
- Strangers who don't look like me
- Strangers who don't speak like me
- Strangers who don't worship like people who look like me
- The disappearance of bees
- Walking alone
- Unattended backpacks
- 4 ounces of any liquid or gel
- Strangers with guns (except the strangers with guns who are supposed to make me feel safe)
- Parisian ghost cabs
On my 35th birthday, I realized I wasn't living so much as I was spending my days dodging the things that scare me. So my wife and I booked a trip to Italy, ignoring the frightened asshole in the back of my brain shouting about having enough for retirement or to fix our roof. I applied to grad school, and was admitted to NYU in Paris. I duked it out with the frightened asshole, arguing that seeing more of the world while learning about the thing I love from the people who do it brilliantly outweighed the banal fear of what things cost.
One week after learning I'd been accepted, 130 people were killed in a series of coordinated terrorist attacks across Paris. This was just 10 months after 12 people lost their lives at the hands of strangers with guns who don't worship like the people who look like me. My good news now carried with it a question mark. I had a choice. I could say no and stay 'safe' in a country where strangers with guns kill other strangers with a frequency to which we've become numb. Or I could say 'yes' and trust that the experience was worth the risk.
Fear is a valuable emotion. It's an evolutionary response meant to keep us alive. But, when you can be shot dead in a movie theater or a school or a restaurant, that sense has no way to prepare us or alert us. So fear swells, taking over more territory than it should. And you end up jumping at shadows or waiting for the rental or ordering takeout instead. You end up walking instead of taking the taxi.
Less than 8 hours after our ride in the Paris ghost cab, a stranger with a truck plowed into a crowd of people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France, killing 84. I'd spent my night in Paris on the Seine, watching fireworks erupt from the Eiffel Tower. I was in the capital of the country, in the heart of the city, at the foot of a global icon. And it was amazing. And I was afraid. Those strangers in Nice? Maybe they were afraid as well. But we were there. We had decided that the experience was worth the risk.
I hate that, for so many in Nice, it wasn't.
I hate that, when I got back to my hotel room, family and friends half a world away had filled our phones with messages of concern and fear. I hate that France has added three more days of mourning in a calendar already too full of them. I hate that I had to see my wife off at the airport and track her flight on my laptop for hours, praying she got home safe. I hate that I have to walk Paris streets alone, passing strangers with guns who are meant to keep me safe, when I know that more often than not, they can't.
It's enough to make me question my decision.
But then I spend an afternoon talking passionately about the thing I love while Notre Dame towers out the window. And I have a coffee at a street corner cafe and write. And I pass a young kid who doesn't look like me, both of us in our Arsenal jerseys, and we smile at each other as we pass.
I'm alone in a country that has known more death and terror in the past 18 months than any country should in its history. I'm writing at the same cafe where Hemingway and Fitzgerald wrote years ago. And I've decided that, for me, the former is not enough to keep from experiencing the latter.
I will always get in the cab, close my eyes, and hope the experience is worth the risk.