The news of the Paris attacks last Friday began spreading a little after 4pm. But I’d had one of those days where I was running behind from the start—the kids dawdled through breakfast; my youngest daughter, who turned two years old that very day, had spent the second half of the afternoon in a state of perpetual meltdown; the writing just wasn’t coming easily, no matter how hard I tried to buckle down and work, which meant that every paragraph was squeezed from my keyboard far more slowly than usual—and by late afternoon, I was scrambling to buy the ingredients for dinner. I got home, mixed up a quick martini, and got down to the business of mashing the avocados for the guacamole, and seasoning the ground pork, and chopping up the cilantro: It was Taco Night in the Freedman house. Both my phone and my wife’s, always placed in silent mode and relegated to the countertop next to the sink during meals, vibrated throughout dinner. But the rule in our house is that the table is a sacred, electronic-device-free zone. So we didn’t get up to look what the fuss was.
Only once we’d finished dinner, wiped our kids’ faces of drying salsa and caked-on black beans, and gotten them to the couch, did we check our phones. Which is when we finally saw what was just then happening in Paris. After absorbing as much news as we could in the short time we knew the girls would be distracted, we decided not to let on that anything unusual was happening. So we walked upstairs with them, got their teeth brushed and footie pajamas zipped up and bedtime books read quicker than usual, before hustling downstairs to begin the grim and all-too-familiar process of watching the news anchors ask awkwardly intimate questions of just-escaped survivors; and listening to the pronouncements of experts hustled into the various stations’ studios, hair and makeup imperfect and ties occasionally askew, in the aim of providing some context; and watching the clips, stomach-churningly looped, of those French and German soccer players stopping mid-field as the sound of explosions eventually put a halt to their match.
As someone in the wine business, it’s perhaps inevitable that I have many French friends and colleagues. And, indeed, France has always played a wildly important role in my life: I first visited the country (and the continent) in 1994, as a high-school saxophonist on the American Music Abroad program: My first time in Europe. The few days I spent there, I can say without exaggeration, changed the course of my life. It was there that I was bitten by the travel bug, and determined, even at just 17 years old, to spend my life exploring Europe in particular and the world in general, as much as I possibly could. Three years later, I left Penn State for a semester and enrolled at the wonderful American University of Paris, where I made friends that I still speak with today, nearly 20 years later. And now, at 38 years old, I still have to pinch myself when I have the chance to travel to France for the insanely fortunate work of tasting and learning about wine.
The next morning, Saturday the 14th, I spent much of my time watching the news, and reading the latest updates on the New York Times iPhone app, and checking in on friends and colleagues in France and elsewhere as they continued to update their Facebook information. Everyone, whether there or not, and frankly wherever they found themselves that terrible Friday the 13th, was irrevocably affected by these atrocities.
That night, we had plans to go over to our good friends’ house for dinner and, as always happens whenever we get together, drink a little too much wine. When the time came to decide what to bring, I knew exactly what it would be. The idea, in fact, was precisely the same as the one that dictated what we drank during the first meal my then-girlfriend-now-wife and I shared with our families after September 11th. Both of us had been in New York that day. I was a student-teacher at Stuyvesant High School, far too close to Ground Zero, and watched countless people, mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and bosses and employees, leap or fall to their death, a hundred stories below. My wife, who was working in Times Square at the time, was unreachable by cell phone for hours on end. It wasn’t until I’d walked back home, on East 95th Street, more than a hundred blocks north, that I knew for sure she was okay.
It took several days before we were able to get out of the city, before the trains began running with enough reliable consistency that we could chance the otherwise quick journey back to the suburbs of Philadelphia. That night at dinner, as my parents’ neighbors lined those quiet, unassuming suburban streets with lanterns and candles, my father opened up one great bottle of wine after another from his collection: Classed-growth Bordeaux, California “cult” Cabernets, old Port and more. Because, he said through tear-stained eyes that I was wholly unaccustomed to seeing, the perpetrators of the attacks of 9/11 did so out of hatred, and out of a bloodlust for ugliness, and violence, and malice. Opening those wines, he believed, was a repudiation of everything they railed so horrifically and violently against. A middle-finger, he said, aimed, in our own small way, right at them.
So on the night of November 14th, I brought to our friends’ house a bottle of Pol Roger Champagne. We opened it up and raised our four glasses in honor of the victims, our brothers and sisters in France, and for peace. The juice in that bottle was a testament to the beauty that man is capable of creating when his goals are pleasure, and honesty, and joy. To my mind, it stood in diametrically opposed relation to the havoc the terrorists wrought on one of the greatest cities on the planet, in the country that has had such a profound, indeed paradigm-shifting impact on my own life. We drank to the victims, and to the survivors, and to the families and friends of them all who were so tragically affected by it. Which, when you think about it, means all of us. Because all right-thinking people must stand united against these hateful peddlers of an ideology of such vileness, of such ugliness.
Earlier on the day of the 13th, just hours before the first shots were fired and the first suicide vest detonated, my wife and I had decided on a house in Provence at which we will likely be spending a month this coming summer with our daughters. Before we went to bed that night, we agreed that the attacks would not change our plans one bit, and that we would press ahead. Because just like that Champagne on Saturday night, and just like my father’s wines more than 14 years ago, joy and beauty and promise have to win out over the extraordinarily ugly and nihilistic worldview espoused by those who so deeply despise all that is beautiful in this world, those whose hatred of light and love is only matched by their zeal for death and destruction.
The Champagne was delicious, and provided a sort of pleasure—not just to the senses, but to the soul, too—that those terrorists will never have the opportunity to enjoy. They don’t deserve to anyway.