Bullet Holes in the City of Light

Bullet Holes in the City of Light


Our teenage boys lacked patience for the Louvre, so we made the streets of Paris our museum.

What is it about those bullet holes that beckon the boys to touch them?

It’s our twin teens’ first trip to Paris. Thirteen-year-olds with attention spans shrunk by YouTube and Xbox, Luis and Andres lack patience for strolling the Louvre and have little awe for landmarks. (Luis’ reaction upon his first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower: “It’s a TV antenna.”)

But they have a fascination with World War II shaped by hours of History Channel gazing. So, my wife Cristina and I thought, maybe the streets of Paris could be our museum.

“There was a lot of fighting along here,” Thierry Heil tells us. He’s a professor of French language and civilization who leads small cultural tours of Paris. His tour, “Lights Out: Paris Under the Occupation,” through Philadelphia-based Context Travel, had enough gunfights to win approval from the kids, but he promised a glimpse of ordinary life under Nazi occupation that we thought might be more educational.

The timing was perfect. The 70th anniversary of D-Day had just passed. And the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day was just around the corner: May 8.

Heil, 42, leads us along the Rue de Rivoli past the Tuileries, better known for manicured lawns than mortar holes. Look for signs of plastered-over bullet holes, he tells us. Sure enough, patchwork abounds on the walls. But one wall was left unrepaired. “As a remembrance,” Heil says.

Luis and Andres worm their fingers into the cavities. I resist pointing out the naughty graffiti strategically spray-painted around them.

“There’s no bullet,” Luis concludes.

I remember doing the same at their age when I’d visit Civil War sites as a boy growing up near Gettysburg, Pa. It’s not really about looking for a piece of old lead. It’s seeking a connection with a moment of history impossible to imagine.

How could two 21st century boys understand that 74 years earlier, the glamorous street where we’re standing was hung with long red banners bearing swastikas?

But in the summer of 1944, the tide of the war was turning. The Allies had stormed the beaches of Normandy. The French Resistance emerged from the shadows. On August 19, Paris took aim at its occupiers.

To touch those bullet holes was to try to touch that moment.

Read the full essay at Paste Magazine.