Paris. Last time here it was in shutdown after the November terrorist attacks. This time, two days after the January 15 anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo murders, some Islamic extremist madman has got himself shot dead attempting to enter a police station claiming he wore a suicide belt as he yelled the usual about Allah being great.
How the hell can this be that, whenever a fanatic is in the act of murdering people, he thinks his God approves or is need of praise? Militants who cannot be cured, healed, counselled, put right, it looks like the world is stuck with them till the twisted religious outlook changes.
Back to the same old frenetic Paris, of permanently neurotic drivers and pedestrians with forceful, single-minded walking intent. Get outta my way or I'll bowl you over. Once I got shouldered three times in a 100m walk in central Paris to buy a baguette. Two were women. You either concede to this arrogance, or stiffen your shoulder for the counter hit. A woman in a fur coat once pushed me aside in a smart Paris food store. I was too stunned to say anything.
They're not all like this, of course. There is a lot of cultured outlook here, a kind of social refinement, too - if you know the rules they play by. I definitely don't. But I have come to accept Parisians and their certain distinctive ways. And it is one of the cultural centres of the world, from its great museums, art galleries, fashion houses and Michelin-star restaurants and interesting stores. A stunningly beautiful city and, oh, a prevailing love of literature. When former President Sarkozy proudly claimed he didn't read books, Parisians scorned him relentlessly.
Remember Paris continued on more or less as normal during the Nazi occupation of France, including a film industry that kept churning out films. Bars, clubs and trendy cafes still swung, either with occupying German forces or locals. Edith Piaf brought down the house wherever she performed and brilliant gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, despite the Gestapo being after him because of his ethnicity, ghosted throughout Paris wowing audiences like always.
Walking the streets the past few days you can see the evidence of cultural superiority. Fashion of course is all-pervasive. Sadly, the majority of restaurants and bistros have long become cynical rip-off joints selling pre-cooked stodge bought from massive factories in industrial Paris. And it is unapologetically expensive, often obscenely so.
But you can see the residents here are different. Haughtier, more entitled. But subtle too; so you know they're more sophisticated than you are and have a broader world perspective much more refined than mere tourists. I'll selectively pluck from poet Pablo Neruda here: " ... grapes and their two powerful children, white wine, red wine. All life is red and white, all clarity is cloudy".
I think that's how Parisians see the world, that it's neither/nor, it's both. Or, to continue with the same poem of Neruda's: "It's not all earth and adobe - I inherited shadows and dreams." He could have added "and all the shades of grey, plus the full range of attitudes and, don't forget, opinions".
Paris, like any big city, really only gets meaning when you have French friends to explain the experience. Not that you sit in a bar or restaurant analysing the place or its people to death. Just we're social animals and a city is still a jungle. So we're best in tiny groups of chattering clusters so our collective intelligence becomes more than the sum of our diverse parts. One red wine, one white, and an array of selections in between. Paris is too big and great to do without local insights.
Criminals will always be prowling the queues and weaving the crushes at the major tourist spots. Their horrible, trained, artful dodger kids skilfully picking pockets and purses. While their parents and adult relatives hunt in packs to relieve tourists of purses, handbags, wallets. That doesn't change because they don't. They are thieves not because of what liberals claim are lack of opportunities and racist treatment. It is their culture of choice.
Nor does the rude-waiter syndrome change. Try and impose your outlook at a cafe or bistro and you can guarantee no service. You do not exist if you try and take them on. So don't.
At dinner with Parisian friends they'll talk near any subject under the sun. And of course wines and cuisine are appreciated. I'll always come back, even if mostly as a listener and a wimpy pedestrian.