Nohemi Gonzalez of California came to Paris in early September, a college junior on semester abroad who was the very opposite of a terrorist, a true champion of life in the City of Light.
“She was always happy, rarely in a bad mood. Athletic, smart, upbeat,” says Andrew Calder, a good friend and fellow exchange student at the Strate School of Design. “Rarely in a bad mood. Athletic, smart, fluent in Spanish, English, learning French. Good heart. I can’t say enough good things.”
She was also strong-willed and serious in the very best way.
“She was a dedicated student,” Calder says. “She worked hard always.”
Calder, who is 30, adds, “Even though she was much younger I looked up to her in many ways.”
And Gonzalez loved Paris. She looked exactly her happy self as she and Calder posed for a selfie on the steps of the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre, also home to nightclubs and, at one time, Picasso.
She likely was no more aware than most of us that ISIS had released a video back in July pledging to “bring slaughter to France” and “fill the streets of Paris with dead bodies.”
She certainly could never have imagined as she visited Notre Dame Cathedral that she would be among the murdered innocents for whom a memorial Mass would be said there in two months’ time.
She continued to explore Paris, venturing beyond the usual tourist spots and joining Calder in an improbable quest that ended in victory.
“Finally found tacos,” Calder posted on Sept. 15. “With Nohemi Gonzalez.”
One night, Gonzalez and her newfound friends had an international dinner in which at least eight countries were represented. She and her friends became all the more cosmopolitan with visits to Amsterdam and Monte Carlo.
On Oct. 7, Gonzalez got great news from back home. She and a team of fellow design students from California State University at Long Beach had come in second place in a global competition with a project they had completed before she departed for France.
The project was called Polli Snack, an ingenious design in which packaging for a snack is instantly recycled as an expandable plant cultivator. The team’s project overview notes that Polli Snack “promotes education, healthy eating habits, reduces packaging waste, and encourages local gardening.”
“Thanks team,” Gonzalez posted on Facebook. “I still can't believe we won 2nd place.”
The messages of congratulations included one from Tim Mraz, her longtime boyfriend back in California. He sent another message two weeks later, on her 23rd birthday.
“I’ve missed you so much and I wish I could be with you to celebrate in Paris,” he wrote.
That seemed to be the one drawback of her Paris adventure, but she and Mraz consoled themselves with the thought that they would be seeing each other over the holidays in December. And her time in Paris was scheduled to end in February.
Meanwhile, her studies were decidedly challenging. Her Facebook post on Oct. 20 read, “Learning a 3D modeling computer program in a language I don't know is up there In the top 3 hardest things I've ever had to do.”
But in her off hours she was embracing the magic of Paris just as Ernest Hemingway had once done, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Josephine Baker, and so many other Americans past and present. She had lunch with Calder on Thursday and asked him if he wanted to join her in what promised to be a fun night.
“She invited me to go out and visit some friends in the city but I [was] too tired and stayed home,” Calder recalls.
Calder did not see her again.
“I'm not clear on all the details of where she was and I don't care to be,” Calder says. “I know she was out with friends and they had stepped outside just as the shootings started.”
According to numerous news accounts, Gonzalez was outside a restaurant when she was cut down by one of the three terror teams that struck Paris, making good on the maniacal promise made in the little-noticed ISIS video back in July.
“We love death,” the video had declared.
The boyfriend whom Nohemi Gonzalez loved in her whole-hearted embrace of life got the worst possible news from France. Mraz posted a photo on Instagram of the two of them embracing on what looks to be a rain-swept tarmac, just the kind of embrace you could have imagined had she lived to return for the holidays in December.
“Yesterday, I lost the most important person of my life,” he wrote next to the photo. “She was my best friend and she will always be my angel forever. i am lost for words. My prayers are with her family.”
He described her just as her friends in Paris had come to know her.
“Such a bright soul and the sweetest girl with [a] smile on her face.”
He then wrote of her as only he could.
“you will always be my Pocahontas and I will always be your john smith. Te amo.”
A friend, Madeline Chavez, posted, “It crushes my soul that you’re gone but you were off being a free spirit like you’ve always been.”
Just as Gonzalez had discovered Paris, people there had discovered her. A fellow Strate School of Design student named Niran Jaysiri posted, “I’m still trying to process this all but it’s just too much to take. You were one of the most down to earth, cheerful, bubbly, helpful and honest people I knew.”
The loved ones and friends of 128 other murdered innocents were also discovering firsthand that violent Islamic extremism translates into ungodly loss for the blameless. The actual agents of these latest deaths are said to have included a 29-year-old French citizen known to the police as both a criminal and an Islamic radical. A passport found near the body of another gunman suggests he may have recently arrived from Syria by way of Greece. Others reportedly came from Belgium, where a number of possible accomplices have been arrested.
On Sunday evening, a memorial Mass will be held at Notre Dame for those who died in the attacks, among them a young Californian who visited the cathedral just weeks ago, the very opposite of a terrorist who briefly blessed the City of Light with her own special incandescence.