Tragedy in Paris: now what?

Friday night, November 13, I made a quiche at my friend Hayley’s apartment. We sipped red wine and listened to jazz music. We ate overlooking the most breathtaking view of Paris, with a front row seat to the Eiffel tower.

We decided to call it an early night, and I left for the metro at about 9:30 p.m. It was a little over a half-hour commute back to my apartment in the Voltaire area. It wasn’t until I arrived at my final stop and surfaced from the metro to the streets that my phone erupted with missed texts and phone calls.

Many of the texts were from Hayley, telling me to turn around and come back to her house; there had been a shooting in my neighborhood just minutes before. The missed calls were from my host mother. I called her back immediately, and in hurried French she yelled at me to get off the streets and get to the apartment as soon as possible.

From what I’d understood, I thought there was a single gunman on the loose in our neighborhood. It was enough to make me run home.

Upon arriving at my apartment, my host mom pulled me into a hug. She was crying. She told me her son had left her apartment less than an hour before and hadn’t returned her phone calls since.

We sat together in front of the television and I tried to make out the French broadcasters. Sirens kept wailing outside our window.   

I came to understand that there had been several explosions at a soccer match that was north of the city, as well as shootings at a restaurant and bar in my own neighborhood. I then learned about the Bataclan hostage situation, where over 100 people were being held in a nightclub, which I painfully realized was going on less than half a mile away from our apartment. The Bataclan concert hall was next to my favorite Italian restaurant and down the road from Café Oberkamf, where I had done my homework earlier that day.

My host mom finally heard back from her son that he had decided to run to his nearby office rather than take the metro home, but not before seeing several bodies in the street. I reached out to all of my friends and was happy to hear that they were all safe, although some were on overnight lock-down at a nearby bar.

I spent the night refreshing my Twitter feed and paining over a slow Wi-Fi connection that wouldn’t permit me to watch live news broadcasts. I was gutted every time I heard another siren wailing or saw that the death toll had gone up.

What a feeling it is: to be tucked safe in bed, in my pajamas, as living hell is unfolding just blocks away from you. 

I’d like to be clear that I don’t have the ego to try and make anything about the Paris attacks about myself. Yet, my proximity to the attacks has awakened me to the horrifying reality that any of my fellow classmates or I could have been victims of the attacks that night. Abroad student, Nohemi Gonzalez, embodies every single student who is traveling, or dreams of one day traveling, to a new city around the world to experience and learn about a new culture. She did not make the choice to come to Paris knowing that is was a risk on her life. There was no rhyme or reason, so it seems, for that particular bar, restaurant, or concert venue to be the platforms for the attacks. The seeming randomness of it all only proliferates the sense that we are all vulnerable to these kinds of acts of hatred.

I believe it would be a dishonor to all of those who died on Friday night if I said that the attacks would not characterize the rest of my time here in Paris – they certainly will. Some of the students in my program have already chosen to leave Paris early and return to the U.S. Many others have seriously discussed leaving the city.

For those of us who will choose to stay in Paris for the semester, one thing is for certain—we will categorize our experience here into two distinctive periods of time: before the attacks and afterwards. For myself, I’m sad to say that the latter half will be tainted with an air of somberness, and, unfortunately, a subdued sense of fear.

There is a particular stillness and a quietness that characterizes the city at present. Most businesses were closed for the weekend through Monday in accordance with the national three days of mourning issued by the Government.

At sunset each night, many of the windows in the streets light up with candles as a sign of respect for the deceased.

There is a large memorial outside of the restaurant next to my apartment. There are bouquets of flowers and small teacup candles lining the front door of the restaurant. One of their waiters passed in the attacks.

It is clear that Paris is still a city on edge. On Sunday night there was a report of a shooting outside of Republique, a nearby area of the city where I knew my good friend Paige was having dinner. Panic erupted at a vigil and sent people running for cover. We quickly learned that it was a false alarm and that there was no genuine threat, but that was not before Paige had sprinted home among throngs of people, watching restaurant tables flip and people abandon their cars in the streets. That is the kind of panic that can only be caused by a people living in a genuine state of fear, a fear that you cannot help but feel, even though you try with all your courage to suppress it.    

In the days since the attacks, I have wrestled with what I can only think to call “the appropriate response to tragedy.” I am still struggling to figure it out.

The reality I’m trying to come to terms with is that we as civilians are largely helpless right now. We must simple accept that the city will be different for us all now, and try to heal the best we can. My only strong conviction is that I refuse to be made afraid of this city that I love so much.

I’m not a traditionally religious person, but I’ve been trying to take the concept of “Pray for Paris” in a more literal sense. I’ve found myself praying to any greater force to help the human race find our humanity in order to help everyone on this small planet recognize that we’re all made of the same flesh and blood and that everyone’s lives are of value. I am praying for the women who I saw mourning at the Bataclan yesterday morning. I am praying for all of those who continue to peacefully practice a religion whose good name has been tarnished by a radical few. I’m praying for my favorite city in the world, for an end to violence, and for peace everywhere.