Getting Lost in Paris
One Friday a few weeks ago, I finished work a little early and started to wander around the center of Paris, soaking in the dreamy and romantic feeling I get when I’m there. It was a beautiful fall afternoon: sunny and cool, but not cold, and I felt great. My day teaching English had gone well, and I felt quite relaxed. I meandered through the broad streets, admiring the gorgeous Haussmann architecture, not sure exactly where I was going, but absolutely loving every moment amid those awe-inspiring structures.
Eventually I found myself at the large square in front of the Opéra Garnier, a work of architectural genius. There were many tourists buzzing about and I joined them taking a flurry of photos and posting one on Instagram. I spent the next hour or so wandering around the square, browsing shops and attempting to get a handle on French women’s fashion.
After night fell, I knew it was time to go home and meet my husband for dinner, but I didn’t want to leave. I stood in the square looking at the buildings and the people and wishing I could stay, wishing I lived just minutes away and could find myself surrounded by this historic architecture every day of the week. I mentally fought against the hour-long metro/train ride between the opera and my home, and soaked in every last moment among the elegant structures and the joyful hustle and bustle around me.
One more long stare at the beauty before me, and I reluctantly descended underground to the subway. I caught metro and headed home, my mind still lost as if in a wonderful dream.
Home an hour later, I hugged my husband and told him, “I absolutely want to live in central Paris,” and, looking up into his eyes, “I love it there.” We have to move out of our suburban apartment next spring and pricey Parisian studios are not his ideal. However he could see how happy I felt in that moment, and as he looked down at me, he hugged me back and said, “Ok.”
That night, Paris was attacked.
“There was a shooting in Paris.” My husband came into the living room to turn on the news after seeing an alert on his phone. I immediately turned to Twitter to get English headlines, and realized that my family would find out soon as well. In fact, moments later my step-mother contacted me after seeing an alert on her phone. As fast as I could, I texted my family, updated all of my social media accounts and sent out an email to 100 family and friends to let them know my husband and I were safe.
It was hard to write the messages. While I knew we were far from the attacks, I was scared of where the terrorists might flee if they got away. I remembered the Boston Marathon bombers fleeing to the suburbs, as did the Charlie Hebdo killers earlier this year. With those memories fresh in my mind, I knew that even when the siege was over, we could find ourselves in danger.
As we updated our families, we also searched for news from our contacts in Paris. We were particularly worried about my sister-in-law, because she had been staying in an apartment not far from the restaurant shootings. We were so relieved when she finally texted my husband. Having gone to sleep early, she had been safe in bed.
Other families were not as fortunate to have such quick news. French people who couldn’t reach their loved ones used the #rechercheParis hashtag on Twitter to post photos of the missing. Unfortunately this Twitter feed didn’t seem to offer any solutions, only a depressing memorial to those lost in the attacks.
I wanted desperately to help
It was out of the question to go to Paris to assist, as the police were advising everyone to continue to shelter in place. On Twitter I replied to a State Department tweet and asked if there was any way I could help. A random woman in the US replied to my tweet telling me that her sister-in-law was missing and asked for my help.
Admittedly, I considered going into Paris and knocking on this woman’s door. However I took heed of the police’s recommendation and stayed put. Determined to help somehow, I started to search online for all of the French and American systems for locating people in case of emergency, even calling a few local numbers to get as much information as possible. I was surprised that nobody answered the phone at the U.S. Embassy. Apparently in case of emergency, U.S. citizens are supposed to call a U.S. phone number rather than calling their local embassy in the host country.
I shared every resource I could find with this stranger via Twitter, and eagerly waited for news that the woman we were looking for had been located.
Another person, who reads my blog, contacted me through my Bonjour Adventure Facebook Page, asking for assistance finding a large family she knew had just arrived in Paris for a visit. I gave her as much information as I had.
Buoyed by the sense that I was helping somehow, and unable to stop watching the events unfold on the news, I stayed up into the early morning hours. I translated information I found in French and offered suggestions about the best ways to use the U.S. Embassy’s resources. The next morning, both people who had contacted me confirmed that they had found the people they were looking for. Some relief amid the trauma of the evening.
Obsessed with the reports on the news, I held my breath each time I heard the number of estimated deaths increase through the night. At 30 I was horrified. But then it became 40, and then 60. Hours later as the hostage situation at the Bataclan ended, they announced 100, and I cried inconsolably. I cried for the victims, for their families. It was too much to imagine and too horrific to comprehend.
A few weeks earlier…
About a month before the attacks a former French terrorism judge was on the news talking about Da’esh (aka ISIS). He told the news anchor that France was Da’esh’s number one target. Number One. Apparently the terrorist group wanted to hit Paris as hard as New York had been hit in 2001.
This past summer I left Baltimore, a poor American city with a lot of crime, in which I lived in constant fear that I would be attacked by kids who wanted my cell phone or my wallet.
Moving to France this year, I’ve been amazed at how safe I felt; the unease I felt in Baltimore no longer seemed relevant to my life. However, after four months of delightful peace in ultra-safe France, the words of this terrorism expert instilled a new sense of angst in my gut.
I walked around the city in a moderate state of anxiety after that, always looking out for anything out of the ordinary. In the metro, my eyes were forever on the hunt for emergency fire exits and the location of security alarms.
Nothing happened. Yet, I remained on high alert, ready for whatever might be coming.
And then it happened. And I wasn’t ready in the slightest.
Searching for understanding
Following the attacks, shock set in for a while. I obsessively watched the news and could hardly leave Facebook or Twitter as I searched for more information, more details, more understanding.
I couldn’t grasp what had happened and I didn’t want to believe it had happened in Paris. In this romantic city of love, and at restaurants and a concert hall: where innocent people were happy and enjoying wonderful moments in their lives. None of it made any sense to me.
Simultaneously, I retreated from my blog and everything associated with my public presence online. Irrationally paranoid that I’d be targeted by other terrorists, I wanted to disappear. I was blinded by fear: afraid of more. More bombs, more guns, more death. I slept very little. Very few of the important items on my to do list were accomplished that week, as I prioritized keeping up with the news over every other aspect of my life.
At the time I couldn’t see that these terrorists don’t target individuals: they target lifestyles. As long as I live my life as a free and independent woman, I will be a target – just like everyone else who lives a life of liberty with a good dose of “joie de vivre.”
More hurt than we let on
As an English teacher for professionals in the Paris region, I meet my students in their place of business once a week for one-on-one classes. Not knowing if any of my students were directly or indirectly affected by the attacks, I sent out delicately worded emails to confirm my classes for the week. Everybody responded and nobody cancelled. Thank god they were alive.
Emails came from the language schools I work for asking if I was safe and if I knew any of the victims. Secretaries who welcome me at various offices would ask as well. It was a question that was on everyone’s minds.
And then there were my students. At the start of each lesson I was nervous: would they tell me they lost someone? Was a friend or relative one of the victims?
In the end, some knew people who knew people, but only one had a direct relationship with a victim.
Everyone was shaken. Most of my students wanted to talk about what happened, so English grammar and vocabulary went out the window as “English Class” turned into therapy for all of us. In their broken English they’d share their experience, their fear. Many were visibly upset, even days later, with frantic looks on their faces and weary eyes.
In the media, the French people showed strength and resilience, with messages like, “même pas peur” (not even scared). A French man who lost his wife created a video that went viral about how he would go on and raise their 18-month old son without any hate in his heart. But this strength was not felt by everyone; the people in France were hurt, pained deeply to the core.
One of my students admitted she couldn’t sleep at night. She was having anxiety attacks and was afraid of taking the metro. She said she couldn’t understand the people who showed extreme resilience; the situation was so incredibly sad and she remained quite emotional about the whole thing.
Another student in his thirties was particularly upset. He’s a fan of the band that played at the Bataclan concert hall that night, but he hadn’t known they were in town. He said that had he known they were in town, he knows he could have been a hostage or a victim. “They attacked us because they don’t like our lifestyle. They targeted MY generation, ME.”
Suspicion in the metro
The week after the attacks I happened to have the busiest teaching week I’ve ever had in Paris, and with the delays in the metro, I was late to several classes. Anyone who accidentally left their lunch on the train caused hours of delays as whole metro stops would shut down for these “suspicious packages.” The military were everywhere especially at light rail stations, and intercom announcements in the metro stations kept apologizing for the delays.
Normally I do some lesson planning and preparation during the hour-long metro ride to work. But this week was different. I was an emotional wreck, and I couldn’t do anything except watch every person around me with suspicion and fear. Sometimes, about 15 minutes into the ride I would realize that I could probably relax a bit and open up my notes, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to stop watching, stop surveying the metro car. My body was tense and my mind was in pieces.
Wednesday morning after the attacks I saw the news that the police had raided a house in St. Denis and found some conspirators. I had a class in St. Denis that afternoon, and while I trusted the police to do their jobs, I honestly wanted nothing to do with that place. At midday the police were still requesting that people nearby to shelter in place, so I called my student and we postponed class. I discovered later that the raid had lasted for over seven hours as the terrorists stood their ground. The police department reported firing 5000 rounds during the operation, and so I was reassured that it had been best that I had stayed away.
A week after the attacks, in spite of my fears, I had to go to the scene. I felt compelled to see the restaurants, to look at the make-shift memorial in la Place de la République, to join the mourners, and to somehow honor those who had died.
Walking up the metro stairs to the square, I found myself surrounded by silent mourners, the military, and news reporters set up in booths surrounding the tall monument at the center. The mood was solemn and quiet.
Close to, but not the actual site of one of the November attacks, the monument has become a memorial, as it was after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015. Graffiti from the peace demonstrations in January still cover the base of the monument, and remain as a souvenir of France’s solidarity in face of great adversity.
The square had people of all ages milling about, all looking toward the the flowers and candles at the base of the large monument. At the top of the monument is a bronze statue of a woman holding an olive branch in one hand and touching a tablet of the Rights of Man in the other.
She is Marianne, the national symbol of the French Republic. Her bust can be found in the mayor’s office of every town and village throughout the country, and everyone here can recognize her and knows what she represents.
Below this grand statue of Marianne are smaller statues representing the three main values of France: liberty, equality and brotherhood. These symbols have tremendous meaning for the French, and are as important as freedom, independence and the Constitution in the U.S. They are ingrained in the hearts of the French, and are the foundation for their laws, their tax structure, their social moors.
It therefore holds great significance to me that these attacks happened in such proximity to la Place de la République. The terrorists didn’t target the Eiffel Tower or other international symbols, they attacked the real heart of France and what she stands for.
Joie de vivre (a joy of living)
At Marianne’s feet were hundreds of flowers, candles, cards and posters newly presented to honor those killed in the November 13th attacks.
I stood looking at the memorial thinking about the innocent people out to enjoy their lives, killed in moments of peace. I imagined their families and how they must feel.
Circling the monument, I walked to the north to gather my thoughts, and there I found a huge open space. To the rear of this space, facing the monument of Marianne, was a long wooden wall surrounding a work zone of some sort, with the the Latin motto of Paris painted in huge letters: fluctuat nec mergitur, or “tossed but not sunk.” Hopefully those families will be like Paris: tossed by the waves but not able to sink.
This open space was occupied by about 30 adolescent boys and some adult men, all skateboarding or watching the others. There were no loud noises, just the low scratchy sound of a hundred plastic wheels on pavement, and the regular small claps of riders landing their ollie or other trick.
Literally facing the memorial to those lost in the attacks were dozens of kids, enjoying their afternoon: a real-life symbol of life and freedom. In that moment, these youth of various ethnicities, out to enjoy their hobby, represented the entirety of the French people: who will go on and live lives full of liberty, equality and brotherhood.
It’s been three weeks since the attacks
Right after the attacks, one friend offered “help” if I needed it, implying but never saying outright that I might need an escape plan. An acquaintance on Facebook said I was stronger than him, and that he would have come right back to the States.
To be honest, the idea certainly crossed my mind. In the days immediately following the attacks, in my paranoid distress, I wondered if I would need to go back to the US. If there were more attacks, I could get away on the next flight, but I didn’t know if my husband could come. Or if he would leave his country in such difficult conditions.
I discussed this with noone. Rationally, I knew that I was in shock and that after some time, my emotions would calm down. And they did. The fear has now subsided, and life feels much more normal and as safe as before.
I no longer worry about another imminent attack, and I feel reassured that the government has killed or has detained those responsible. They also detained or arrested hundreds of potential or suspected terrorists and confiscated weapons. Taking advantage of the relaxed protection of individual rights inherent in an official State of Emergency, the French government continues to target potentially radicalized individuals as it strives to prevent future attacks. While a couple of co-conspirators have fled to Belgium or beyond, their distance from Paris is a comfort to me.
Of course, life has not returned completely to normal, with military personnel and police making their presence well known. There are extra guards in many public buildings and museums, as well as in the business offices where I teach. Bags are opened and inspected, and metal detectors are in place everywhere. There are still daily delays in the metro due to suspicious packages. Security is certainly tighter to say the least.
And now, is moving to central Paris still the dream?
I’ve gone walking in some of the loveliest parts of Paris at various moments in the last two weeks, and each minute in that romantic place draws me in. Walking the pedestrian-only streets with their open markets and the cafe terraces, I’m enthralled and simply want to spend more time in those spaces, walking those streets, looking at that elegant architecture.
In those moments, I feel more whole and at home than I have in any other city. So, yes! I do want to move to central Paris. I choose to live my life with a certain joie de vivre that my family – American and French – has taught me!
Here you can watch a 2 minute video I made of my visit to the memorial at la Place de la République (skateboarders included):