The Paris Attacks: A Study Abroad Student Shares Her Experience

At 9:45 p.m. on Friday, November 13th I emerged from the steps of the Odéon station, and after a quick glance to the right, ran across Boulevard St. Germain. I could see the sign for Restaurant Le Procope just a hundred yards ahead. A typical Friday night in St. Germain-des-Pres, the streets were bright and the cafés full. When I got inside, I quickly apologized for my lateness and we were escorted to our table on the second floor of the restaurant.

The meal started out leisurely, first wine, then onion soup and escargot arrived at our table. My friend and her mom were only in Paris for four days and they wanted to experience as much about the French culture as possible, of course, the food most of all. Throughout the first hour of our meal, I kept hearing the subtle ping of my cell phone in my coat pocket. Finally, it began to irritate me. I apologized and pulled it out of my pocket to see that a friend who was currently in Prague was calling me. “That’s odd,” I thought, “I’ll call her back later, I guess.”

I hit the ignore button and was brought to my lock screen, where I saw a long list of notifications. My jaw dropped as I skimmed a report from CNN: “18 dead in shootings in Paris. Open CNNGo for live coverage.”

“Oh my god,” I covered my mouth.

“What is it?” My friend’s mother asked.

“There’s been a shooting...”

“Where?”

“Here. I’m not sure. Hold on.” Little did I know, the situation was far beyond a shooting. Just then, my roommate called me. Despite being in a quiet, conservative restaurant I answered. After making sure that I was ok, she told me what she had heard on the news about attacks in Paris. As far as she knew, around 30 people had been killed and it was not yet clear if the incident was over. I told her that I had to go and quickly hung up. Scrolling through my messages, I saw that several people in the United States had texted to ask if I was ok. I went on BBC News and learned that there had been suicide bombers at the soccer game at Stade de France, as well as a shooting in a restaurant in an area that I frequently visit on weekends. My heart was racing and my hands felt shaky. How could this be happening in my city?

As they were visiting from Scotland and the US, my friend and her mom did not have working cell phones. We quickly called the waitress over and she gave them the password for the restaurant’s WiFi. Over the next 20 minutes or so, we sat, barely speaking, contacting our loved ones and refreshing the news on our tiny screens. The death toll rose to 60, and there was a concert hall where hostages were being held just a few blocks from the hotel in the Marais where they stayed the night before. It did not feel real.

Just before I applied to study abroad in Paris, terrorists attacked Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper, as part of a larger terrorist attack in France. That attack shook me, but could not sway me from fulfilling my lifelong dream of spending a semester in Paris. After all, as my mother had said, an attack like that could happen anywhere. It had happened in Boston, New York, and London, and we thought it was unlikely to happen again in the same spot. I was reassured. Throughout my first three months here, I don’t remember ever feeling fear. Discomfort, yes. Nerves, yes. Absolute fear, no. That night, I felt pure fear. I was paralyzed at the thought of walking outside, of boarding the metro. To think that I too spend many nights sitting outside of cafés, like those enjoying a typical Parisian pass time were when they were brutally attacked.

At this point it was around 11:30 PM. Different news sources were contradicting each other and we were confused and scared. Despite only having ordered 2 main courses to split among three people, the waitress eventually took our plates away with much of the food still on them. We were not hungry for dessert, but we were too scared to go outside, so we ordered a creme brulée, and it sat in the center of the table as we picked at it. I was wondering what I should do. I was too scared to get on the metro, and at this point I didn’t realize that the line I needed to take was shut down anyway. My friend and her mom assured me that I should stay with them in their hotel. I was relieved that I wouldn’t be alone, but knew that being in St. Germain, we were far closer to the sites of the attacks than I would be at home in the 16th arrondissement. We still did not know if there were more attackers waiting to strike, or even how many attacks had taken place.

We finally mustered the courage to make the 10 minute walk back to the hotel. I flinched at every siren. Bars in this usually vibrant area were nearly empty at midnight on a Friday. There were plenty of people in the street, unable to find cabs. We finally arrived at the hotel. The first English-language news channel I could find was BBC, and we sat, eyes glued to the TV, until nearly 4 a.m. At that point, the Bataclan had been neutralized, and there were estimates of over 100 fatalities.

The next morning, I woke up dazed and disoriented, hoping it had all been a bad dream. We left the hotel in search of breakfast, and the streets were quiet. Yes, people were out buying bread, and walking dogs, but there was a kind of hush. The gates of Luxembourg Gardens, a public park, were locked, and instead of the normal Saturday morning runners, dog walkers and picnic-ers, there were only armed soldiers to be seen inside. I finally took the metro back to my apartment around 5:30 PM, and it was eerie to see the train car with so many empty seats.

 
 

On Sunday morning, I felt a pull to visit one of the sites of the attacks. I took the metro, and when I got on the train there were three members of the Gendarmerie, a French police force, standing watch, heavily armed. I felt a rush of reassurance, knowing they would do anything they could to keep me safe. I exited at République to an already large crowd paying their respects. The base of the statue in the plaza was covered in candles, flowers, and signs. One sign pasted on a Lion at the base of the statue read: “Nous devons apprendre a vivre ensemble comme des freres, sinon nous allons mourir ensemble comme des idiots”- "We must learn to live together as brothers, otherwise we will die together as idiots." The message is blunt yet powerful. The perimeter of the plaza was surrounded by news vans. Many of the visitors had tears in their eyes and I wished I had a tissue to offer.

I then walked across the Canal St.-Martin to Rue Bichat, where Le Petit Cambodge and Le Carillon are located. They are at the corner of a three way intersection, and on one of the other corners is a hospital where people had lined up for three hours to donate blood on Saturday. A sign on the door stated that the donation center was closed for the day but that they would be open for more donors starting Monday. In front of the two restaurants were piles of flowers, signs, cards, and candles. Many of the candles had burnt out in the night, and five or six children in bicycle helmets were kneeling at the front of the crowd, re-igniting them. One little girl placed an index card under the candle she relit, which read, in stamped-on letters, “LOVE.” Someone had placed flowers in the bullet holes in the windows of Le Carillon. Despite there being hundreds of people in the intersection, the whole area was nearly silent. People were crying, but more stood still, with pained expressions on their faces. Cafés are part of Parisian culture, and I think the most horrifying thing for many Parisians is that they now feel threatened by the idea of engaging in such a typical activity. Everyone in Paris sits on café terraces, and even on colder days people will sit on the packed sidewalk under heat lamps instead of going inside. They want to smoke, they want the fresh air, and they want to watch the world go by. So this was an attack on their very lifestyle. These terrorists knew exactly what they were doing.

What was most striking on Sunday morning, however, was the fact that just a few blocks away, on the canal, every Café was open, and people were enjoying their Sunday brunches. Families were sitting alongside the canal watching the rotating bridge with young children. Joggers and dog walkers wove through the path. People were out and about as if it were any other Sunday. Although the terrorists were able to hit exactly where it would hurt the most, the Parisians are striking back by showing that they are not afraid. I walked past the Eiffel Tower on my way home, and the streets surrounding the tower and the Champ de Mars were inundated with selfie-stick-bearing tourists as usual. As I crossed Pont de Bir-Hakeim, a blonde bride and her white-tuxedo clad groom were taking their wedding photos with the Seine and Eiffel Tower in the background. I couldn’t help but smile and feel proud that the city was not ignoring what had happened, but was clearly trying to move on and put on a brave face. 

#ATAstandswithParis

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