The City of Light has been very dark. Waves of shock, grief, anger, and fright have swept the city for two and a half days. I expect an uneasiness will linger in the city for the next few days, as we wait and wonder if terror will reappear.
Most days I do not bemoan my (serious) lack of fluency in French. I get used to understanding only bits and pieces of what is said around me, and to me, and it’s not so bad. However, there have been times on trains or metros when announcements were made and I could tell from the reactions of those around me that I needed to know what was just said, and that it wouldn’t be good. The language barrier has a made these last few days even more frightening and confusing. Safely in my apartment, though, I have been so grateful for English television news and social media to explain the chaos going on around me.
While I am not qualified to comment on the underlying conflict, I can describe what I have seen these past few days. Around noon on Wednesday, Claire and I were having lunch at a popular falafel restaurant in the Marais when we began seeing disturbing images on the TV up on the wall. The TV was muted but the text floating by on the screen told me that there had been a shooting in the 11th arrondissement and that President Hollande was talking about it. I couldn’t figure out who “Charlie Hebdo” was, nor did I understand anything about who the attackers were or why they had done it. I was so shocked that guns had been involved, because bullets do not typically fly in Paris. Other diners in the restaurant didn’t appear to be overly alarmed, though, which (if true) was probably because they were tourists or they were not paying attention to the TV.
At the very time of the attack, three friends of my other daughter were landing at Charles de Gaulle from Houston. By the time they got to our apartment some of their parents were already sending concerned messages about the incident. When Claire and I walked into the apartment, all the girls were gathered around the TV and filled me in on the details. At that time, the three terrorists were at large, so I had to figure out what level of alarm was reasonable as far as letting the girls go out into the city to walk off their jet lag. Ultimately we decided that they would not go to the Arc de Triomphe, as they had planned, but I did let them walk to the small shops having sales in a near-by neighborhood. I walked around that same neighborhood and all seemed normal to me, but I don’t know that my sense of “normal” is really accurate. That night the girls went out to dinner and also walked to the ferris wheel, which was spinning as though nothing had happened.
Thursday at noon a moment of silence was observed all over Paris. The girls were at the Musee d’Orsay, where an announcement requesting it was made. The bells of Notre Dame rang for several minutes during that time, and public transport paused.
That afternoon, when the sun briefly peeped out, I tried to walk in the Parc Monceau and found it closed. Although no explanation was given on the sign, I assumed it was related to the attack. I later heard that public gardens had been closed, but I am not sure if it was because the assailants were still at large or if it was in observance of the loss. Because the museums were open, though, I think it was the former.
We watched the powerful gathering at the Place de la Republique on television that night, and were moved by the show of unity and support for the victims and for freedom of expression, and for France. The gatherings continued Thursday and Thursday night. On Friday morning the girls and I went to the Place de la Republique to see what we might find. Although the morning was wet and grey, the remains of the nights before indicated how moving they must have been. Countless candles, signs, notes, flowers, and photos of the victims were draped around the central monument, as well as on the area surrounding it.
On the square were also the remains of large circles of candles, flowers, and many pens and pencils.
From there we walked to the Marais, which is the old Jewish quarter and home to many Jewish businesses. At that point the girls and I parted ways. They stayed for lunch in the Marais, and I walked to the Hotel de Ville, where I planned to visit a photography exhibit. When I got there, I found the exhibit was closed until Monday, and I am sure it was related to the attack. I then wandered aimlessly for a few hours, never noticing anything that alarmed me in any way. When I got home, however, the girls were already there, watching the news.My daughter told me that two hostage situations were taking place, one of which was in a Jewish grocery store. She then described their experience in the Marais. After they ate lunch they tried to go into a favorite shop, but noticed that a couple of policemen were in there. They waited for the police to leave, and when they tried to enter the shop the woman locked the door and said “I’m sorry we are closed”. Bewildered, the girls looked around and noticed police going in all of the shops and telling the workers that because the grocery store was Jewish, they were recommending that businesses in the street, which were primarily Jewish, close. Of course, the girls didn’t know what the police were saying, but they asked someone who hurriedly explained it to them. After a quick call to her dad, seeking advice, my daughter and her friends took the metro home immediately. The metro they took home was the same one that went to the grocery store under siege, and they said it felt heavy with anxiety.
Once the two hostage situations ended, we all breathed a sigh of relief, but also a sigh of sadness for the additional loss of innocent lives and for those whose lives had just been changed forever. I am sure I am not the only one walking around today who is still a little nervous about what might happen next, and where it might happen. This has all been surreal and not at all consistent with my experience of living in Paris, where I feel so safe from gun violence.
Thank you all for your expressions of concern for me and for my family during this scary time. Let us all hope that the remainder of 2015 is more peaceful everywhere. We can all share this beautiful world, despite our different beliefs about a creator.
P.S.- I thought this article in the New York Times did a good job of describing the situation in France.