When people ask me the question, “What do you love so much about Paris?” I always respond with something like this: “Paris is a fantasy-world. It’s like an escape from reality. It is where you go to forget the rest of the world; you indulge into the city, and indulge into yourself.” At least that is what Paris is to me, and certainly for many other kindred spirits from around the world.
However, last weekend, Paris was brought down out of that fantasy. Down, fast, into an excruciatingly harsh reality. About 130 people died in a series of seven coordinated attacks by extremist terrorist group, ISIS.
Keep in mind that ten months prior to last Friday, Paris lost twelve others who were insensibly murdered in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper.
In January, nous étions Charlie, and today, nous sommes Paris.
May of 2015 was my first time visiting Paris. Let me describe to you my first evening there. Maybe it will help you to better understand my fantastical explanation of this very real place.
It was an unseasonably chilly and very rainy night in mid-May. A small group of fellow ETSU students, including myself, were tired, jet-lagged, staving and lost in the labyrinth of the 7th arrondissement (district). All we wanted was a welcoming French meal, which we didn’t think would be so difficult to find in the center of Paris. Cold, wet and slightly frustrated, we turned the corner to try and get onto another street with more activity.
Not only did it open up into a plethora of bars and cafés, as if they were all strategically hidden along Rue Saint-Domonique, but towering in the distance, high above all the buildings in the foreground was La Tour Eiffel, her glittering lights cutting through the dense fog and rain that the Paris sky is so known for. We all immediately stopped in our tracks.
It was silent for a moment. Then someone pointed and screamed, the rest of us followed, cameras and cell phones came out, instagramming ensued, a few even shed a tear, and all thoughts of being cold, hungry and lost in a foreign city were gone. It was in that moment, on our first evening there, when I fell in love with Paris.
It was in that moment that I escaped my reality, into a dream where I stayed for the remaining 20 days there. It is to that cold, deserted street where I go whenever I think of my beloved Paris, as I am writing this, and when I heard the terrible news that shocked the world this Friday evening.
The remainder of our time there was nothing short of the magic of that first evening. The days were filled with museums, historical sites, and architectural wonders of the world; the nights with extravagant meals, incessant shopping, and wandering of La Ville-Lumière.
Last spring, before going to Paris this summer, I spent the semester studying at New York University. While there, I learned of NYU’s many global campuses in all of the world’s greatest cities, such as, you guessed it, Paris. I also happened to meet Chloe Brake, a fellow student in my French class at NYU. She is currently studying abroad at NYU Paris.
The way I learned about the Paris attacks on Friday was through Facebook, where people could “check-in” to report themselves as safe. I recieved notifications that Chloe, along with a few other friends in Paris, were safe. I immediately got on the internet to see what was happening. That is when I saw that the Bataclan concert hall, just a couple blocks down the street from Chloe’s apartment, was where the worst of the tragedies were unfolding.
“From the beginning of the attacks, until 6 a.m. the next morning, all I could hear were sirens, helicopters, screams and shouts, and on occasion, faint pops and booms. I don’t even want to imagine their source. Essentially, I was in the heart of it all, and I couldn’t have been more terrified, but also incredibly grateful, that I was safe in my apartment and amongst friends,” she said.
“But yes, I was close. Close enough that I had many friends who were caught near the gunfire and having to hide in the basements of restaurants. Many people pulled Parisians off the street and allowed them to take shelter in their apartments.”
Chloe and her friends stayed in their apartment the entirety of Saturday and most of Sunday, for fear of safety around their neighborhood. Sunday evening, they decided to go to a makeshift memorial at Place de la République.
“When we were there, there were hundreds of people gathered around the monument’s base, lighting candles, singing songs, congregated around the square. It was inexplicably beautiful. My two friends and I went to light some candles and pay our respects, but we began to get a bit of crowd anxiety, so we walked on a road heading out of the square and stumbled across those two restaurants [where the other attacks occurred]. We stopped to pay our respects amongst another huge crowd, lay some flowers, and light more candles. As we began to walk away we heard a massive roar of screams and shrieks, and saw people running up the street full speed behind us.”
They, too, started to run.
“We pushed past people on the sidewalks as more and more people started to run. A helicopter emerged overhead and sirens were not too far off. It was a mass panic. I ran through oncoming traffic. My heart jumped at every rev of a motorcycle engine or car speeding by. I felt so vulnerable. And to be honest, I truly felt as if I was running for my life.”
“We had no idea what was going on. People were diving into restaurants and shops and the shutters began to slam down around us. When I got back onto Rue Oberkampf where I live, the panic hadn’t set in yet. But by the time we reached my door, people were running in all directions and the street had completely shut down. Everyone ran inside, locked all the doors and closed all the shutters. As if Friday was not scarring enough, this really was where I reached my limit. I thought it was going to begin all over again,” she said.
“We don’t know exactly how the panic started. But this was the fear they wanted, unfortunately. Don’t get me wrong though, this city is so strong. So many people were out that night in solidarity. Yes we had a scare, but that brief moment of fear will never stamp out the strength of these people. No one is cowering in fear. But that moment definitely represented the effects of the terror.”
One of my former professors, who is now a mentor and friend, was the leader of our study abroad trip this summer. She once explained to me the beauty of travel and seeing the world. She said that when you spend time somewhere, get to know its people, and truly become invested in a place, it becomes a part of you. And you become a part of it. Your borders are stretched beyond your hometown, beyond your home country, and into the world, to wherever you choose to open them. With that comes great joy, but also, in times such as these, great heartbreak.
Deborah Kerns had these wise words for us when it came time to leave La Ville de l’Amour, which, with her guidance, we had all fallen in love with oh so quickly. Thanks to her counsel, it was easier to leave Paris. To bid the city an à bientôt, French for “see you later,” instead of an au revoir.
Tragedies happen in this world. Some are rooted in evil, and even could be entirely avoided, but regardless, the thing that must remain consistent is our strength and resilience in the face of this adversity. And as Chloe said, Paris has remained strong. The city has had a long, but resilient history, and remains unbroken today.
That is why I love Paris.