I was in Paris on the weekend of November 13th. That would be the weekend where attacks in restaurants, a concert hall, and outside a stadium killed 130 people. The plan was for the weekend to be a reunion of Hannes' close friends from Madrid, where we would experience Parislike the Parisians and stuff ourselves full of red wine and baguettes. Indeed, we achieved all this, but the mood was not exactly what we had imagined it would be.
Everyone was arriving separately. I had already been in town for a couple of days for work, and met up with Margaux, our friend and host and one of Hannes' roommates from his Madrid days, at a local neighborhood bar after work. We then went around the corner to her family's place so I could deposit my suitcase and get settled. Hannes arrived shortly afterward from Berlin, and Raúl arrived next from Madrid. By this time, we were getting the first reports that something awful was happening. So we sat in the living room with a table full of wine and cheese and bread, with the television on.
Our first thoughts were ones of chance and avoided fates. Margaux had wanted to take us that evening to Le Carillon, the bar across from Le Petit Cambodge, both places where people sitting outside on the sidewalk terraces were gunned down. If we had decided to meet there instead of at the house to leave our luggage, maybe we would've been there during the attacks. Or if everyone's flights had been just an hour earlier, maybe we would've been there during the attacks. But even though this was true, this thinking was all too abstract for it to really feel real. Next our brains started adding foreshadowing to the evening. My French colleagues had been joking earlier in the week about how the train to the airport was not so reliable because of too-frequent bomb threats. Margaux had been telling me that her grandmother, who lives most of the year in Paris with them, was in Tunisia (where she's from), and that her family had been trying to convince her to come back to Paris, where it was safer. Everyone went to bed late, shocked, but okay. Margaux's family and friends were safe, although they had friends of friends who were among the victims.
On Saturday afternoon we left the house and walked around the neighborhood for an hour. Although it was quiet, it was not empty; bakeries, groceries and cafés were open. But then Margaux's mom called to say they had closed the big department stores downtown, and everything else started closing as well. Back at the house, we looked at old pictures and played charade-adjacent games. Perversely, I was reminded of snow days as a kid - with terrorism, like weather, a force far beyond my control. Even more perversely, there was a hint of the fun of snow days that afternoon as well - we were together, and we were trying to make the best of it.
But by evening, we all had a serious case of cabin fever. I realized that the need to leave the house was as much about feeling human as about the need to get groceries, etc...there's only so long you can sit in front of the TV with the news on. So we went out to a neighborhood restaurant, joined by a couple of other friends. It felt warm, and friendly, and good to be out. At one point a police car with flashing blue lights whizzed by, and everybody held their breath for a single, silent moment. But the moment passed, and conversations resumed. Our waiter told us that on a normal Saturday night, people would've been dancing on the tables by the time we left around 11 pm. We guessed that nobody in Paris was dancing on that night.
On Sunday afternoon we went to the locations of some of the shootings, where people were laying candles and flowers. It was very quiet. Quite a few people had brought their children. Yet I felt uncomfortable, like a voyeur, and I was irrationally annoyed any time someone took a picture with their smart phone. A little later on, it was early evening, and we were sitting in a cafe drinking tea. All of a sudden a woman, and then a small stream of people rushed inside, saying that something was going on, people were running in the street. The waitstaff pulled down the metal shutters in front of the windows, shut off the lights and music, and everyone sat on the floor in the back of the café, in the dark. Outwardly everybody was calm and rational but inwardly...it was scary shit. Eventually people got in touch with the police, who told us it was a false alarm and that everyone could go home. Which we did, freaked out, but trying not to show it.
A few other things stand out in my mind from these tense days in Paris. That, despite the circumstances, we had an endless supply of fresh baguettes, croissants, and Paris' best ice cream, in addition to the copious amounts of wine and cheese that filled the pantry. That everyone we interacted with was so genuinely friendly - the opposite of how I experienced Paris as a 20-year-old, when I found the Parisians cold. This, I suspect, had a lot to do with Margaux and her sister Lauranne, whom I had already dubbed the nicest French people I'd ever met when they came to Berlin; I suspect their warmth is contagious. I was also impressed by the no-nonsense awesomeness of Margaux and Lauranne's mom, who refused to tolerate any panic, and who also, in the course of the weekend, picked up a 10-lb, reportedly 800-year-old cobblestone from a construction site at the Île Saint-Louis and decided it would make the perfect wedding present for Hannes and me. This (stolen) piece of French history took a few extra days to make it back to Berlin with us, since it was deemed not acceptable for cabin baggage, and the checked suitcase didn't arrive with our plane...we weren't sure if this had to do with the cobblestone, or whether it was just run-of-the-mill airport chaos.
I was in Washington, D.C. on 9/11. My sister was in Boston during the Boston Marathon bombing. It feels like it's becoming a mark of our generation that most of us have lived through something like this. I would like to believe that going about our daily lives as usual really is a win against the terrorists, rather than just a consequence of not knowing what else to do, because: life goes on.