Pray for Paris 2015: An American in Paris

Just as we were preparing to go into the city on the night of Nov. 13, three other American students and I heard that there had been an attack in Paris. Some explosions. Initially, we felt only mildly disquieted, sure it was an isolated incident. Paris is a big city, and further fueling our anticipation was the unbridled excitement that had occupied the majority of our attentions since the preceding week. We returned to our hostel in Paris only briefly to grab our coats and found our concierge flustered, shoving the door open for us and then jogging back into the heart of the hostel where a TV was mounted in the common room. The news blared in resonance with all that we saw scrawled on the faces of those gathered in front of us.

      “Guys, should we go?” one of us asked. My phone is the only one among ours that can access data in France, and I’d handed it off to a friend while I tried to discern what I was seeing and hearing on the screen.

       My friend handed me back my phone, which now had a missed call notification. It then rang again for me to see that it was Bonsuk, a college friend in Paris who had given us the names of a few dancing places we could visit while we were in town. In short, she told me over the phone that we shouldn’t go out, pulling my attentions from the monotonous voice of the TV reporter who was only repeating what the ribbon beneath his face said more succinctly. According to Bonsuk, not only had there been some explosions on the outskirts of Paris (like my friend had found while researching on my phone and the TV confirmed), but there also had been a shooting. It was in our arrondissement, the 11th, and only 500 yards from our hostel. Already 20 people had died.

       I hung up the phone after reassuring her that we wouldn’t go out, and then we waited. As the city realized what was happening, news streamed in faster than I could sift through it. The SYA Facebook chat that includes every student in our class rang unceasingly. Students all offered their translations of what they were watching on the news or hearing from their host families. They inquired after the safety of those of us visiting Paris for the weekend. The hostel common room steadily became more and more populated, as everyone’s attentions directed either toward the television or their phones. The hostel staff stood gathered in a semicircle in front of the door, wanting to watch the news but also in this moment not abandoning their jobs as caretakers. These workers translated to my friends behind me what was streaming in from the news, but I had broken off from them.

       Sitting in a seat at the forefront, I watched the death toll climb from 20 to 30 in an hour, and then from 30 to 40 in another, and then the numbers started to come in on those fatally injured. I watched as the number of documented incidents moved from only three explosions on the outskirts of Paris to six shootings to a shootout and hostage situation just around the corner from where we stayed. The number of dead moved to 100. It was revealed that those explosions actually had been suicide bombers. And at 1:30 a.m., so many of the details were still unfolding. But the news had reached stagnancy. I would hear no more until the morning. The four of us retired to our room for the hysteria of isolation to set in. Our resident director called each of us, me multiple times. He informed us that we would need to leave Paris immediately, for our safety. Our family sent us urgent texts, and from friends there was repeatedly the same message “Jolisa,” “Jolisa, call me,” “Are you okay?”

      As my loved ones in America checked in, I realized that the whole world knew, was connected to, the tragedies of the Parisians.

For a moment I was included among the Parisians. Though I felt perfectly safe behind the door of my bedroom with a bolted lock, I realized that, had a few decisions been made differently that night, perhaps this would not have been the case. Just 100 meters from one of the places we’d wanted to visit there had been shots. Many had gone out for a night of leisure to find themselves caught in a nightmare, in what President François Hollande called “an unprecedented terrorist attack” for France. And though fate had smiled on myself and my friends who had unwittingly found ourselves in proximity to an ordeal that should never had to have happened, there were many who would be needing our prayers.

       And as the Eiffel Tower went dark in solidarity, I realized the fragility of our normalcy. Even though the entire world told me that something tragic had occurred, I still found myself in disbelief. When friends shed tears and one fled to England for the comfort of her family, still the gravity of the situation eluded me. When France closed its borders and 1500 military men were deployed, I still felt a reluctance to see it, and even still as the world began to send its condolences through icons like “Pray for Paris.”

       It only was three days later coming home and participating in the national minute of silence to commemorate those who were lost that I realized I had been more than just disquieted and baffled at the idea of lives being taken in the name of a principle. I had also been a little afraid. In spite of my relative safety, I’d been scared. I could not at all imagine my devastation if I had lost any of the people I was there in Paris with, if I had seen the gunmen or watched as the life was chased from someone’s body. And I was further devastated in realizing that that state of fear I’d had a taste of was for some people a daily reality–that some see their death tolls mount so astoundingly it’s a struggle to keep up with the numbers, that they find the trauma of that loss compounded with imminent danger, if not at the hands of ruthless soldiers then from hunger or assault.

Though I don’t usually cry, I did on that day. I don’t believe I ever will forget my trip to Paris.

       Two of my other friends and I stayed in Paris for the remainder of the week because trains in and out of the city weren’t running. So, we ended up seeing a lot of Paris in spite of all that happened. We stood as witnesses as the city rebounded from perhaps one of the greatest losses it had seen for centuries, and we watched as the lights returned to the Eiffel Tower.