It has been a week since the Paris Attacks.
The fact that both my wife and I were there in Paris the night of the attacks still doesn’t feel real.
Social media and news sites have been plastered with stories about the attacks, the ongoing threat of ISIS, the perceived threat of refugees, the complexity of the Syrian war, thoughtful analysis of the situation contrasted by racist xenophobic fear, an overwhelming barrage of pundit opinions, the disgusting American right-wing political pandering of the situation to support arguments for expanded open-carry laws and closed borders, the quick retaliation of the French bombing of Raqqa, the Russian jet crash, the Russian retaliation, and the quibbling on-line debates about the introduction of Facebook’s perceived racist/classist French flag profile and “I’m safe” function that ignored the conflict in Beirut, ignored the conflict in Kenya, ignored the conflict of people of color. It goes on and on.
Normally I keep a safe distance from world events. I like to stay informed but I maintain a self-awareness to recognize when I need to take a step back and tune out when I sense myself growing overwhelmed and overstressed by opinions and incidents that are beyond my control. My ability to tune out hasn’t been very strong with this most recent event. Understandably, it has been hard to stay focused on the normalcy of getting back to “real life” after our trip to France because the trip ended unlike any other with us living through one of the most significant attacks on European soil in recent years. They say it is the worst atrocity to happen in France since the second World War. Considering that three of the six incidents on the night of November 13th had occurred blocks from where we were staying, the simple act of getting back to work, getting back to “normal” life has been shaded by a foggy but euphoric sense of gratitude coupled by an intense curiosity tied to the dread about what it was that had actually happened. This feeling stems from a very real catharsis: I could have very easily been one of the victims. My bloodied body could have remained on French soil at this very minute, but it didn’t.
This isn’t the first time that my life has been spared by chance. I am not new to the hyper-aware recognition of the fragility of life that I am currently feeling. From watching a friend fall off a cliff that could have been me, to dodging the poor choices of my young adulthood that should have landed me in jail or dead, to walking away from a car accident unscathed, to surviving the depression that suffocated me during the collapse of my first marriage: I have lived through much and continue to live. Each of those events I briefly mentioned have had a personal nature tied to chance, circumstance, and perspective. Although these personal events are unique to me, their existence are part of the realities that make up the normal tribulations of a life well-lived life and are part of the multitude of experiences that make any one of us human individuals. All of our experiences are without exception to the personal low points and moral challenges we live through. The sum total of our experiences are unique to each of us and affect us differently, but in living through them we all have a common opportunity to climb above the difficulty and redefine ourselves as better, more whole, more grateful humans. I believe I am such a better person, imperfect as I am. I have no regret for having experienced difficult times because such experiences have made me who I am and have increased my compassion for others.
Every life is touched in some way by such personal events. However, this most recent event that I have managed to live through has a global and unpredictable nature that none of us can or should expect to live through. The atrocities and senseless violence at the hands of others such as what occurred on November 13th are shameful to consider. It is hard to believe that random terrorism can be part of what makes us human. It is hard to believe that this is part of the human story. Friends and family will die from accident or illness. We expect that. We do not expect anyone we love to die at the hands of barbarism. We do not expect anyone to be murdered by fanatical idealists while out on the town enjoying dinner, enjoying a concert, or simply enjoying life.
Joie de vivre. Life is good. Life should be enjoyed. Life is worth enjoying.
What brought me to France this month was a desire to experience, a desire to cherish opportunity and travel to a place I’d never been, to taste the richness of a culture I had not yet tasted.
My wife and I were in France primarily for her work and my fun. She had a conference to attend in Paris and I was along for the ride. Although work commitments were her primary motivation for the trip we left for Paris a week prior on November 6th to enjoy some time together before her responsibilities usurped our mutual enjoyment. After landing in Paris we journeyed to Lyon via bullet train, enjoyed a day trip to the Alps, and stayed in a castle for a night in Burgundy. It was a really pleasant time enjoying the French food and scenery. I won’t forget it. The good times are all the more valuable after what happened last Friday night. However, retrospect prompts me to recall that there was a moment that stood out mixed within all of those good times. That moment had occurred six days before the fateful night of Friday the 13th.
On Saturday, November 7th when we were wandering the streets of Lyon we stumbled upon the Place des Terreaux and noticed an unusual amount of noise. Traffic was at a standstill. There was a protest of some kind with a large group of people chanting in the middle of the plaza. Protesters were waving what appeared to be the Palestine flag.
Having lived through years of protests while living in Berkeley, and having witnessed several protests during my travels in Bolivia, I really thought nothing of it. But I noticed that my wife was visibly bothered by the event. She asked that we stay away, articulating thoughts I hadn’t even considered, saying “This isn’t like home, there are real threats here.” On reflection, I recognize that this Palestine protest was totally unrelated to the ISIS attacks, however in hindsight I now realize that her premonition of fear for safety was grounded in a reality I had not recognized. This thought now gives me chills. Then I had thought nothing of it, but as we were to learn a week later, those fears were alarmingly valid.
The night of November 13th in Paris I was separated from my wife.
She had a long day of work and was finishing the night with some of her colleagues at a happy hour. I had just suffered through a long and arduous day of sightseeing and dining on French foods. I had just finished dining alone for the third night in a row (people don’t really dine alone in Paris, I was quite the oddity) and after a 3 days of hardly seeing each other, we were looking forward to meeting up and enjoying the Paris nightlife. I was located in the Rue des Lombards area, which was very lively and exciting with plenty of Friday night bars packed with people unwinding from a long week. We were in the middle of trying to coordinate where we should meet me when everything changed.
As soon as I received that text I began to realize that the sirens I had been hearing were more than just normal city background sirens. I looked around and realized that there was a steady sequence of police and ambulances speeding past the main road in front of me.
Something was terribly wrong.
I was alone, didn’t speak the language, and had no idea what was going on.
From what my wife’s texts told me, the explosion was at the République station, just two stops away from where I was at that moment. This was only a 15 minute walk.
I had to get home fast.
As I looked around me I realized that most of the people weren’t yet aware of any danger. I turned on my phone’s data to map the best way home but realized that from where I was, it was a 30 minute walk to our apartment and the best route would taking me directly through the République area where the supposed explosion was. This route was also in the direction of all the police and ambulances I saw rushing past me. Just as I was looking down at my phone a police car cut the corner I was standing on, nearly swiping me.
Things weren’t right and I didn’t want to be on the streets. Taking the subway was a risk, but it appeared to be the most direct route and best way to get off the streets. I let my wife know my plan, which she didn’t like, but in the panic my options seemed slim.
As I entered the subway at the Rambuteau station the mood of the people was different than those on the street. Three teenagers jumped the ticket stall immediately in front of the ticket agent with no repercussion. There were about 15 people looking at the transit maps with a dazed and confused look on their faces. There were announcements in French that I didn’t understand, but I figured that if the trains weren’t running I would figure it out soon enough. I hopped on the M11 towards Goncourt, my stop, and as soon as I got on the train I heard an announcement mutter something in French, listing the familiar names of stations: Arts et Métiers, République, Goncourt. Wait Goncourt? That was my stop. The trained started moving and then as we passed through each of the named stations it slowed slightly, but never stopped.
Watching the familiar advertisements, station seats, and tiled walls pass by me as the train continued on was erie. It was like seeing a life pass by. When would this train stop? Would I get home? What was going on?
Fortunately, the train didn’t travel much farther as the M11 stopped at Belleville, the next station North East from Goncourt.
This whole time my wife and I were texting ceaselessly, and I could tell her anxiety was ramping up. Mine was too, considering that the train had just passed by my stop, but we agreed to hold off on texting until I could figure out if I could get home safely or if I needed to change my plans.
When I got to the street, the confusion of the crowd was ramped up. Rue du Faubourg du Temple, my street and the direct route home, was blocked off with police tape and guarded by two policemen wielding Uzi machine guns. There was also a faint smell of smoke in the air. This was not good. As I turned my data back on to figure out an alternate route home I received the following text.
I couldn’t handle that text at that moment. After using my maps, I really was running low on power, but I hardly knew what was going on in front of me and needed as much focus to get myself to safety as soon as I could. As worried as my mom may have been at that moment, her text caused me much greater worry because whatever was going on was so big that news had already reached the states even before I had a full understanding of the situation.
This wasn’t good.
Although Rue du Faubourg du Temple was closed off, I decided to take a risk and scope out the parallel street. It was open and there were people walking on it, which was promising. I started the 10 minute walk and as soon as I got to my cross street, I was elated to see my building. Rue du Faubourg du Temple was still closed off, but our building was near the corner. Just as I walked near our building, I saw a television in a bar showing me the first glimpse of the carnage: a bullet riddled restaurant and body bags on the street. Through my travel home all I knew was the sound of sirens, the smell of smoke, the sight of police, but that image in the periphery of my vision on the television screen told me that people were dead and I was glad that I was not one of them.
I walked right past the police and signaled to the building and they let me go by. They must have been on guard for someone that didn’t fit my description.
After climbing the four flights of narrow stairs I entered our apartment with elation. I was safe. I immediately let both Jenn and my mom know that I had gotten home safely I began to attempt to try to figure out what was happening.
As I tried to connect to the news online my phone blew up. I received several texts from friends and coworkers, emails from family, Facebook messages from friends I hadn’t spoken to in months: all asking about my safety. As confused as I was about what was happening, I felt the obligation to respond. So, before I ever connected to the BBC or any other news, I began answering emails, texts, and messages: letting all who expressed their concern that I was safe, but I had the somber and ominous news to share that Jenn and I were not together.
As I began to get connected to the media, the full scope of the situation became apparent. Several restaurants were attacked by gunfire and bombs. There was an ongoing hostage situation at a theatre and apparently a bombing at a football stadium. Looking at the maps of what was being reported I realized that it wasn’t just at the République station; there were several attacks in our neighborhood. I made it home out of fool’s luck and there wasn’t a chance in hell that I would let Jenn take the same chance. It sucked that we were apart, but she was with several people in an apartment above the bar they were at and as long as she was with other people she knew I was happy knowing that she was safe.
Listening to the BBC videos reporting the incident I kept hearing the ongoing sound of the French sirens blaring. I turned off the newsfeed but the sirens didn’t stop. They continued right outside my building rushing to the scene in panic and carting off the injured and dying to the hospitals. It took me hours to get any sleep with those sirens blaring. It was terribly uncomfortable knowing that Jenn was somewhere out there, exactly where I did not know. Just as I was drifting off to sleep I received another text from her saying that she was now in “the burbs” with two other girls. I was finally able to sleep peacefully.
Morning came abruptly. I fell asleep sometime around 3:30 and was up by 8. I was fully awake. Our scheduled flight was the following day, Sunday the 15th but there were reports that the borders were closed to prevent escape of the suspects. I contacted our airline and confirmed our flight. At least that was taken care of. Not knowing the train situation I contacted Jenn and we agreed that I would pick her up on foot. She was about 45 minutes away to the east. As I got to the street, there were police still on guard at the corner of our street and the Goncourt train station was still closed. My plan to walk seemed like the right idea. The streets were relatively quiet, but businesses were still in operation. I still got my morning croissant and espresso fix taken care of no problem.
Along the walk I passed a synagogue that was guarded by four military personnel holding M-16s. Although the shops were open, this wasn’t just another day.
After seeing the synagogue and sometime as I continued walking I had a strange thought pop in my head. The thought went something like this, “I hate Muslims.” The thought startled me. I told myself, that is silly, I don’t hate Muslims. It is totally unlike me to harbor feelings like that. If there is anything I hate, it is a culture of blame. It wasn’t Muslims that were responsible for this. It was idolatrous, psychopathic fanatics and it wasn’t right to stigmatize and blame an entire religion for these terrible actions that had occurred.
As I searched within myself to find the root of that thought I realized that this is how it starts. This is how the bigotry and hatred of xenophobia starts. A simple fleeting thought grasps onto an emotion, it takes that emotion grounded in experience and holds onto it like a parasite, infecting the emotional being with a new system of belief. I realized that this thought was disgusting and I didn’t want any part of it. Such thoughts are rooted in fear and I didn’t want any part of that. That was not who I am and is not who I would allow myself to become after living through this experience. I was grateful to be alive and I wasn’t going to let bigotry and fear taint that gratitude. With that moment of self-realization I let go that thought but I realized that the existence of that thought was very human, very reactionary, and very common. I may have been able to let it go, but there are many others in this world that may not let it go. They are the ones that let that fear and hatred take root.
That thought told me that the days ahead were going to be complicated. This event was going to shape policy in Europe and at home in ways that I would disagree with. Fear and reaction would taint decisions. And that is exactly what these terrorists wanted. Giving in to fear and hatred is giving in to terrorism. It is surrender. I looked around me and saw the open businesses and was relieved that the people of Paris had not surrendered. Sure they were confused and saddened. There were military and police on roads, but life went on. Shops were open. Life must go on.
When Jenn and I reunited we simply embraced, holding each other and savoring the lives that were wrapped within our arms. I won’t forget that moment. It was our moment. It was a moment unaffected by hatred or terror or fear. It was a moment of pure love.
I learned that her night was very different than mine. Unlike myself, who had walked the streets confused and uninformed, she had been with many people and they had been receiving news from many different perspectives. Shortly after the first news of the incidents they learned that the attackers were targeting restaurants and bars. Not knowing if the attackers were at large they had moved from the bar into an empty abandoned apartment above the bar. This apartment was being refurbished and it had no water or electricity. There were 11 of them gathered on the floor in the dark for several hours and she likened the experience to living in Anne Frank’s shoes for a night.
Since she was with several people, she had the opportunity to observe how people react to crisis. Some shut down, some indulged in uncomfortable humor, and since they had liquor available, many simply drank. She was with a group of mixed coworkers: serious lawyer types and younger grass-roots political types. As the group collected in an empty abandoned apartment above the bar, they turned into a crew of castaway refugees hiding in the dark, debating about the best plan of action. Eventually as they got word that the situation was calm they had split into twos and threes, taking cabs and going to different apartments for the night.
This is were I met her, at the apartment of a colleague that she hardly knew. Safe but exhausted, the night was over and we were together. It was time to move on.
We had plans for this, our final day in Paris together. We were going to see the Catacombs, and wander through the Christmas markets. We hadn’t had a chance to see the Eiffel tower together and we had planned to see it lit up before going off to the conference send-off party. All of that was obviously cancelled. The official recommendation from the Parisian police was to stay in shelter. All public gathering places were closed, including all tourist attractions. When we returned to our apartment we saw pictures of Notre Dame surrounded by military. We were looking at a quiet night ahead of us. No party, no romantic viewing of the Eiffel tower.
We did need food though. We had a late lunch a block from our apartment and after our lunch we decided to just walk around a bit in the late afternoon and find some pastries to satisfy our French foodie cravings. We hadn’t yet mapped out how close everything was, so when we stumbled upon a collection of news crews our curiosity got the best of us. I had never seen so much media in one location. There were camera men and reporters everywhere. I heard French, English (including British, American and Australian accents), German, and Mandarin. As I walked past several cameras I prayed that my nervous parents didn’t see me on the broadcasts they were viewing.
As we walked around we realized that we were near the Bataclan theatre, the sight of the largest atrocity. The entire block was closed off, but I could see the theatre half way down the block. There was a makeshift memorial of flowers set up along a fence. We moved closer to this memorial and gathered among a group of onlookers, a group of mourners. Although the news crews were surrounding us, it was oddly quiet near this memorial. The media were respecting the dignity of this place. I watched a couple climb underneath the police tape and set down a bouquet of flowers among the growing pile of flowers.
My emotions overwhelmed me as tears rolled down my cheeks. People died here. They shouldn’t have. This was stupid. What happened here was so senseless. I felt ashamed for humanity.
After a few moments of silence Jenn and I looked in each other’s eyes and then hugged. We stepped away from that place without saying a word for several minutes. We were both deeply affected.
As we continued to wander the streets we talked about how encouraging it was to see so many people out and about, to see the businesses open. Major chains were closed, but Paris isn’t a city built on chain stores. The independent boutiques, cheese shops, butchers, wine shops, and markets were all open. We found this deeply encouraging. The spirit of the Parisian people infected us with hope. We mentioned to each other that if we were in America, everyone would be at home glued to the TV and everything would be closed. The French don’t live that way. They live.
They aren’t foolish though. As it began to get dark, shops were closing by 5 pm. As we got close to the Louvre and larger shopping areas, the streets were much quieter. As dusk turned to dark we walked near Place de la Concorde to see get a glimpse of the Eiffel tower lit up. The Eiffel tower was invisible. Not a light was lit in the evening sky where the tower stood. The icon of Paris was in mourning. It was time for us to go home.
Our travel home was uneventful. I speak now of our real home, not our temporary Parisian apartment. Security at the airport was well organized and our flight out of Paris was smooth. When we crossed through the US customs at SFO I felt inspired to tell the border agent how glad I was to be home, informing him that we were in Paris the night of the attack. He welcomed us with appreciation and then moved on to the next group of travelers waiting in line for passport inspection.
It has been odd to return so quickly to my life here so shortly after such an event. I went to work Monday morning and before I made it to my office I was stopped by one of my coworkers telling me how happy she was to see me safely home. I’ve told the story many times over the past week and I have been overwhelmed to take in the love and appreciation from so many people who were aware that I was in Paris that night. It is truly a blessing to be safe. It is even more a blessing to feel the appreciation of those so happy to see me safe.
Every moment we have in this life is an opportunity. Our lives are so brief and there is a multitude of ways in which a life can end. The terrorists that took part in these terrible attacks want us to forget about the joy of living and focus on the risks of dying. The acts of terror are very real, but if we live in fear we let them win. This week I have been saddened by what I observe as a growing fear in the people of my country. The talk of closing the boarders to refugees, the desire to carpet bomb the middle east, the quick retaliation of both the French and Russian military: all of these things sadden me. But when I think of that sadness I reflect on the people on the ground. The media will tell us one story, but the people of Paris tell another. Life goes on. Life does not hide indoors, it is on the street, participating, living and denying fear. This is the encouragement and hope that I take away from Paris. Terror will continue. It is part of life now. But Terror does not define this life. It will not define my life.
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