Tragedy in My Temporary City

I’m walking to the métro station closest to my apartment and I glance overhead to see if the graffiti is still there. It is. “Pas d’Islam en France !” it says, scrawled in black ink. No Islam in France. It’s been there since I arrived in September and undoubtedly has been there before then. It gets painted over every so often with a fresh layer of white paint that is now so thick it stands out against the yellowed walls like a big, white censor. Sometimes someone writes something back: xénophobe ! raciste ! The only appropriate responses. They get covered up too.

Today, though, it’s just this message, black and white on the walls of the métro station. It’s November 15th and it’s the first time I’ve ventured outside of my apartment since arriving home around midnight the night of the Paris terror attacks.

Everyone in the BC in Paris program is reacting differently to these events. Some defiantly go to cafés on Saturday morning in their ravaged neighborhoods despite the state of emergency. Some refuse to leave their apartments. Some plan weekend trips, not wanting to face Paris for another four weeks. Others cancel their travel plans, afraid to be caught again in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Some ask to go home. The BC OIP office tells us they’ll waive the $1,000 withdrawal fee, but we won’t get a tuition refund. We’ll also likely receive a withdrawal fail or an F for our classes this semester, unless we work something out with the department heads, our respective universities and the dean.

My roommate, who was in Spain the weekend of the attacks, tells me she feels more united with Paris now. After all, no one suffered differently. We all endured the same attack; we’re all trying to move on.

I disagree.

I’m in Paris around 10 p.m. on the night of the attacks, and I am eating dinner in a restaurant with friends not far from where they happened, when we start receiving frantic phone calls and texts asking if we are all right. The restaurant, which had previously been showing the football match at the Stade de France (where the first suicide bomb went off), starts showing the news reports of the attacks. Not understanding what was happening, we decide we should leave.

Every cab in the city is occupied, and they are the only vehicles on the roads. The streets are virtually empty. The Eiffel Tower, usually sparkling at this time of night, is dark. We are finally able to call an Uber, and it takes us back to our apartments safely. I am shaking as I bolt the door and draw the blinds. My host mother is already asleep. She was babysitting her granddaughter this weekend.

I respond to the dozens of messages I received with the news that I was safe, and I keep getting more as I click on every article I could find from every major news source, trying to piece together what is happening. No one knows, but the death counts keeps rising.

A few hours later, I receive notice that everyone in the BC program is safe and soon after I hear from my two friends who are visiting Paris that they have both made it to their hotels safely. Still shaking but relieved, I drift off into a restless few hours of sleep, the sound of sirens and helicopters blaring overhead.

But here’s what’s really been getting me: are we all French? Do I have the right to feel this trauma? Does my heart bleed French blood in the wake of the attacks?

The next morning I chat with my host mother, who is calm and upbeat. She assures me our neighborhood was safe and tells me not to worry. This will pass, life goes on. She brings me flowers and tells me she hopes I don’t hate Paris. I assure her I don’t.

But all day, I keep checking my email for an update from OIP. Everyone had been confirmed safe that night, but I am hoping I’ll get a message saying they were sending us home. Saying the nightmare is over.

I watch my Facebook timeline quickly turn blue, white and red as nearly everyone on my friends list changes their profile picture in support of Paris, nearly all accompanied by the hashtag #PrayforParis. I see multiple announcements from American publications of “Nous sommes tous français !” We are all French. An echo of the French sentiment: “Today we are all American,” after the 9/11 attacks.

But here’s what’s really been getting me: are we all French? Do I have the right to feel this trauma? Does my heart bleed French blood in the wake of the attacks?

I’ve spent the semester feeling distinctly not French—despite thinking I knew exactly what it would take to have an “authentic” experience in Paris. I knew I wouldn’t be traveling a lot, or meeting up with friends from BC and clubbing. I knew I’d be working hard and desperately trying to improve my French, but I also romanticized the idea of reading in cafés, going for walks in the gardens, attending gallery openings in hip areas and meeting locals.

I’m not sure if my vision of Paris has changed after these events, but I am ever more aware of my distance from it. The bottom line is, I have a way out. My pain here is not permanent. I have another life somewhere—the only life I’ve ever known—and I’ll soon return to it.

Everyone is talking about things going back to normal, but Paris is not my normal. Paris is not my home. I am more aware of that than ever before. I am going to have to adjust to living in a bleeding city that is so far from where I want to be.

The Parisians, however, have no chance but to move on. The Paris they live in, the Paris they pray for, is the real Paris. Not the Paris of my memories or the one of the American imagination. And unfortunately, it’s this same Paris that was attacked on the night of November 13th.

The area that was targeted was one where locals gather on Friday nights. It’s one where young bobos (bourgeois-bohemians) live and share their culture. They attacked a concert hall, restaurants and bars. They didn’t target Notre Dame, or the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower. They targeted real Parisian life, their homes and their culture.

The morning after the attacks, the Parisians in the 11th arrondissement walk their dogs and stop for coffee and a baguette, pausing on the bloodied streets to place flowers in the bullet holes in the glass windows of the cafés they pass every day.

Paris is moving on— or trying. It takes a hell of a lot of bravery to return to normal life after that sense of security is destroyed. Putting on your shoes in the morning, stepping outside and trying to love the world again is often the hardest battle to fight because it’s the most important.

Two friends and I decide to go for a walk on Sunday afternoon. We pick a direction and follow it along the Seine, and soon we’re underneath the Eiffel Tower. It’s the first time one of them had been that close.

My other friend says she’s worried about her friend, also studying abroad, not in Paris, who had taken a flight to Istanbul that morning.

“I told him to be careful. But I guess he’s safer there than in Berlin…” She trails off.

“No one’s safe anywhere.” She meets my eyes. We keep walking.

That night I receive word of multiple false alarms and panic in the Marais (a neighborhood of Paris), as well as an email from a BC organization that reads: “Happy November! I hope you've had a great couple of weeks, and are excited for Thanksgiving Break!”

I turn my computer off. I try to sleep. I don’t.

Carly Barnhardt / Gavel Media

Carly Barnhardt / Gavel Media

Bleary-eyed, I make my way to class on Monday. The métro is silent, and I try to remember if this is typical for early on a Monday morning. I decide it is. Almost everyone is dressed in black. Again, I decide that this is just the Parisian stereotype. The overhead announcements that République (a stop near the attacks) is closed and the requests to report suspicious activity to a member of staff, though, are markedly not routine.

Outside my university, French students are smoking. They greet their friends with timid affection and ask sincerely how each other is doing. They seem relieved to see each other. The security guard asks to see my student ID, and he checks my bag before I walk through the gates.

In my last class of the day, my professor holds a discussion, instead of continuing her regular weekly lecture. She asks all the students to sit in the first few rows of the lecture hall and asks us: “Are you afraid?”

There’s a moment of silence in my second lecture at noon, along with the rest of the country. Everyone in the room stands and folds their hands in front of them. On the main campus, President François Holland joins my fellow Sorbonne students in this moment of silence in honor of the three students from my university who lost their lives on the night of the attack.

My professor thanks us, then launches into his lecture on character types in Alfred de Musset’s dramas.

A few hours later, in my journalism class, we analyze the covers of different Parisian newspapers. Unsurprisingly, every front page is about the attacks.

In my last class of the day, my professor holds a discussion, instead of continuing her regular weekly lecture. She asks all the students to sit in the first few rows of the lecture hall and asks us: “Are you afraid?” I listen as these French students talk about their fears of another attack and their fears to resume their normal lives. They discuss religious extremism, the sociology of terrorism, and how and why terrorists become terrorists. But mostly, they echo that this was an attack on French youth, on French culture at its core.

A girl behind me starts to get emotional while she explains that she is afraid that the attacks will change something in her, replacing the love and tolerance she holds in her heart with fear.

My professor responds with a quote from Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg in the wake of their own terrorist attacks in 2011: “Our response [to terrorism must be] more democracy, more openness and more humanity.” She tells her she’ll be fine. And she will; she’s already got love in her heart.

With all of these words running through my head, I return home after a long day of classes. As I exit the station, I look up at the wall overhead—it’s habit. There’s just a white block. A clean slate.

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Carly Barnhardt