By KACEY MAYEDA
We haven’t been home for ten minutes when we hear the shots: my friend Alex and me in my little apartment. There are a bunch, one after another… A machine gun, that’s what it’s called. But that doesn’t make sense— this is France, they don’t have guns.
“What the hell was that?” Alex calls from the other room, and I tell him I don’t know; I’ve never heard a sound like that in Paris before. Then it comes again, clearer this time. But you never expect that the worst has happened.
Minutes later, Rachel from downstairs comes to ask where Cassidy is. She’s acting weird, so I ask her if something’s wrong.
“There have been shootings all over Paris,” she says, and I don’t understand her words. Alex pulls out his phone to check the news, and discovers that people from the states have already contacted him asking if he’s okay. Then it becomes clear that this isn’t an insignificant event. People around the world have already heard, and at the same time as us.
“Wait, when did this happen? Where in Paris?” I hear my voice start to rise in panic. Alex, who’s visiting for the weekend, got here this morning, and we practically walked the length of the city over the course of the day.
Rachel tries to explain things to me: she doesn’t really know herself, there were some explosions at the stadium, random shootings at restaurants, a hostage situation less than a mile away that’s still in progress. “At least 30 people have died,” she concludes.
A hostage situation? Thirty people dead? I’m shaking my head. I would hardly believe that in the U.S., but here? Before we know it, we’re all on the Internet searching for answers. Nothing is clear. Everyone is giving different numbers of deaths. It quickly escalates from 30 to at least 100, to 130 and counting.
Messages begin flooding in, from panicking family members and people I haven’t spoken to in years. It’s bizarre to see them act so relieved when I report that I’m safe. For one thing, the attacks are so recent that we don’t even know whether they’re over yet. We’re safe for now, but we have no idea what France will look like for the next several days, or even the rest of the night.
Luckily, two of my flatmates are out of the country (in Dublin and London), so I don’t have to worry much about them. But Hannah is with Cassidy, somewhere in the city. I manage to reach them and find out that they’re stranded in the 5th arrondissement. They can’t get home because home is in the 11th, where (along with the 10th) most of the incidents have taken place. Apparently the area is barricaded, and nobody can leave or get in. They’ll have to find a place to stay for the night.
A hashtag opens up on social media: #porteouverte, meaning “open door,” to allow those stranded to search for others who have room to house them. The metro closes, and so do France’s borders.
Hannah messages me that she’s scared. I feel completely helpless. There’s nothing I can do.
Alex reads out shooting locations and I recognize one of the names. It turns out to be a restaurant a mere block from my building, less than a three-minute walk away, at the intersection of my street and the next major street north of it. The shooting itself took place around ten minutes after we got home, and we watch a video of a man’s testimony. He says there were two separate rounds of machine gun fire in the space of a few minutes, and 19 people were killed. We realize that those were the sounds we’d heard when we got home.
To get back to the apartment, we’d taken Line 1 of the Metro all the way from l’Arc de Triomphe. Instead of getting off at the Bastille station and walking 15 minutes to get home like I always do, Alex had pointed out that overshooting home and getting off at Reuilly-Diderot was faster. If we had taken the stop that I take every day, we would have been a block away from the shooting as it was happening. And if we’d decided to go to the top of l’Arc de Triomphe as we’d considered, we wouldn’t have made it back into the 11th arrondissement at all.
Facebook just then creates a new feature that allows users in the Paris area to check in as “safe.” In this way, I can let people know I’m okay and send messages to those who haven’t yet checked in. Everyone I know in the area ends up being okay, which is actually a bit surprising given the close location and the magnitude of the attacks.
I’m overjoyed, of course, to hear my friends are safe, but I don’t experience the same “thank goodness!” feeling that people keep expressing over and over in messages and in comments on survivors’ Facebook posts. Because for every person who I learn is okay, I’m painfully aware that there’s another who’s been killed and whom loads of family and friends are frantically trying to reach.
Alex turns his computer screen toward me. It’s our president, it’s President Obama giving a speech addressing the attacks. More than two hours can’t have gone by, and here he is already, showing his support for France, mispronouncing the French words that this country bears so proudly: liberté, égalité, fraternité.
Here is our president acknowledging that this was a terrorist attack. That France has always been there for the U.S. in times of need, and the U.S. will reciprocate as best we can. Time has frozen; Alex and I don’t dare to breathe. It’s that moment when the situation becomes real for me.
This is 9/11, but this time it’s not across the country, and this time I’m old enough to understand, old enough to be scared. On 9/11 I was five, and the only thing I can remember from it is my parents’ distress, my parents staring at the television, watching the same image of a building on fire, their expressions blank, silent tears, and I finally understand them. I finally understand, my own eyes glued to my computer screen, looking for answers and finding the same cold words and hard numbers, feeling with the rest of France a collective panic. It is suddenly and irrevocably real.
It’s Alex who realizes we can’t let ourselves continue to sit in fear, searching the news for information that nobody has yet. He tells me to get off Facebook. To stop answering everyone’s messages for a moment and to think about something, anything else. He makes a few stupid jokes, we pretend nothing is happening, that France hasn’t become eerily silent, save for the symphony of emergency sirens wailing from all over the city. We watch Key and Peele, laugh gaily, and act like it doesn’t seem like the world is slowly crumbling beneath our feet.
When the final counts come in for the night, they seem finally somewhat unanimous: 129+ fatalities, 357 casualties. My mind swims. All I can think of is a few hours ago, when Alex arrived in Paris, and we danced along the Seine with a fresh baguette and cheese (Brebion, 3,27 euros, per the man at the counter’s suggestion). We’d sung along to corny holiday music at the Christmas markets on Champs-Élysées and tried hot wine (it tasted like NyQuil but we didn’t care. It was warm).
More drunk off life than off alcohol, and apparently having both slept very little the night before, we spent the day in a sort of recklessly happy state, running aimlessly across the city from monument to monument, our feet never tiring, and suddenly here in Paris 129 people are dead. In the blink of an eye.
Hannah texts me that some new friends made at the bar have offered up their house for the night. This reassures me enough that I lie in bed for another sleepless night, and in the morning I feel just as lost as before. My grandma and most people I know advise me not to leave the apartment, and most things are closed anyway, so we spend a relatively uneventful Saturday entirely indoors, though it’s not every day that you find out that ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks you survived the night before, with an ominous warning that this is only the beginning. I call my mom and she asks if I want to come home. I say no.
People continue to send me messages. It’s these messages that consistently remind me of my reasons to live, to stay alive. Every American adult tells me to hide in my apartment, and every French adult says to go outside. It’s not that the French don’t want me to stay alive: on the contrary, they’re reminding me to keep living.
And the next day I do go outside. When I call my mom again, she’s finally allowed herself to watch the news and has realized just how close I live to one of the shooting locations. She’d thought — or rather wanted to believe — that I’d been exaggerating. “I saw that it was actually a block away,” she told me, and she let her voice do that thing it rarely does, where it gets tiny and scared, “and I thought, ‘Why the hell is my daughter there? Why is my daughter still there?’”
I don’t say anything, and she doesn’t push it. She doesn’t ask me again to come back home. I think it’s because she knows as much as I do that going home was never an option for me. I had fallen in love with Paris — and I didn’t want to flee it at the first sign of danger. If I did, it would feel like I’d missed the whole point of coming here in the first place. I’d come to Paris to integrate with its people, to throw myself into the lifestyle. If I walked away from it all, just like that, took the next plane while the people who (at first begrudgingly, but eventually quite graciously) let us into their culture were stuck here…
But they, they did not treat it like being stuck. When I finally stopped hiding in my apartment Sunday morning, and I opened the strangely heavy front door of my building into the brilliant sunlight of the outside world, the sidewalks were not empty and silent, but filled with more people than ever. There were couples holding hands even more tightly than usual, parents proudly marching alongside their children, and old women strutting by, in a way that seemed to proclaim, “You can try your best to screw with our country, but you will never ruin it for us. We’re not even scared.” (“Même pas peur”)
Of the many stories that emerged from Nov. 13’s tragedies, one stood out to me. It was written by a father whose wife was among those killed in the Bataclan. The man refused to give ISIS what they wanted, which he believed was his hatred, both for ISIS and for the people around him.
Expert reports say that there’s unlikely to be another attack of this nature in Paris soon, because the point of the attacks was not to kill but to let pain and bitterness ruminate, and to allow everyone to turn on each other.
Well, ISIS, if that was what you hoped for — if you took the lives of 129+ people to try to incite fear and hatred — then you have no idea how wrong you were. Because seeing those old women out on the streets, seeing hundreds of French people at their usual cafés, almost gloating despite their pain, flaunting their joie de vivre, and in a way delivering their own defiant coup de grâce, I fell more in love than ever with the Parisian people. And I fell in love with Paris all over again.
To leave would be to admit defeat, to let the terrorists win. It would mean abandoning the city and the people I love in their greatest moment of need. And the last thing I wanted was for this to be how my experience here ended. No, going home was never an option. This had become home, and I knew I needed to ride it out until the very end.
Kacey Mayeda is a sophomore at University of California, Berkeley. She is studying abroad this fall semester in Paris.