This August, filled with excitement, I moved to Paris to embark on my year abroad. Over the past few months, this city has come to feel like home. It is an amazingly vibrant place, always busy, always with something going on. A true European metropolis, Paris is full of culture and history and diversity, of life being lived in all its fullness.
On Friday night, everything changed.
Thankfully, I was far away from the attacks, studying in my university’s library on the other side of the river. The first I knew of it was my flatmate ringing me in tears, warning me not to come home (we live only a couple of streets away from the Bataclan theatre) but assuring me that she was safe. Then began the task of informing friends of the danger and trawling through news sites to find out where was affected. It was the first time in my life I’d been ahead of the news, inside a breaking story, aware before the reporters had even broadcast their first tweets.
The 15 minute walk to a nearby friend’s apartment was tense and confused. We didn’t know what was going on, where was safe, who we could trust. The streets were empty and we were surrounded by sirens. Five of us stayed in my friend’s tiny studio that night, drinking tea and following live news streams, as the true horror of the evening became apparent. Not much sleep was had, but it was comforting to be among friends and safely away from the violence.
A lack of information in the morning made us all feel on edge. Without confirmation that all the terrorists had been caught, none of us felt confident about going back onto the streets. Eventually we decided just to risk it. Paris was surprisingly busy, nothing like an ordinary Saturday, but we still saw long queues at boulangeries, kids on skateboards and, of course, tourists taking selfies by the river. There was, nonetheless, an air of tension. People were hurrying around, jumping at any loud noise and watching those around them with suspicion.
On Sunday, I went back to my apartment. This time, the streets were positively buzzing. It was a beautiful day and people were out enjoying the weather, shopping and visiting cafes like Parisians do. The restaurant across the road from me was overflowing with customers keen to enjoy a Sunday brunch. It felt like everything was back to normal. It almost felt like nothing had happened. Almost.
Just streets away, around the Bataclan theatre, it was anything but an ordinary Sunday. I saw medical equipment strewn across the ground, especially disposable gloves, still left from the frantic efforts to save victims’ lives. Sombre crowds had gathered to pay their respects, leaving flowers, candles and signs bearing slogans of grief and solidarity. I witnessed people weeping, holding each other, carrying photographs of loved ones lost or missing. Especially odd was the juxtaposition of this anguish with the media storm that surrounded the area. Journalists were reporting live, many conducting interviews with passers-by and their vans were everywhere, clogging up the streets. Seeing how close the tragedy occurred to my apartment was nauseating, as I imagined what could have been.
That evening, walking through the Marais (my district of Paris), I experienced first-hand the effects of a city on edge. It was bizarre. Streets suddenly deserted. Beers left on pavement tables. Chairs upturned. Bikes abandoned on the ground. The few people around mentioned another shooting at nearby Place de la République. Rounding a corner, I came face to face with a man, all in black, pistol in hand. I ran for my life. I genuinely believed that I was going to die, that it was happening again. Ushered into an apartment block by some French people shouting from a window, it soon emerged that the man was, in fact, one of a number of plain-clothed policemen on the street, responding to what was believed to be a genuine threat. It turned out to be a false alarm, but it demonstrated to many that Paris will not recover from these attacks overnight. This is a city in fear.
This was all too apparent again the following day. Having returned to university and what we hoped would be relative normality, classes on Monday were disrupted by a temporary evacuation over a bomb alert. We were ordered to leave our classrooms as alarms sounded and armed police and soldiers swarmed to the scene. Again it turned out to be a false alarm – just two students leaving their bags unattended – but it was yet another reminder of the tension that stalks the city.
So now, as France remains in an official state of emergency and governments around the world resolve to strengthen their response to ISIS, how can Paris begin to move forward? Security is noticeably high. It is no surprise to see armed police or soldiers patrolling the streets and to hear sirens every few minutes. Entrance to my university is now subject to bag searches and ID checks. But no one minds – it makes us feel safe. On another level, despite the fear, Parisians are showing a remarkable determination to continue with their lives. Even going to a café takes a lot of courage at the moment, but they remain busy and bustling. Café culture, the epitome of Parisian living, continues unabated.
This has been a difficult piece to write. Everything is still raw. But Parisians have shown immense solidarity over the past few days. We are determined that this great city, though shaken, will stand strong.