I have so many thoughts on Paris. I want to talk about it and I also want to never speak of it. Does that make sense to anyone but me?
(**There was a false alarm last night in Paris. There was not another attack. But some of us shared a moment of panic and now I am just trying to process it for myself. You can read about it on the internet if you need to know more.**)
You see, I have been living in Paris for the past few months. It is a dream and it is a struggle, but it’s been my city for a bit now, and it will be my city in the future. I technically live just outside the city, what my boyfriend calls, “the suburbs” but which are unlike the kind of “suburbs” I am used to in Canada. When we first moved here, each time I would mention being in Paris, he would gently remind me, “…but we aren’t living in Paris. We live in the suburbs.” I think he wanted to manage my expectations so I wasn’t disappointed. It’s true, that coming from another country, most people think of Paris and the Eiffel Tower as though they are one and the same. But no one lives at the Eiffel Tower and no one expects to live at the Eiffel Tower and so I continue to say that we live in Paris, and my boyfriend continues to correct me and c’est la vie. You will see why I mention this in a minute.
I was safe at home, (in the ‘burbs) on Friday night when I got a text from a relative in Canada asking if I was okay. She then said something about attacks and a theatre and hostages. Not knowing what she was talking about, I immediately looked online at the news sites and saw what was happening. My first thought was, ‘huh…crazy stuff’, and then I went back to whatever it is I was doing. My relative continued to text me about the events as she was watching them on the news in Canada. Getting slightly annoyed since I had already explained that I was at home and also, basically lived in the suburbs, I was far removed from whatever it was that was happening some other place, so she could stop worrying. I walked into the other room to mention these strange texts from home just as my boyfriend was coming to tell me about it himself. He had gotten a phone call to turn on the news. We sat and watched for a few minutes, before I returned to my room and continued on with my night.
Through the rest of the evening, I began to receive messages and texts from friends in London asking if I was safe, if I was okay, what was going on. I increasingly became more and more annoyed? Angry? Confused? I’m not sure. Nothing was happening to me! I was fine! I barely even live in Paris! Apparently, my boyfriend got a text from one of his friends, who was asking what I thought of everything going on.
“Why? Why would he ask about me? What does this have to do with me?”
“You don’t understand. This stuff doesn’t happen here. I think, coming from North America, you are used to hearing about tragedies on the news. We aren’t. It’s a big deal.”
Ah. Yes. Was he onto something? Is that it? It’s no lie that the news in the States, (and of course, Canada) is tragedy after tragedy after tragedy. How many times have I sat at home, glued to CNN, crying my eyes out because there has been ANOTHER school shooting, or ANOTHER innocent teenager shot in the streets, or ANOTHER bombing, or ANOTHER earthquake or tsunami or flood or hurricane? Not all of these events happen on home soil, but all of them are covered extensively by our own news outlets. You can’t turn on the tv for months, you can’t pick up a newspaper or a magazine, without these events being covered, everywhere you look. It is always sad. It is always tragic. It is always unfair. It always makes you think how crazy the world is and how lucky you are to be alive and safe. But yet, you also expect that things like this will keep happening. It’s the way of the world. There are bad people everywhere. There are natural disasters. There are accidents. It had never before occurred to me, that perhaps the rest of the world was different, at least in this way. At least in the way that news outlets cover huge events. At least in the way that people in France, to my limited knowledge, aren’t used to having school cancelled early so they can go home and watch the events of 9/11 unfold on tv. They didn’t watch live videos on that afternoon, of people jumping to their deaths from the Twin Towers. They aren’t used to running home on their lunch break from work to check the news because there was another school shooting, thousands of miles away, but that still feels so close and so heartbreaking anyway. They aren’t used to watching trials of bad guys play out on tv. The OJ Simpson trial wasn’t played in their grade 5 classroom. They weren’t told by their teacher to “bet” on whether Simpson would be found guilty or innocent. They weren’t shown videos of beheadings in their junior high classroom. When they faintly hear, that somewhere in America, there was a black teenager shot by a white cop, they think it’s the only time it has happened. When someone mentions killers mailing body parts across the country, they don’t believe it’s true. It’s unfathomable to people here, how we watch these things on the news and accept it. It’s terrible and scary and awful, but this is what happens and I am safe and I am so thankful to be safe and forward we march.
So, I was having a bit of a difficult time understanding people reaching out to me about these events of Friday. I logged onto Facebook to see a pop up telling me that it was clear from where I was posting, that I was near the attacks and could I please check that I was safe. I attempted to continue using Facebook, ignoring the little message until it drove me crazy, (my OCD, being what it is) and clicked, “Yes, I am safe.” A few minutes later, I received a notification that my sister had commented on my Facebook status. I do not create Facebook ‘statuses’ being that I would rather just go out and live my life and that’s that. When I looked to see what it was, I saw that Facebook had turned my safety into a status on my page. So far, 76 people have “liked” that I am safe. The boy I had a crush on in the 8th grade “likes” that I am safe. My next door neighbor from when I was 11 “likes” that I am safe. My childhood friend’s divorced parents, each “liked” that I am safe. It all makes me so extremely uncomfortable. I am not one to advertise certain parts of my life. My issue with Facebook is that people like to collect “likes” to boost their self-esteem, (not knowing that this is not where self-esteem actually comes from…). The last thing I want is for someone out there to think for one second that I was trying to advertise my location and that fact that, “Oh my gosh, I’m in Paris and it’s so crazy but I’m okay so don’t worry!” Nope. Not my thing. Thank you. Come again.
I was finding it increasingly difficult to accept people’s kind words. Does this say more about me and my bad attitude or the state of social media in 2015 or the events that were unfolding in my city? I have no idea.
All this brings me to last night. Sunday evening. I go to church every Sunday evening and my faith is a huge part of my life and that’s all I need to say about that. I desperately wanted to go to church. My boyfriend desperately did not.
“It’s not safe. You don’t understand. We need to stay home.”
“No. I will not accept that I am supposed to just sit at home and be scared. This is ridiculous. This is the night when we need to be at church the most!”
He relented, the sweet, sweet man that he is. I think he 1) knew how important it was to me and 2) perhaps wanted to prove a bit to himself that he wasn’t really that worried or scared. Bless him. We drove to church in silence after having argued about various silly things during the day. It’s always silly when you look back, but of course, in the moment, arguing your side of things always seems important.
Our church is not in a church, but in a conference type venue that they rent out on Sunday’s. We arrived and I got out of the car to head in and find us seats while my boyfriend parked. I had a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, but I assumed it was because of all the arguing and the silent car ride.
I had taken two steps when I noticed people getting out of the car in front of ours. A man opened the trunk and pulled out a bullet proof vest. He passed it to a young woman who was also getting out of the car. He put one on himself. I took another step and noticed through the windshield that there was a small sign that said, “Police” on the dash. Any other day, my body would have screamed so many warning signs at me to turn around and get back into our car. Instead I took a few more steps and saw our church. There was a large group of people standing outside, huddled together and some were crying. “This is so strange…why are there police? Why are people crying?” The man at the door smiled at me and welcomed me into church. I thought I heard someone yelling my name, but of course, I am in a new-ish city, so no one at church knows my name. That’s weird. (My boyfriend later told me he had been screaming my name over and over because just as I entered into church, police came out of nowhere, guns drawn. I only heard my name once.)
When you enter the building there is a large set of stairs right in front of you. I began to walk up the stairs and noticed a lot of people gathered at the top who kept looking down the steps towards the door, and the road behind. Some of them were crying. Some of them were laughing. “What is going on? Why does everything feel so weird?” When you see lots of people crying, I think your first instinct is to assume that something is wrong. But so many people were laughing and chatting with friends, that I guess my brain decided to focus on that instead. A few people started screaming and running up the stairs from the street. I kept turning around to see what was going on, but some of the people who were screaming and running also had smiles on their face. They were also teenagers. I guess I assumed that they were just hyper kids, hanging out with their friends and not realizing how loud they were being. We were in church, after all. They were obviously good kids, just rowdy. I walked by a girl at the top of the stairs who was sobbing. Her friend was holding onto her. Again, the thought, “Why is everything so strange?” went through my head. I can’t really explain it more than that. I entered into the foyer and there were people standing around, some drinking coffee, some chatting with friends, some crying. A few more people yelled and ran through the crowd, but again they seemed so young so I didn’t think a lot of it. It seemed like a normal night at church, but it felt so bizarre. As I am walking slowly into the room where the church service is held, I get shoved from behind. I turn around and there is a boy, maybe 16 or 17 and at least a foot taller than me. He has the biggest smile on his face and he is just pushing through people left, right and center. He pushes an older lady, maybe 65 or so, who surely was not taller than 4 and a half feet. She reached out and grabbed the boy’s arm as he ran past her. He turned around and immediately said “sorry” to her a few times. She looked at me, and pulled the boy closer to her, by his arm, I guess to speak to him and make him calm down. I stood there watching this and I swear to you, the only thing going through my head was, “Wow, this lady is SO short. Like, she’s tiny. How do you get so small?” All of a sudden I was being pushed forward. People started screaming. Everyone was in hysterics. I got pushed forward all the way into the main hall where the church service had already started. There were maybe 50 of us? Most were yelling and in a complete panic. The people who worked for the church were standing at the doors and immediately shushed us. Part of my brain thought, “But everyone is yelling and running, something must be going on!” and the other part of my brain thought, “Oh, these guys work here and are telling us to be quiet. Everything must be totally fine and people are yelling for no reason.” It is the strangest thing to see and notice how you react in certain situations.
I think everyone watches the news and sort of thinks about what you would do in the event of something scary. Where would I hide? Would I cry? Would I stay calm? Would I help people? Would I run? Would I pee my pants? (I ALWAYS think of this. It seems completely irrational, I know, but I always think about being in a scary situation and whether or not I would pee my pants. I did not, in this case.)
The crowd I was in pushed through the double doors at the same time that a crowd on the other side of the room pushed through the doors on the other side. The singing and worship stopped. People screamed. I ran to the back of the room, because, that’s where my feet took me, I suppose. It seemed like the safest? I don’t know. I just remember looking around like I was watching something happening to other people and still not putting two and two together…the police out front, the people running up the stairs, the tall boy pushing past everyone…All of a sudden, I realized I was one of the few people in my area who was still standing. People were laying on the ground with their heads covered. Girls were laying, almost in groups, their bodies covering their friends bodies. Some people were sitting with their arms around the stranger next to them. I tried to back up and bumped into a girl standing behind me.
“What is going on?”
“They don’t know yet.”
“What is happening?”
“They don’t know yet.”
“There were police out front putting on bullet proof vests.”
I repeated that I saw the police out front as I was coming into church and this girl looked at me and slowly raised her hands in the air, as an act of prayer or worship or simply because it was what made sense to her at the time. Slowly and loudly, people all over the church started singing the phrase, “We Will Not Be Shaken”, over and over and over. It is the title of a popular worship song that we sing in church sometimes and it’s on YouTube and you should listen to it if you want to. Our pastor walked on stage and spoke with someone. He told us that there was something going on down the street and that no one was sure what it was, but the police were handling it. He said that we were going to continue to worship because that’s all that we could do and there was no reason to stop praising God in the middle of all this. I stood there with this girl, while people slowly started getting up off the ground and all I kept thinking was that I should not cry. That, and that I really needed to put my glasses on. Do not cry. Do not cry. Do not cry. This makes no sense to me now, thinking about it, because I am emotional and sensitive and I always have a lot in my head, and I often cry while at church, if for no reason other than I feel safe there and I feel like I can let my stresses go. Being in church is a reminder than I am not in control of this life and that God is so much bigger. I found a seat and started texting my boyfriend who was still outside.
The pastor then came back on stage and told us that our building was in lock down and that no one could get out or get in. My boyfriend wasn’t answering my texts and I thought, “Okay, maybe I could die and why are people still screaming and whatever happens, I better not cry. Do NOT cry.”
What I didn’t know while we were trapped inside, is that just 1 minute after I entered the church, police came out of nowhere and swarmed the entire area, with guns drawn. They screamed at everyone on the street to get into the church. Apparently it was sheer panic. This is when my boyfriend started screaming my name and for some reason, I didn’t see any of this. Just specific things. Like, why is that girl crying? Why is that person looking behind me? Do I hear someone yelling? Why is that woman so short? Where are my glasses?
There had been a memorial set up in a separate area, not so close to our church and there had been a moment of panic in the crowd that had gathered. This set up a sort of domino effect, I guess, that reached all the way to where we were, in a different neighborhood. My boyfriend was outside, cars were all over the streets, people were screaming for others to “run!”, people were hanging out of their balconies to see what was going on, police were yelling for everyone to turn around and get out of the area.
Eventually they ended the lockdown on our building and my boyfriend was able to join me. As the pastor announced that the lockdown was over, he gave a moment for people to leave if they wanted. I noticed people all over the room get up and leave, including the two men sitting next to me. They were all people who had been on the streets outside the building when police ordered everyone inside. I didn’t notice any of the 100 or so people enter the room, even thought I had been standing there, watching everything like a hawk, or so I thought. “Where did they all come from? How did they get in here?”
Last night was a false alarm. There wasn’t another attack, but police thought that there could have been. They did their job. We all reacted. Nothing happened, but the fear we all felt was completely real. We weren’t afraid for no reason. That’s what it was. It’s hard to put into words what it’s like to watch people when they have so much fear in them. You see people who think they might die. You hear the horrible sound of people weeping out of sheer fear. You see people laying on the ground praying. It’s the worst thing I have seen and been a part of in my life. And it’s a complete different kind of sadness and anger you experience when you aren’t watching it on the news. I didn’t really want to know how I would react in that kind of situation. I didn’t want to know that my feet will move without me instructing them and my brain won’t understand what I see and that I won’t at all pay attention to all the signs around me. I didn’t want to know that I will be afraid to cry when I am used to crying all the time. I didn’t want to know that I will be suspicious of the guy sitting a row away from me, with a hat, sunglasses and a scarf covering half of his face and think that maybe he is going to shoot us. I didn’t want to see men coming out of the middle of the crowd with headsets and earpieces and think that they might shoot us. They were security. They were there to keep us safe. I do not want to be suspicious of people. I do not want to know what the girl behind me at church looks like when she is terrified. I do not want to see how people react when they realize something serious is happening around them. I don’t want to realize that I was so obsessed with putting my glasses on because I was looking for all the exits to see where I needed to run.
I cried the whole way home from church. It’s weird that I was afraid of crying just an hour before. I don’t like knowing that about myself. When I got home I looked at all those 75 people on Facebook who “liked” that I was safe. I re-read all the messages from the two nights before, people asking if I was okay. It all meant something completely different to me then and I hate that. I don’t want to be the one in the scary situation. I don’t want to be the one close to the fire. I don’t want to be the one living in the city that has the bad thing happening. I don’t want to be the one who needs to write to get her feelings out because if she doesn’t, some part of her may break. I don’t want to be the one who wants to book a train back to London to get out of Paris, but is scared now, because what if? I don’t like having so much fear in me and at the same time, so, so much anger. And also, gratitude. And thankfulness. The thing I am seeing today is that anger doesn’t cancel out the gratitude. I feel them both just as strong. And forward I march.