By Nicole Block
Stepping outside on the Monday morning following the Paris attacks of Nov. 13, I expected the world to be a different place. I stayed inside for nearly the whole weekend after the terrorist attacks on Parisian places of leisure Friday night that resulted in around 130 deaths — partly because of the state of emergency declared by French President François Hollande urging us to stay indoors, but mostly for the sanity of my parents, seeing the terrifying news reports back at home.
But Monday morning was no different. A man was playing his accordion on my street, the metro was crowded and the sky was surprisingly still blue. When something horrific happens, you expect everything to change with it, but the physical world does not always reflect our own turmoil and the psychological impacts. Paris and all of France were severely disturbed by Friday’s events because of the seeming randomness and arbitrarity of it, but daily life still continued.
The first conversations I had when I arrived at school and reunited with friends all opened with the same line: “Where were you on Friday night?” That whole week, whenever I ran into someone I had not yet talked to, we would go through the routine and repeat how crazy and unbelievable this all was. Our classes resumed with a somber air as our teachers tried to broach and move past the unavoidable subject of this weekend, and our program coordinators hosted therapy sessions.
A thought that never crossed my mind was leaving Paris, but, understandably, some students chose to withdraw and finish their studies at home. Our program director said something along the lines of, “This isn’t what you signed up for in the study abroad experience, and if you need to be at home right now, by all means, go.” Even though we have only been here four months, we all call Paris home now, and for a tragedy to occur around the block from our campus — down the street from restaurants we frequent and in the neighborhood where young people like us hang out — is terrifying. It’s tempting to get on a plane and return to the United States. This was an invasion of the new home we made here that we fought hard for by learning French and attempting to emulate the Parisians, and that was tarnished by this violence. It can be hard to see the city with the same wonderment and enthrallment now that we have seen the very worst of it.
I did not realize the variety of ways that this affected people until I went to an event later on that same Monday. Thanks to a friend of a friend, I went to a poetry reading in the basement of a bar in the same quarter as the attacks: the 11th arrondissement. On this night many of the participants of the spoken word group shared something they wrote in response to Friday’s violence.
In an act of utter faith and vulnerability, these people stood up in front of a room full of strangers and let themselves be so fragile; in sharing their artistic work, they also revealed themselves with rawness and honesty, something that people usually hide to make it through the day. Their reactions fell everywhere between anger, sorrow, shock, love and anarchy, in pure expressions of their thoughts and emotions. I was reminded of the beauty of humanity that can be so shrouded by my own internal fears, and the media exaggerations that made Paris seem so desolate and dangerous after the attacks.
Hoping for some kind of closure, I went to the makeshift monument at Republique — the statue of their Lady Liberty, Marianne, where people leave flowers, candles and messages. I was surprised to be nearly in tears when I saw all the messages of hope and faith and solidarity. I found a poem written in chalk on the ground, and while spending an exorbitant amount of time trying to translate the French, a woman came up to me and told me that she was the one who wrote it. She translated as best she could and pointed out the rhythm and rhyme she created. She was bridging the gap between Parisians and tourists by sharing her words with me, and the power of a poem made me feel like I really did belong to this city.
This may not have been the study abroad experience I signed up for, and not one that I would wish upon anyone, but Paris will always be Paris. I have been here and witnessed the Parisian way of life — of cafes and wine, laughing and kissing, sharing poems and ideas — stay the same before and after the attacks, and perhaps with even more vitality now, as if Parisians have something to prove.