Before I heard the news, before the phone calls and e-mails from friends and family confirming my safety, it was already apparent that something was happening in Paris.
Walking home from dinner, I noticed that the terrace of a popular bistro beneath my apartment — a half-mile from the Bataclan theater — was empty. This is a rare sight even in the colder months, and especially on a Friday night. Not even the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo’s offices — also just minutes away by foot — was able to clear the neighborhood’s outdoor spaces. And compared with that act of terror, the attacks carried out three nights ago felt different.
More than most cities, Paris can only really be taken in from eye-level and when you’re surrounded by people. The aerial establishing shots of mainstream films usually depict the Eiffel Tower or L’Arc de Triomphe surrounded by uniform blocks of 19th-century Haussmann apartment buildings. But this isn’t Paris. Paris exists on the street, in the ground-floor commercial spaces and public gathering spots. It’s not an accident that chairs at the ubiquitous outdoor cafes face outward, toward the street.
#related#Music venues, stadiums, and, in particular, cafes are where life happens in this city. Those who lost their lives at the Bataclan, the Stade de France, on rue de Charrone, and in the restaurant Le Petit Camboge were participating in this distinctly Parisian form of life — which is why it felt so sickening as the story of this coordinated mass murder unfolded Friday night, as the number of confirmed victims ticked upward, as the details of the attacks became clearer, and the unimaginably disturbing implications of the phrase “hostage situation” elaborated themselves in our minds. This was an attack, not on the Paris of postcards and honeymoon photos, not on a symbol or an institution, but on the Paris where I, the woman I love, and my friends actually live.
It would be reasonable to expect that, with the safety of this mode of existence having been so brutally called into question, we would wake up to a different city on Saturday. And, to be sure, in the areas surrounding the murder sites, life had changed noticeably. But this wasn’t the case in my own neighborhood. If one looked for it, there were certainly fewer cars on the streets and, at least in the early morning, fewer pedestrians. Bouquets of flowers were laid outside at least one door. Nevertheless, it was still the place I lived the morning before.
People stood in line at the bakery, sat outside at cafes, and played in the park with their toddlers. Shopkeepers and waiters showed up for work. The narrow sidewalk outside of my apartment was obstructed by window-shoppers pointing through glass and commenting emphatically. Yes, this was a national day of mourning, an official state of emergency, but it was also a Saturday. And, for Parisians, and the French in general, there has always been more to surviving than simply avoiding death.
For Parisians, and the French in general, there has always been more to surviving than simply avoiding death.
A great deal of life here consists in the practice of quotidian tasks and public interactions, which, by being elevated to the status of ritual, are a profound source of meaning. By Sunday, the streets were just as crowded as on any prior weekend, and open cafe tables just as rare. The murderers had targeted the most resilient part of this city.
And then, as I wrote these last sentences on Sunday evening, seated outside at a cafe, I heard a helicopter overhead. People on the street were hustling to get inside. Sirens came from the nearby Place de la République, where a candlelight vigil was under way. The sound of a firecracker had sent hundreds of people running.