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A Paris Weekend in November

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 16/11/2015 Mina Samuels

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Friday evening began to change its shape after the first text message. Three of us had been to the theatre on Rue de la Folie Méricourt, and my partner had met us there at the end of the show. We've checked the time stamps on our text messages, trying to figure out exactly what time it was. 9:24 p.m. is our best guess. We left the theatre about 9:40 and walked up to Rue Oberkampf, across Richard Lenoir and Boulevard Voltaire, right past Bataclan and another half block on to a restaurant. Were they already inside? Did we walk right by them -- the men with guns wearing suicide vests?
We order drinks and food. Around 10:50, the Parisian with us gets a text asking if he is okay. At 10:52, my partner gets the first text from a New York friend. An attack in Paris? Was anyone else hearing this? We look around the bar trying to gauge whether anyone else has heard the rumor.
The crowd seems unperturbed, the usual amount of people on their phones. We start searching the Internet for news. We talk about international headlines we've missed before -- in my case, boarding a ferry from the West Coast Trail in Canada at the end of a five-day hike and news blackout to discover that Princess Diana had died; for someone else with us, it was finishing a similarly news-remote hike in Borneo, only to learn that 9/11 had happened.
Whatever is happening in Paris feels distant, not yet like life happening to us right now. We are mostly finished with our first drinks and food before the news becomes real. Before the dim bar is fully punctuated with small, luminous rectangles of communication. Before one of the waiters points out the front window and says, "It's only 300 meters away. It's right there!" Before we see the first blue flashing lights, as police cars and fire trucks start passing down the street. Before the first fleet of tightly ordered riot police jogs by in formation. Before the front grill of the bar is dropped and we are locked up inside. Who made that decision? Safe from what? We still aren't even sure. It seems like the most news is coming from our friends in New York.
I feel a strange detachment from my self, as if my thought processes are divorced from real-time events. I think: Those riot police look like a Star Wars movie. I think: Why is Allocine advertising so far in advance for the Star Wars film in December? I think: Why are those people standing up next to the windows? Aren't they scared of bombs or guns? I think: Those people are in the line of fire, between me and... I don't know what. How will I feel if they are killed and I'm not? I think: How Darwinian. And then I think: I shouldn't think that, and anyway people come through back doors, too.
I wonder if we are going to be locked in together all night. I wonder if it is inappropriate to order dessert. I wonder how long it will be before we get free drinks. I wonder if I will become closer friends with the people I am with because we've shared the evening.
A woman at the table next to us starts smoking. The waiter comes over and asks her to stop, or to go to the front of the restaurant and stick her hand through the grill and out the open window. She takes herself up front in a huff. A while later, she starts smoking again. People all around us glare at her (amazingly, even in Paris now it seems that people prefer a smoke-free restaurant, even in the midst of a crisis). I ask her to go up front again. And then I think: Now we're going to be here all night and I've already made an enemy. I think: How quickly the civility of the crowd devolves; here we are locked into a restaurant together, and the courtesy of not smoking is not even maintained for 45 minutes. I think: I should be more tolerant.
I think: I need to stay calm. And I think: There is nothing I can do except stay calm.
Then suddenly the grill rolls up and there are riot police at the front door telling us how we are going to leave now, right now, and we are going to turn right and run as fast as we can without stopping until we've crossed the next boulevard. I struggle to get on my jacket and grab my handbag, blocked into my table by a woman who can't find something, I don't know what. My partner says, "Let's go." I feel an effervescence of panic start to move inside me. And with it, a hint of that nausea-inducing desire for excitement we sometimes get -- when something base and carnal inside us almost wants to be degraded by events, just so we can say, this happened to me.
The woman's friend says, "Leave it; we'll come back for it." She starts to move. I move with her. Then I am out of the restaurant and running as fast as I can past the Star Wars storm troopers. Above us, a few people hang out of their apartment windows, but the street is mostly empty except for the police, their cars and trucks and the people from the bar. My partner is a few steps behind me. I keep looking back, as if nothing can happen to us if he is in my sight, Lot's wife be damned. We run headlong into a line of journalists with cameras. I think: How did I get on this side of that camera? I think: Why am I not even more scared?
We catch our breath with our friends and then go our separate ways, all anxious to be home. We walk down Rue de Turenne, looking for a bike stand. A few blocks later, we are on velibs, rolling through the streets of Paris. We aren't even sure we will be able to get home. Some reports are saying there has been an incident at Les Halles, where our apartment is. I imagine escaping terrorists running across the roofs of Paris straight into our apartment. Would they hurt my cat in passing? Was I an irremediably selfish person to worry about her?
On Rue de Rivoli, sirens wail past us in the direction of the Louvre. We pass a small street with five emergency vehicles and two people on stretchers. We've still seen nothing in the news about anything in that area -- was it just two random people who happened to get sick during a terrorist attack? Stopped at a light, a man on another velib asks me where he'll get to if he just keeps riding straight. I say, "The Louvre." When he rides away, I think, I've just given directions to a terrorist. We laugh about that, but not until the next day. I feel like I'm surrounded by danger, and I feel, too, like if I just keep moving, I'll be fine.
At home, we read the news feeds, we answer texts and emails and we don't talk about what happened. Not yet.
Saturday. We wake up with the first bell at 7:30 a.m. after restless sleep, then doze through the 8 and 8:30 bells. The city is eerily quiet. I go down the six flights of stairs to go to the boulangerie. When I open the door of our building, I poke my head out first, just to see. I feel foolish for doing it. There are people. Fewer than usual, but still, the street seems peaceful. The boulangerie is open and crowded. I get us extra decadent treats. Over breakfast and as the day goes on, we talk.
I ask: "Were you scared?" He says: "Not really, I don't know why; it didn't feel real." I say: "Me too, well maybe a bit more scared than that, and when we were running that was unnerving." I ask: "Why were you running behind me?' He says: "To make sure you were safe." He asks: "Were you disappointed? Did you think I was being like Force Majeure (a Scandinavian film about a man who runs from an avalanche, leaving his wife and children in its path)?" I say: "There wasn't one second when I thought you would leave my side."
We try to put words to what happened, what had not happened, what had almost happened. How real was the danger we were in or were we just being self important, trying to make ourselves part of the story? One moment I feel a relief so sharp it's asphyxiating. I once brushed against a transport truck at 50 miles an hour on a highway ramp, when I saw the little trail of white paint left by the truck on my car, confirming how close I'd come to nothingness, I was retroactively shaken for days. At other moments, I think, stop putting yourself at the center of the universe; what you went through was less than nothing by comparison. I need to set aside my own experience, to make space for everyone else's.
And always our talk circles back again to why? What were those men hoping to accomplish? What does violence ever accomplish? What has it ever accomplished? But I can't understand. I can't understand. I can't understand. I'm sick with the disgust of not understanding. People ask if we want to leave Paris, to go back to New York, or go to family in London. But those cities don't feel like safer alternatives. The world is at war with itself. We have lost our way. Or maybe this is our way, but I refuse to think that, because I'm sick with grief at the idea that this cycle is a perpetual motion machine. I want to believe in a world of grace, forgiveness and love. Am I clinging to a foolish notion? Is violence the only answer to the perversions of Friday night? I crave another answer.
Later in the day I get the idea that to prove that we aren't scared, we should go see the new James Bond film. We buy tickets online. Les Halles is a ghost town. Shops shuttered, almost no one in its normally buzzing corridors. I start to get cold feet. When we get to the theatre, we learn that all cinemas in Paris have just closed for the day. What a relief! Still, I take the time to find a manager and get a refund on our tickets; as if, oh well, now that I'm not at risk of dying in a movie theater, I'd like my money back. We go home and fall asleep for hours, suddenly exhausted.
Sunday. Even before we get up we can hear that the rhythm of the city is returning to normal. We ride the velibs out to the Bois de Vincennes and go for a run on the paths, through shaded alleys of trees, across big open fields, around small placid lakes. The day is as beautiful as it's been since we got here; the first unadulterated sunshine all day long. The Bois is filled with people running, cycling, walking, children on shoulders, children in strollers, dogs crashing through leaf piles. The streets are humming with people -- lines at a charcuterie and next door at the patisserie; women coming from church in sensible stockings cross the street, baguette in hand; tourists consult maps on street corners. A motorcycle comes toward me through Place de la Bastille, the rider hidden behind a black visor; for a nanosecond I think, it's not over. Then I remember, even as he rides past me, it's not over.
I think: Today matters. I think: When I get home I'm going to look in the fridge and see what vegetables I can cook up to go with the leftover pasta my partner made. I think about the pleasure of just sitting down to lunch on Sunday with him.

PARIS © ASSOCIATED PRESS PARIS

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