That Wednesday was completely normal. I woke up. I made my toast and coffee. I hurriedly put on my makeup and stared at my closet searching for something to wear. It was perfectly normal.
I ran and walked to the metro in a still dark, chilly Paris. A completely normal Paris.
I was running late, but that’s normal, too. We had class; we learned about the future tense.
We sat in our classroom in the middle of Paris. When class was finished, we filed out and took our turns descending the spiral staircase.
The air was cold. The people walked quickly.
That day I had lunch with friends from class – a beautiful assortment of people from many points on a map who were all taking the January Intensive Month program at the Institut Catholique de Paris. Some were part of the same study abroad program as I was, likely set up by their colleges or universities to receive credit towards their majors.
We had burgers on the corner down from our school. We laughed at how much we enjoyed talking about languages and phonetics and bonded over how homesick we got at night; but we decided that Paris was better than any of the homes we were missing.
But the brisk walk back to the school was different. A huge crowd had developed in front of the enormous wooden doors, and at the center of the crowd were several men dressed in black.
We inched our ways into the circle’s heart and a tall man with dark, kind eyes asked if I had my student I.D. card.
“Allez-y,” he ushered me inside.
I picked up pieces of conversations. With each one I grew more afraid. At this point, each of my friends had made it inside, and we were standing in the open courtyard. We couldn’t understand what people were saying, we hadn’t used the words in these conversations before, but one was clear: terrorisme.
We thought something had happened at our school. It was all happening so quickly, and, before we realized it, we were back out on the street in front of the school each deciding where we should go. We all split up, most decided to go home. Two of us felt that we wanted to hear what was going on from familiar faces.
The metro ride to the study abroad office felt like an eternity. Every movement made me jump, every face looked worried.
When we burst through the door to the office, we were greeted by the news on the television and sad, but calm, familiar faces. They had worked so diligently to make sure we arrived to Paris safely, assimilated into French culture as easily as possible, and now, there were things happening that no one could have foreseen. No one could have known. Yet, here we were. We were frightened students and they had to figure out the best words to say that were truthful enough to inform us yet soft enough to keep us calm.
“There has been an attack,” Gabriel, the kind International Study Abroad representative said. “We don’t know much yet, but we know that you guys are okay. Students aren’t the target.”
I specifically remember those words, and they stuck with me for the rest of my time in Paris. “Students aren’t the target.”
“You guys are okay.”
I had never been out of the country before and I had just started to get over my homesickness. I had just started to feel like I could be okay in this new city. I hadn’t planned for this, I had never considered this as a possibility. Now, it was all I could think about.
We learned that two gunmen had stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical, weekly publication, and opened fire, killing twelve. Among the victims were cartoonists, the editor-in-chief, an economist, editors, a guest, police officers and a maintenance worker. Each victim had a story, a face, a family.
I’m not sure why it hit me so hard. Over two million people live in Paris, and I was only one. I couldn’t stop imagining how scared those people had to have been inside the Charlie Hebdo office. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
We stayed at the study abroad office for a long time. The community I felt there was nice, and while we talked about a lot of other things, how classes were going, which professors we had, what our morning commutes were like, you could tell each of our minds were wandering to another place.
I kept thinking “this is something I hear about on the news,” but it wasn’t just on the news this time. It was when I walked out of the doors of the ISA office. It was when I got on the metro. It was when I looked out my window when I got to my host apartment at night.
I couldn’t just turn it off with my remote anymore.
As days went by and the story developed, new events arose. There was a hostage situation on the outskirts of the city, the men who were responsible for the shootings were caught and vigils were held. The Sunday following the attack, there was a march to remember the lives lost and to make a stand against terrorism.
I think that was the most beautiful thing I saw in Paris: the people who were defending what they needed most, their freedoms. They were taking a stand against things and people who wanted them to be afraid, and, while they might have been afraid to some extent of the threats, they were more afraid of not doing anything about it.
That was the turning point for me, I think. That was when I decided that I didn’t want to be afraid either. I was in one of the most beautiful cities in the world and I did not want to spend it with my eyes glued to the TV screen waiting for updates. I surely didn’t want to spend it wishing I was going home.
I believe that it wasn’t only me who had decided that. You could feel a new energy in the city. It wasn’t the same as it had been, and it was unlike the feeling after the attack. It was prideful, hopeful. Parisians love their city. It’s their home and they will be the first to tell you that it is the best place on earth. They were not going to be kept down long.
That’s not to say, though, that there were not new precautions. People were hopeful, but they weren’t oblivious. Security was tightened everywhere and police vowed to protect citizens. The French government wanted everyone to feel safe, and they took great measures to ensure it.
Soon, I made new memories to replace the ones in which I had been afraid. I spent time getting to know many truly amazing, kind people, exploring a city with thousands of years of history and seeing things on my morning commute that poems are written about, paintings are inspired by.
I went to Paris to learn about the city. I went to learn about its culture, its people, its language. I went to fulfill requirements for my French major. While I certainly did learn something of each of those things, the crazy thing was, I learned more about myself than anything else.
I learned that I could be okay in a city that was 4,000 miles away from home. I learned that when you are that far away from home and you make friends, it can feel like you’ve known each other for years because you need each other in a way that is different from the way you need the friends you’ve actually known for years. Maybe most importantly, I learned that Paris could be more than just a city to me, it could be a reminder to not be afraid of anything because life is too beautiful to spend in fear.