On Wednesday, January 7, 12 people—10 of them journalists—were killed at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in the center of Paris. I live 10.6 km from the center of Paris.
On Thursday, January 8, a police officer was killed in Montrouge, a suburb on the southern edge of Paris. I live in a suburb on the eastern edge of Paris.
On Friday, January 9, the Kouachi brothers—suspected of carrying out Wednesday’s attack—sought refuge in a printworks office in Dammartin-en-Goële (30 km NE of Paris). The same day, Amedy Coulibaly—suspected in Thursday’s shooting—took hostages in a kosher grocery store at Porte de Vincennes; four of the hostages were killed. I live 5.4 km from Porte de Vincennes.
Two simultaneous police raids around 5 p.m. Paris time Friday resulted in the deaths of all three suspects.
I spent almost all of Wednesday at home with Florence and the girls (because in France, kids only have school in the morning on Wednesdays), and didn’t hear about the Charlie Hebdo attack until receiving a worried email that evening from my mom.
I went into Paris Thursday morning for my French class and afterward met up with my friend Austen and her brother who were here at the end of a trip through Spain and France. We toured the Catacombs before I had to head back to Nogent to pick up the girls from school. For me it could have been any other rainy day in Paris. I didn’t even have any delays on the metro or RER, though I’d expected them.
Friday afternoon I went into Paris again, this time for my oral expression class, which meets in a different part of the city than Thursday’s class. I took a bus to the Château de Vincennes and then got on the metro line 1 toward La Défense. I even passed through Porte de Vincennes before eventually getting off at l’Hôtel de Ville, a.k.a. City Hall.
I emerged from a network of underground tunnels into the gray light of an overcast afternoon and was abruptly stopped in my tracks.
This is the closest I’ve ever physically been to a terrorist attack, but until the moment when I stood in front of l’Hôtel de Ville, Charlie Hebdo still felt miles and oceans and continents away.
This is partly because I haven’t even been in France for two weeks. I’m only starting to settle into a routine. It hasn’t fully sunk in that I live here. That Paris is my home. But it’s also because when atrocity happens, we purposefully distance ourselves from it, we make ourselves numb to it.
And I feel guilty because my fledgling routine has hardly been disrupted. Because I feel like I’m not feeling enough. But I also feel grateful. That for now I’m still safe.
And then there’s Paris. The city is still functioning, still thriving. Notre-Dame is still there, standing like a gothic sentinel against the winter sky. And the throngs of tourists are still there, walking through and snapping photos of stained glass windows, or craning their necks up toward gargoyles. And I’m still here: going to class, buying an extension cord, picking up a package from the post office, walking the girls home from school, accidentally cooking fish nuggets instead of chicken nuggets for dinner. I’m still here, going about my day.
Charlie Hebdo hasn’t turned my life upside down, but its impact is visible. On the giant banners on l’Hôtel de Ville and on a smaller poster on an otherwise bare community bulletin board in Nogent. And in the actions of middle-school-age boys wrapping their scarves around their heads on their way home from school. Pretending to be Arabs. Pretending to be terrorists. And laughing.
Its impact is heard. A boy in Bénédicte’s class keeps saying things like “#JeSuisCharlie” is “dumb” and that he’s “for the terrorists.” And François scoffs whenever the news station plays a clip of French president François Hollande calling for national unity, vigilance, and tolerance toward the country’s Islamic community.
And its impact is above all tangible. Walking through the Châtelet – les Halles metro station to catch the RER home after my class Friday afternoon, I could feel the tension and anxiety and fear. Everyone was on high alert. A group of musicians was playing Christmas carols in one of the passages, and the forced lightness felt awkward and out of place. But still they kept playing, and still I kept walking.
So life in Paris right now isn’t normal, but it’s not completely not normal either.
Still, it keeps going.