November 29, 2015: I cook lunch at the hostel. Spaghetti with marinated anchovies. The dining room is empty, aside from an older German man who has come to Paris to show his solidarity. He spreads tuna and mustard onto crackers, sips his coffee, reads the news.
I arrived back in Paris two days ago. I’m staying in Montmartre, in a room that overlooks Sacre Couer. It’s been two weeks since the attacks. I’m the only one in a four-bedroom. According to the guy at the front desk, the hostel has been like this since that night.
I was in Berlin when it happened. My stomach dropped at the news, a sickening feeling swelled inside. I’d been in Paris just a week before. I’d walked home alone one night. It was 2 a.m. and the metro was closed. I walked quickly, as you do at night in an unfamiliar place.
Nobody took any notice. The city took no notice. I was just another shadow passing through.
In a courtyard, a brass band played. People danced, clapped, sang. Two women, 40s maybe, spoke on a bench. Their faces were solemn; their words, hushed. Water from that evening’s rain swam down the street like a river, reflecting light from the streetlamps.
I thought to myself, “So, Paris is safe at night,” although I tried to ignore the aftertaste of uncertainty. Just as I had when I tried to ignore the Special Forces Brigade paroling Gare Du Nord when I arrived on November 4th. Their faces matched the steel of their shotguns, clashing with their red berets. For my Americanized mind, if they’d been holding baguettes their uniform would’ve made sense.
My legs dragged me on, past the Place de la République, the square for “the people” to congregate. There, the statue of Marianne stood, the woman representing the French Republic. Surrounding her were Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. She held an olive branch above her head, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the Citizen tucked under her arm. Her mouth and those of the three others were x-ed out in black, a consequence of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
I finish lunch, slip on my coat, and descend the hilly street that leads to the Picasso museum. I’m ten minutes away when I notice a line of police officers circled around the Place de la République. Their hands clasp plastic shields, keeping everyone at bay. There’s a crowd of people inching toward them, on tiptoes, trying to see over the row of broad shoulders. I move toward the cops, quickly, without thinking.
There’s smoke coming out from the center of the Place. I hear a boom, like a cannon going off, but no one runs. I stand still. I pull out my phone and begin to record. A second boom. The police walk toward us, pushing us back.
A girl breaks through the police chain coming from the Place, her black turtleneck pulled over her mouth. Moments later she’s followed by several more, all in black, all young like her, 20-to-30 somethings. There’s yelling, the police move forward. I back away. I run to the next street over.
A mass of people are holding signs, clapping, chanting. They begin to march. I follow them. I rush alongside, keeping close to the walls, needing to become a shadow again. Police trail from behind.
People lean out of their apartment windows to cheer us on. Twice we reach a fork in the road and the leaders argue over which road to take. The police move forward. There’s yelling now, between the cops and the protestors. A woman tells me not to record faces, not to put the videos online. Her voice is tense, worried. I tell her I won’t (and I haven’t), and now she knows by my accent that I’m not French. Our eyes lock, both of us unmoving as the crowd passes us by. We stay like this before she walks off.
I break away, looping around the police, thinking they’ll stop me, but they don’t. I turn a corner, wander an alley. I step out onto the street. It begins to rain.
That’s when I see the Bataclan. At its feet is a shrine of flowers, pictures, poems. The shrine covers the entire city block, thickens in front of a restaurant whose bullet-holed windows have since been filled with long stemmed roses. Along the park across the street, the shrine continues.
“It could only have been elsewhere.” -Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Nettles