Is Paris Burning?

Paris attacks, Paris terrorism

Inside it’s different. That’s where the war zone is. When the people on the Boulevard Voltaire were told to stay inside because there were shooters on the streets, we also closed our shutters, waiting. The utter unreasonableness of the targets made us realize we didn’t know what was going to happen next. Why would a group of terrorists drive along our unremarkable boulevard, shooting into windows? Why wouldn’t they? Panic takes its hands and draws them tight around your throat.

PARIS – When the attacks happened, I only knew because I was online. I logged out of my email and saw a red band on Yahoo France’s news feed.

Then I looked out my window, and saw the usual things I would see at around 9:30 pm in my neighborhood. Cars passed by. People walked calmly homeward or maybe to meet friends at a café terrace — just like I’d learn some of the victims had.

Almost immediately, my phone rang. Emails started coming in. My mother and father were panicked. These places they were hearing about on the news were right by me, or at least that’s what the maps showed.

Looking at those TV maps, I saw that they were right. But in reality, it would take at least fifteen or twenty minutes by Metro to get to the central point we all keep mentioning, the Place de la République. I looked outside again. Still calm. I was in another world.

It’s a strange phenomenon when you live in a large city. And it was one of the first things that made me recall another awful day. On September 11, 2001, I was living at NYU’s Water Street dorm, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. My roommates and I were there when the planes hit the towers. We felt our building seem to jump and tremble when they fell. Our windows were wrapped in that yellow-brown dust cloud. Before it came, we saw the people on the street far below running from it. It was utterly terrifying.

When we were evacuated, we walked into an ash-covered world. But as we continued northward, while the shock remained, the landscape was like before. By 14th Street, I was amazed to see restaurants still open, serving food. By the time we got to a friend’s uncle’s house on the Upper East Side, it was as if nothing had changed about the city — at least not physically. The only non-human sign of what had happened was the occasional smell we caught the following day, when we were staying with family of mine on the Upper West Side, and the wind blew the smoke in our direction.

Paris is the same, although more horizontal than Manhattan’s vertical. And the same feeling came to me, the same shock. Far away, but not far, you could find bodies on the ground, injured people in foil blankets being interviewed by the news. You could find police cars, more bodies, and miraculously escaped victims clustered outside the Bataclan. But in my neighborhood, you would only see trees whose last leaves moved slightly in the fall wind, and cars and people still passing by.

“It must look like a war zone there!” people kept telling me, as I looked out at the leaves.

Of course, inside it’s different. That’s where the war zone is. When the people on the Boulevard Voltaire were told to stay inside because there were shooters on the streets, we also closed our shutters, waiting. The utter unreasonableness of the targets this time made us realize we didn’t know what was going to happen next. Why would a group of terrorists drive along our unremarkable boulevard, shooting into windows? Why wouldn’t they? Panic takes its hands and draws them tight around your throat.

I remembered the panic from all those years ago in New York. Looking out my dorm room window at a breathtaking view of the Brooklyn Bridge that was now foreboding. What would the terrorists next target be? Would that be it?

This kind of fear doesn’t just leave you. On Sunday morning, I woke up hours before the sun, and couldn’t go back to sleep. At first, I thought it was because of some lingering symptom of the flu I’ve been fighting. But in the silence, I realized it was more. All that was in my mind was what had happened, those lives lost. I opened a magazine that had nothing to do with any of it, and lost myself for a while, and finally went back to sleep. My husband is a heavy sleeper and didn’t know I’d been gone. The next night, he did the same thing.

A few streets away, a store’s iron curtain is down, and a small crowd has gathered in front of it. Coming closer, I see that photos have been taped to the metal, and people are putting flowers and candles on the sidewalk. A man is crying quietly, a woman gently patting his back.

I didn’t go outside until Monday. Part of it was because of being sick, and part of it was that deeper sickness.

And yet, when I went out, there was my neighborhood, the people and shop owners I know. The baker’s family, who loves my son. Seeing me struggle with my son’s carriage, a woman with a veil opened the door for me at a store. This would happen any day in my neighborhood, and I would just smile and thank her. But this time, I saw it as so much more, and worked hard to hold back moved tears.

Because this is the reality. Paris isn’t about religion. Paris is its cafes and those who love them. Paris is music and those who love it. Paris is, mostly, people living their lives together and often finding themselves quite happy to be on these streets and boulevards, buying bread and groceries, going to the theater. Being Parisian isn’t just about being born or living here, although that is one reasonable definition. It’s something in your heart. You take in this city and its way of life and it takes you into its arms. It’s not always easy — no city ever is. But life here can be very kind.

While the government orders bombs dropped, Parisians fight back in our own way. People are going to cafes. Tonight they’ve taken the initiative to deliberately sit at tables on the terraces. No one seems to want to wallow in sorrow. I mention something about the events to the head of my son’s daycare, and she seems surprised that I’d say anything at all.

A few streets away, a store’s iron curtain is down, and a small crowd has gathered in front of it. Coming closer, I see that photos have been taped to the metal, and people are putting flowers and candles on the sidewalk. A man is crying quietly, a woman gently patting his back.

At a café diagonal to this site, two women are sitting at a table, their heads almost touching, poring over what look like sketches. Did they stop to see this new memorial before sitting down? Did they notice? Probably. And now, they return to life.

Most of us exchange smiles and polite words. Fight fear with kindness. Fight death with life. This seems to be the unspoken order. But news stories and raw moments show that there is the fear beneath it all, the battle in us all. The combat to leave the house. The heroism of taking the Métro, of meeting friends around a little table filled with drinks, and laughing into the night.

The fight is hard for those of us who didn’t lose any friends or family. Those who have are also showing remarkable bravery, often posting moving but amusing descriptions of those who were killed on Friday. They, along with the survivors of the massacres, are the bravest warriors of all.

Alysa Salzberg is a writer, blogger, and worrier. She lives in Paris with an eccentric Frenchman, a baguette-stealing baby, and a dog-like cat. Besides them, she loves reading, travel, and cookies.

Image by Joanne Bamberger/with permission. All rights reserved.

  • Lezlie Bishop

    Oh, how I have missed your writing, Alysa. I knew this horrible incident would inspire something remarkable in that head of yours. You have actually described, in a way, what it feels like to be an ocean away from ground zero. It should feel safer, but it doesn’t.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Lezlie. And you are so right – it’s true that events like these make all of us feel that much less safe, wherever we are…. Right now, there’s a hostage crisis in Bamako, Mali. I’m praying for the hostages and their loved ones, and I feel that much more connected to the people of that city, who will also have to deal with fear in the coming days.

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