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O Fim duma Viagem

Apart from the Obvious

FRANCE | Wednesday, 18 November 2015 | Views [931]

“Apart from the obvious, things are good” is a phrase I have said way too many times since Friday. Every time I have, it's been followed by a bitter, but sometimes entirely mental, laugh. Because how can you ignore the obvious? And yet I've said that a number of times. Whether it's catching up with people who barely knew that I was in Paris (“you know, up until this weekend things have been great!”) or responding to a question like “how are you?” from someone else in the programme, it works.

The obvious is that on Friday, the largest attack on French soil since World War Two took place. The obvious is that France is currently in a state of emergency. (Meaning, among other things, theoretical control of the press.) The obvious is that if I leave my apartment and walk ten minutes down a single street (following it through a name change) I'm at La Belle Equipe, a restaurant where 18 people were shot and killed a few days ago. The obvious is that I've never found it so easy to get a seat on the metro, and that I'm pretty sure it's not an exaggeration to say everyone is somewhere on the spectrum between on-edge and terrified.

But apart from all that, I'm fine. Speaking generally out of my experiences and those of the other students in the programme, apart from that, we're all fine. Life goes on, and we still have groceries to buy and classes to attend. And it's dark by six, and Paris is huge, so for practical reasons we still need to take the metro and be out after dark and not let fear consume us. And we're still able to discuss classes and grades and trips and how much Chatelet sucks as a metro station and ignore the obvious- that, if any of us were in the habit of transferring at Chatelet, we probably wouldn't find it overcrowded right now. So apart from the obvious, things are great.

And with the obvious, the question becomes a lot more involved.

I'm not French. But I do consider myself Parisian. Whether I would have before Friday is a question that it's too late to consider. Paris is my home, if only for one semester. Her grief and her fear are part of mine. But so too, I hope, is her strength and love.

Place de la Republique

On Saturday, it took me a greater part of the day to work up the courage to leave my apartment. Not out of direct fear for my life, but out of fear for what I'd see. I'm not even sure what I thought that would be, but what I saw instead was… normalcy. It was a Saturday afternoon, and the local stores were all open. There were people on the streets. Not police, but regular people. My neighbours. And in the Monoprix, people were buying groceries. Comme d’habitude. Perishable goods, and at a leisurely pace. These weren't people who were planning on hiding in their houses. These were people who, one day later, were already beginning to resume their lives.

Sunday, Stephanie invited people over to her apartment. I went and, “on the way” I stopped by La Belle Equipe. There were police here, though their main job seemed to be directing traffic around the crowd that had formed. There were lots of flowers and candles and people. They covered up the bullet holes.

La Belle Equipe

The only other student to show up at Stephanie's was Joe. He'd been in Laura's apartment with her and Nikhil when they'd heard. He said that Nikhil had been angry when he'd heard, but for Joe, that anger and frustration hadn't come until the next day. And I sat there, listening, and wondering what I wasn't understanding.

I haven't felt anger. Brief flashes where the words “I hate” or “I'm angry” have appeared in my head, but they've been drained of any real emotion. I'm disgusted by the attacks, and by the people who try and use the tragedy to advance their own agenda. But, overall, I'm not angry. Scared and grieved, yes. And also touched.

La Belle Equipe

Monday, I returned to La Belle Equipe a bit before noon. I had a tea candle and a lighter, and was able to make my way to the front to add the candle. And then I stood back and just watched. It was pretty quiet, and a part of me wondered how we'd know when it was noon and the minute of silence officially started. Which is a sign that I'm too used to phones, and even watches, as a means of knowing the time. It was Paris. We knew it was noon because the nearest church started tolling. And the minimal conversations that people had been having stopped, and we just stood there in silence. Praying, grieving, meditating, thinking… whatever we thought could do the most.

It felt like it lasted for more than a minute. Maybe it did, or maybe my perspective is off. But the silence ended with a voice or two starting into La Marseillaise. And, slowly, some other people joined in. Not the entire group, but scattered individuals from all different directions. I wished I knew the words so I could sing along. At least when people started clapping, I could as well. I'm not sure what exactly we were clapping for but, in typical French manner, it continued longer than I would have thought possible.

Later, I went to the office for the next proseminar presentation. Return to normalish. There were a small number of people in the same pro-seminar group, and a larger number of students in the office. Mainly people who didn't have class but didn't want to be alone, or who knew they needed to leave their home eventually. Our presentations ended at 16:30, and there were two alumni who were coming at 18:30, so I decided to hang around. More or less. I left my bag, grabbed my notebook, candle, and lighter, and headed to Place de la République.

Place de la Republique

Place de la République was the first thing in Paris I saw this trip. My slightly confused taxi driver brought us there before he realized I wanted a hotel nearby. We were in the vicinity the first week, and I’ve had to pass through it a number of times for administrative or more entertainment-based reasons. And, although it was not one of the attack sites, it was near enough to them to become a de facto gathering place. I’ve read things about “defiant crowds” meeting there, (“defiant” because, under the current state of emergency, people aren’t supposed to meet in large groups) and it is generally known as being a popular place for protests. Overall, pretty political, and I’ve seen that even just in glimpses when I’ve walked by in the past.

With all that in mind, it was less crowded and more peaceful than I was expecting. The people who were clumped together were around a pianist, and once I determined that I was not going to be able to see him or even the piano, I abandoned that thought and just let the music wash over me as I looked around the rest of the square.

The first thing I’d noticed was the chalk. I hadn’t read anything about that, but there was a large patch of ground with writing or drawings made in chalk. After walking around for a bit, I noticed some people adding to it. A little later, I finally noticed stray pieces of chalk, sometimes left where the last people had finished their contributions, sometimes put on a piece of cardboard which said “help yourself.”




The messages were, overwhelmingly, about love, strength, and unity. I saw at least six different languages, including French, English, Arabic, and Hebrew. There were quotes from the Koran, the Bible, the Torah… The only angry one I saw said “This is not my religion. Fuck Daesch.” The rest were inspiring (“don't be afraid “) or accepting (“Musulmans, on vous aime.”) or defiant (“Même pas peur”) or simply thoughts in the form of words and drawings that linked Parisians together through their shared tragedy and their contributions. All came out of a strong sense of grief, and a stronger will to conquer it.

This is Paris. Despite everything, still incredibly strong and resilient, and capable of love and compassion.

So apart from the obvious, I’m fine. With regards to the obvious I’m in awe.

That doesn't make it easy to be here right now. It's not. It’s hard to be thousands of miles from my friends and family. It’s hard to know that the intersection of of other people who really understand me and other people who understand what it's like to be here right now is empty. It's hard to not be able to give a hug to everyone, or even anyone, I love.

It was odd to watch statuses and profile pictures change in support of Paris, and disconcerting to see the statuses about bombings in Lebanon or other neglected media events (I know that non-western cities should get the same attention for similar tragedies, but right now, I'm in Paris. Her pain is intimately real to me, and I don't have the capacity to take on anyone else's.) And it was hard to watch the Paris statuses stop and the real life ones resume. Because, for everyone else, it's over.

But it's not over. For the people who didn't follow events as they unfolded, it seems like they see it very much as one attack. Maybe they don't even realise that it was more then one location. But, at least for me, watching from the beginning as the number of locations and deaths grew, it was six separate attacks on the same day, and no one can promise there won't be another a few days or weeks later. Which was exactly the point of the attacks, and exactly the point Parisians are not going to let be made at our expense.

This is my real life. And however much we're all trying to resume normalcy, nothing is normal. Despite whatever boastful claims people might write, we are scared. It would be impossible not to be. But we know we can't let fear or hatred or even grief overwhelm us. So we're trying to move forward with love and strength.

It's hard; that's obvious. But apart from that...

Eiffel Tower Tricolor

Tags: chalk, courage, love, paris, strength, terrorism

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