I Was in Paris Last Night
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because even when the bullets miss you, terror can leave you trapped.
By Fiona Zublin
The author is a reporter for OZY who is based in Paris.
It was going to be another lovely night in the City of Light. My husband had planned to meet me at the Tribal Café in the 10th Arrondissement, and I’d just hopped out of the Métro. The weather was crisp and dry, Paris in November, and passersby were busy with their phones. And then I looked at my own.
“Are you OK?”
As the world by now knows, this beautiful city was brought to a terrifying halt when, last night, terrorist bombs and shootings erupted at three separate sites, reportedly killing more than 100 at a concert hall alone. For hours the city reeled. The French government was forced to mobilize the military and declare a national emergency. On television and radio, citizens were told to stay home for their own safety. But what if you weren’t at home?
For more than three hours, I would be trapped with countless others on a Friday night, helpless in the midst of a siege of unknown proportions, origin and scope. As a journalist myself, I’ve churned out reports on one tragedy after another: the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Hurricane Irene, suicide bombings. I headed into the bar thinking that early reports of shootings amounted to only a minor affair, but it wasn’t long before I began to get a whole new perspective. Now I could see what so many people caught up in these horrors have to.
French TV has taken the death toll up to 60, and the number is rippling around the bar. I tweeted that from the Tribal Café, where I’d met my husband and his coworkers for a casual beer. The crowd was jovial at first; France was winning the soccer match against Germany. But little by little, things got stranger. People seemed to check their phones more frequently and were staring at them for longer. More people trickled in. When I packed up my stuff to leave, one of my husband’s coworkers said I shouldn’t leave. The barkeep had told her that it wasn’t safe outside.
Someone switched the TV channel from soccer to a news station, and one of the patrons climbed up on a chair to adjust the volume. We watched footage of police and their vans on streets nearby. About two minutes later, the channel turned back to the match — and a giant cheer erupted through the bar. “We were winning at the football,” explained one of the cheering patrons. Never mind the explosion that had taken place outside the stadium.
NEWS BACK ON. “We don’t have to look at that,” a man tells me, turning away from the screen. Outside, a barkeep was stacking the café tables on the sidewalk, trying to encourage people to go inside the bar. But this was France, and a cluster of people remained out there, smoking, nonchalantly. My mother texted: Some kind of attack is happening in Paris. I texted back that I was safe and not to worry. The mood inside the bar was agitated and nervous; nobody particularly wanted to stay, but no one felt safe enough to go home.
Everyone hushes to watch Hollande’s speech; he’s declared a state of emergency and closed the borders. When the face of the president, François Hollande, appeared on the TV screen, the bar fell quiet, at last. “C’est une horreur,” I caught him saying. He’d been at the soccer stadium when explosions had gone off nearby and was hustled out of there. Hollande was closing the borders. Declaring a state of emergency. Calling in the army.
There is a massive dog in this bar. “Are dogs allowed in bars?” “Tonight they are.” Gerry was the bar’s dog, in a way, a massive, wolflike creature of a breed I didn’t recognize. He was twice as large as a German shepherd. Gerry walked through the bar, causing a spectacle, and patrons petted him absently, watching the news.
We have heard that the Métro has closed and decide to make for a friend’s house around the corner. The streets feel normal for this time of night, midnight, neither deserted nor crowded, and not eerie, either. On the way we encounter a man in a puffy jacket, in his late twenties perhaps, who has scrawled on a board in what looks like blood: “Nike les terrorists,” or “Fuck the terrorists.” I ask if he used his blood, and he tells me it was harissa.
Either we’ve both gone blind or the Eiffel Tower is switched off tonight. That’s what I tweeted on our walk home. It was nerve-racking, seeing ambulances everywhere and looking for army trucks. But home is where I’m filing from tonight.