Europe Narratives

Paris Attacks: A Personal Anecdote

Story and photo by Ruth Neuhauser |

I was in Paris during the terrorist attacks. From the pictures on my instagram and on my laptop, you can’t really tell. Only one picture gives it away, and that’s because it’s a screenshot of when I marked myself ‘safe’ on Facebook.

A note in my planner reads:

“Tried to go to Versailles, but it was closed. Went to see Notre Dame, Ile de St Louie apartment, sat in park. Went to Père Lachaise cemetary– saw Oscar Wilde’s gravemarker”

Next to it are notes about my classes, emails I need to send, and homework I have yet to complete over my break. A wavy line separates the topics. At the top, a excited scribble that reads “Paris!” belies the gravity of the weekend. This is simply a recounting of what it was like when I was there.

The harsh airport lights were making my eyes hurt as I struggled to read the French signage. After a delayed first flight and a boring layover, I was ready to be out of airports.

“The trains may not be running past this point. There were-was a security threat.” I focused on the mildly accented voice. My friend Justine and I were standing at the Info Desk at Charles De Gaulle Airport, trying to figure out how to get to the other side of the city. This comment was the first clue we had, but neither of us gave it much thought. I was primarily concerned with being the navigator, and if the trains were delayed that was just another thing to worry about.

On the train heading away from Charles De Gaulle, Justine and I sat across from a German girl around our age. With a glance around, I noticed hunched shoulders and tired eyes. A French woman with light hair heard us chatting and moved closer to us.

“Are you English?” She addressed us directly, and tells us there were scary attacks. Terrorist attacks, she says. This was the first time Justine and I had heard it put in these terms. After she moved away, the German girl looked up the news on her phone. I leaned forward, trying to read the article on the little screen, but it was in German so I was lost. Thankfully, the German girl translates the article for Justine and I as the train rolls up to a stop.

Our train was en route to pass right by le stade, where a stadium’s-worth of french people got on the train. The article had said this was one of the locations of the attacks. I couldn’t tell how the French families were feeling, each face either composed or focused on their children. No one was screaming, no one was crying, and children still talked in shrill voices about children-y things. But the train was filled with only low chatter, and no one was chanting for their teams or discussing the game. Justine and I took our cues from the Parisians around us. I smiled at a young girl who kept asking her dad some question. If they weren’t wailing in panic, neither would we.

I tried to relax in the relative calm of the train, which was still not moving, but outside the station blue police lights lit up the block. The train conductor made an announcement, and it was as indiscernible as every other train station announcement. All the French families started filing out of the train, so we figured we had been told to get off. Justine and I lugged our bags out and awkwardly stood on the platform, only to have the announcer tell us to get back on. Once we were all back on the train, we were told to get off it again, and then the train hurtled off, empty. Justine and I stood on the platform, surrounded by cigarette smoke and a couple of mecs (dudes) spitting over the railings, waiting for the next train to come.

When at last it did come, there were some more indecipherable announcements and all the French people immigrated into the new train.

My phone vibrates, and I see I have a missed called from my mom. But I don’t have many minutes in my international plan, so I can’t give her the reassurance of hearing my voice. I make do with a text to both parents saying “I am fine :)” in a vain attempt to keep her from worrying about me. I do not think it worked particularly well, but the train starts moving and I have to focus on where I am right then.

Justine and I arrive at our station far on the other side of the city, out in the suburbs, at one a.m. With sighs of relief, we reached the home at which we were staying and dropped into bed.

The following morning brings us to a suburb of Paris, St Germain-en-Laye. I ambled along behind Justine and her French friend Clem, who showed us around for the day. The suburb is cute but humdrum and soon we decided to venture into the city we had been instructed to avoid. The Champs-Élysées teemed with cars and people. As we walked down the street, signs on many of the businesses told us they were closed for the weekend. As we approached one of the city’s gardens, the road widened and the buildings retreated, making room for a holiday market to fit in. The twinkling lights lit it up and all the booths were painted a crisp white. But when we came closer, I saw that all the stalls were shuttered closed. We were still trying to find a part of Paris that wasn’t lifeless when Clem’s father texted to say we needed to return home. We went back out to the suburbs, and Paris was left behind to recuperate.

The next morning, Justine and I planned to go out to Versailles, but it was closed for the day. Instead, we returned to the city. We strode across the bridge over to Île Saint-Louis, a tourist-crowded Notre-Dame at our backs. I took her to see the apartment I stayed in last time I visited Paris, and we posed in front of the building to take a picture. It was as gorgeous as always, the Seine sparkling in the rare Paris sun. We could see a drowned bike lying on the riverbed. We chuckled and pondered how someone got a bike— a rental one at that— into the river. The water looked so pretty, and the bike was so entirely out of place in the river that I snapped a photo. It’s hard to reconcile the contentment of that place with the violence I know has happened.

Our next stop is Père Lachaise, which Justine told me is the resting place of Oscar Wilde. It was gorgeous there, peaceful and old and overgrown. It seems appropriate for Wilde’s grave, as it was easy to imagine authors sneaking in with their laptops and settling down amongst the mossy headstones to write. As we’re playing in the leaves, a police car comes racing through the cemetery, telling everyone it’s time to go. On the walk back to the train station, I see an abundance of men in desert camouflage uniforms, carrying large black guns.

By Monday, the city returned to some semblance of normality. The French must go back to work and back to school.

Justine and I had neither work nor school to attend, so we agreed that today we would visit the Louvre. We checked to make sure it was open, and headed out for the day. The classic giant glass pyramid stood out in the middle of the courtyard, but it’s always there so it was mostly ignored. In front of the pyramid was an awkward bald spot. Where customarily there is a snaking line of visitors, there was only a taped off area. A sign instructed us to return at 1pm, when the museum would open belatedly. When one o’clock ambled around, we joined the long line filling the stanchion queue and watched the pigeons scavenging. The scene was typical, other than the knowledge the museum opened four hours late. And the many, many military vehicles driving past and the camo-clad personnel standing in the courtyard.

Back at home, the older brother in the family watched the news. It was all in French so I couldn’t really tell what is going on, and playing with the youngest child was claiming most of my attention. But I read Président Hollande’s name on the screen as he was about to make an announcement. He declared France will be ruthless and tough, even as it mourns the deaths the city had suffered.

By Tuesday, we were able to go about our tourist activities with only one minor inconvenience: the Eiffel Tower was closed. So instead of climbing up it, Justine and I took pictures that look like we’re the size of the tower. We then wandered around looking for a gift to give our hosts for taking us in, often thwarted by the vacant storefronts. We eventually made our way past the closed holiday market again, and go to Angelina’s, a place famous for its decadent hot chocolate. It starts to rain in the evening, and we wade to the metro station, chilly on the outside but warmed by the hot chocolate.

In the early hours of the morning, we left our hosts their present and made our way back to Charles De Gaulle. The train ride went smoothly, and I was relieved that it was so different from the train ride the first night.

Paris looks from above as it always does. It reveals little of the horror it saw on the 13th, but I know it must be a city fighting hard to feel whole, and deeply in need of some self-care. The entire weekend was filled with contradictions. There were lots of people out, but they were all told to go home early. Museums would open and have lines stretching in front of them, but they’d open late. The metro would run on time, but French soldiers would patrol the stations and ride in the trains, black guns in hand. The family had a crêpe party where everyone was happy and joking, but the next day plans were hesitant because you could never tell what would be safe. It was inconsistent. It was surreal. It was careless. It was the grief of an entire country. I was there as a tourist, doing tourist things and complaining about homework. But I knew that I had not suffered the full pain of the city. I got to take pictures and go to museums and make crêpes. The city had to rebuild, readjust, and mourn.