"Do you know where you are?" the young woman who stopped me on Paris' Avenue Parmentier asked, her voice edged with worry. A resident of the neighborhood, she was on her way to her boyfriend's apartment when armed attackers started firing on nearby restaurants. There were rumors of continued shootings in the Paris area, and she couldn’t understand what I was doing outside.
She asked me again: "Madame, do you know where you are?"
I knew where I was. It just no longer bore any resemblance to the Paris that I know and love. Reporting on the terror attacks, I had rushed over to the city's 10th and 11th arrondissements shortly after word got out about explosions at the Stade de France and gunfire at several restaurants and bars.
As I made my way toward the besieged Bataclan concert hall, what struck me most were the empty streets. Off the beaten tourist path, the city's vibrant and ethnically diverse eastern neighborhoods around Canal Saint-Martin and Place de la République draw a range of fashionable, young creative types. On Friday nights these areas are usually packed with revelers looking to kick off the weekend in the neighborhoods' numerous bars, restaurants and clubs.
However, last Friday these areas were virtually deserted. Bistro owners hastily locked down their establishments, heavily armed police patrolled the area ordering everyone inside, cordons were set up, and all around me the shrieks of emergency sirens cut through the brisk November night.
"War zone" was the word I kept hearing. It sounds dramatic, but as the night wore on it became alarmingly accurate. "Another shooting reported," an anxious friend texted as I headed toward Boulevard Voltaire. "Everyone is ordered to stay indoors, and they've sealed the borders," a second text read several minutes later.
Outside the Bataclan, residents gathered behind a police cordon comparing rumors and sharing stories — "Is the hostage siege over?" "How many dead? Seventy? Eighty? More?" — their shaken voices occasionally drowned out by the shouts of officers or the passing of emergency vehicles.
It wasn’t until the following day that I began to grasp the enormity of what had happened. Several friends live either in or near the neighborhoods that were hit. I know Le Carillon bar. It was blind chance that I was across town and not strolling along the canal or unwinding in a nearby brasserie. The 129 victims from 19 countries — musicians, journalists, artists, students, parents, and so many others — had lost their lives simply for having been at the right place at the wrong time, making their deaths as arbitrary as they were senseless. It could have been any one of my friends that night. It could have been me.
There was also an unsettling vulnerability that began to take hold. A gradual, needling awareness that nowhere, not even my postcard-esque adoptive home, is safe. The frightening thought that this exquisite city, where I have studied, worked, fallen in and out of love affairs, and spent balmy autumn evenings sipping wine or tea with friends en terrasse at one of its thousands of cafes, could, at any moment, disintegrate into scenes of barbarism and chaos. I remember looking out over the Seine during my fist trip to Paris as a teenager and promising myself that I would live here some day with the fierce, adolescent earnestness that likely afflicts many young Americans on their first visit to the City of Light.
And now this. Could I have possibly imagined this terrifying new world we live in? Could anyone?
As tales of the horrors of Friday night continued to emerge this week, so too did stories of ordinary Parisians who displayed remarkable bravery and humanity in appalling circumstances. People like Ludovic Boumbas, who died at La Belle Équipe restaurant shielding his friend from an attacker's bullet. Or Michaël, who held the hand of an injured young woman until emergency personnel arrived. Rodolphe Paquin, who owns a restaurant behind the Bataclan, turned his establishment into an impromptu emergency room, aiding victims with whatever was available. Alexis and Josephine sheltered nearly 20 injured and traumatized survivors in their apartment. And there are numerous others.
Strangers have also been there for me. There was Ali, who, despite being tired and shaken, acted as an unwitting taxi driver and saw me safely home when I found myself stranded and alone at the Place Léon-Blum at 3:30 a.m. There was also the woman who came to my aid the next day when, dazed and exhausted, I had tripped and fallen in the street, badly bruising my knee and slicing my finger open. There is the young woman who works at my favorite boulangerie down the street, who holds her smile a little longer as she hands me my baguette, and the server at the adjacent café who greets me warmly as I pass him. There are the passersby in the road and shoppers at the markets who meet my eyes, as if to say, "It's OK. We're all in this together."
This atmosphere of courage and compassion is a testament to the city's resilience. In its over 2,000-year history, Paris has seen wars, occupations, previous terror attacks, and any number of other horrors, but has continued to endure. Paris is bleeding, but it's not defeated. It has been forever changed, but not annihilated. I know it will bounce back.
On Thursday, I went to meet a friend and colleague for lunch at the bistro down the street from my apartment. The place was packed with diners, and straw had been strewn around the tiled floor in honor of France's annual "Beaujolais Nouveau Day," which is feted every third Thursday in November. I had been so caught up in the events over the past week that I had completely forgotten until I tried ordering a glass of Bordeaux.
"Bordeaux!" The waiter exclaimed with mock scorn. "But the Beaujolais is here! Won't you have a glass?"
Beaujolais is not known to be great wine, but this year's vintage was richer than usual and went down quite easily. I had another. And then a third. The buzz of conversation and the clinking of glasses filled the bistro. Outside I glimpsed the top of Montmartre's Sacré-Cœur Basilica beneath a plank of pearl-gray sky. A line of school children filed past the window.
It was an ordinary moment, one of countless ordinary moments that comprise a day in Paris, but in dark times, moments like these are nothing short of a balm for the soul. I took another sip of wine and smiled, remembering why I could never imagine living anywhere else.
Images: Erin Zaleski