This weekend I visited Paris in what I thought would be a typical study-abroad vacation. Visit my friends studying there, sightsee, eat a crepe or two. But nothing about this weekend was typical -- and now, both Paris and I have changed in the wake of the violence.
At around 9:30 p.m., on Friday the 13th, I went with my friends Abby and Amelia to a bar in Paris's 10th district with the intention of grabbing a drink or two and then leaving. Within the hour, Amelia received a text from another girl on her program -- "There's been a shooting a block away from where you are. Don't go outside!" While we were all concerned, in typical American fashion we figured it was a crazy lone wolf, something to wait until hearing the all clear and then catching an Uber back to the dorms.
But there were no Ubers running in our area, and very quickly, we learned that another shooting had occurred. I remember how we regarded each other in silence, without breathing, as our minds went to the worst possible scenario: terrorism. Without Internet, and the batteries on our phones running low, we had almost no clue about what was happening. Only Amelia's phone had enough data to reach the outside world, and as we passed the cell phone around like a holy object, emailing our parents to let them know we were safe and trying to respond to the bombardment of messages from seemingly everyone I have ever met in my life asking if I was alright. Slowly, a picture emerged of what was going on around us.
"Oh my God, we are right there, it happened right here."
As we learned more, our dread grew. The scariest part of that long night was the countless 'what if' questions. We had a lot of time to think about all the little things we had done that had kept us out of immediate danger. What if we had gotten off at the next stop over, where the first restaurant was attacked, instead of deciding to get off a little earlier and walk? What if we had sat at dinner for ten, twenty minutes longer, and been walking through the neighborhood the attackers ran through? What if they had planned to come to this bar, a popular spot with young people, American and French, instead of the concert hall?
I will be honest. I never was afraid for my life. The bar locked down quickly, and staying inside felt better than wandering around without a clue. We knew police were swarming the area. What made me scared was something bigger than a fight or flight response, it was the yawning question of why not me? The day had gone from perfect to horrible in the time it took to send a text message. There was no reason why, and no reason why the bar we hid in was secure, and a place just next door was not. As I sat on the floor, huddled with my friends, behind a steel table, I thought about all the things I still want to do in my life. About the people I love, and who I have yet to meet, about what I want to accomplish and see and experience.
In my silent conversation with God, I kept insisting that this was not my time to go. But the worst part of that night was knowing how many other young people were thinking the same thing, and now they are gone, and there really is absolutely no reason why. In Notre Dame earlier that day, I had lit a candle and said a little prayer about how grateful I was for all the opportunities I had been given. I don't usually overtly pray, and the truth is, I don't think prayer "saved" me. I was simply very, very lucky in a universe where horrible things happen to good people, and we can't understand why.
The people who were my salvation were my friends, and their program coordinator, who waited for hours outside while we were locked in, to support us and protect us when we were finally let go at around 4 in the morning. At first my two friends and I wandered alone in an eerily abandoned Paris. No cars, no taxis, broken glass, only police. On a dying phone we called their coordinator, and suddenly we realized that we were on opposite ends of the same street, but couldn't meet because it was closed off as a crime scene. This heroic man though, rented a bike and rode around the entire neighborhood to meet us.
We all made our way through the dark and deserted streets until an unmarked cab pulled up to us and offered us a ride. However bad the night was for me, it was infinitely worse for my friends. The place they have considered home for months is now suddenly a war zone, a place of violence and danger. During the many hours we spent on the floor, we discussed how horrible it must be for people who have to live with this kind of fear every single day.
This is a complicated discussion, one that cannot be distilled in a social media post or hashtag. Although social media and technology provided a much-needed connection to the outside world during my time of need, I've been trying to avoid it since. The constant news cycle, the constant Facebook updates, I saw this human tragedy become political fodder across the spectrum, and that sickens me. I have read things that lack compassion and basic human decency and respect and empathy for those suffering; self-righteous and self-serving things that I know people are better than posting or sharing.
But also, I get it. We now have to have an opinion on everything, even things that only indirectly affect us. We see this type of violence, and I think there is always a desire to distance ourself from it, to banish feelings like depression or helplessness. I see this desire to blame people for what happened to them. After all, colonists, Parisians, they deserve this because the rest of the world suffers, so why not them, too? That is cruel, but that is a sentiment I have seen in the past 24-hours.
Terrorism is a part of the cycle of violence, and violence is never something I will agree with. Everyone deserves to feel safe in their community, no matter where they live. Everyone needs to be good neighbors, and treat others with decency in respect. Everyone needs to be informed that this cycle of violence is not part of any religion except the religion of hate. But also this extends to everyone reading this. Why is there a tendency to look at events like this and react with anything other than compassion? Our hearts are big -- there is no limit to the love we can share with others.
If you have talked about praying, then maybe consider actually praying and saying the words aloud, to any force you want. I do believe that people are inherently good, and that a good God watches us down here. I am grateful to be safe and loved. Think of those who aren't, and also think of how easy it can be to be a positive, not negative, force in our own circles. It is tough to change the world, but we can change ourselves and make ourselves a little kinder, because things change quickly, and you might never get the same chance again.
This post has been adapted from the author's study abroad blog, mackenziebroderick.wordpress.com.