The Seventeen Seconds of Odette
Hidden in Sight
Resentment as a Kind of Relief
Over the Kanawha
Culled from the Flock
The Beauty in Fracturing
The Shadow of Paris
On November 13th, 2015, several agents of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (see: ISIS) killed 130 people and injured 368 more in Paris, France. Two weeks later, on November 27th, my friends and I rode an express train to Paris with cellphones buzzing in our pockets. Our home screens were alight with messages from our families and friends. They were concerned for our safety, but they understood our desire to travel to Paris, despite its recent devastation. Their apprehension hung over us; a feeling of unease invaded our thoughts and conversation as we neared the city. It took us three hours to arrive at Gare de L’Est and a new Paris. We stepped off the train and were received by a swarm of uniformed officers wearing assault rifles and grim expressions. I still do not know whether their presence comforted us. But I vividly remember thinking that we were walking into a war zone.
Before arriving in Paris, I had spent the better part of four months living in Heidelberg, Germany. The city served as a home to students who were thousands of miles away from their own. By the time we departed the train station, we had already visited several other cities in Europe , but we knew that Paris would be different. As we pulled away from the platform and saw our German home fade into the horizon, we did not know what we were headed toward. Our Paris would be different from the Paris of millions of other tourists. I could not help but feel as though I were an explorer, journeying to some newly-uncharted territory. The world had witnessed France’s devastation, but nobody yet knew the extent of the damage or the pain that remained.
The relationship between Americans and the French is as complex as it is contentious. Stereotypes abound: Americans envision slender men with pencil mustaches smoking cigarettes, women with unshaven legs and superior attitudes. The French do not make any gender distinctions: all Americans are obese, incompetent and uncultured. These false perceptions and mutual apprehensions are merely that, but they heavily influence this relationship. This has been driven by differing political and cultural values, stemming from resentment over the United States’ rise to global power after the Second World War. These dynamics generally cause the French to resent American tourists regardless of our behavior. Being an American in France is akin to being perpetually underdressed and ill-mannered, except, that often times, we actually are. Traveling to a city with a target on your back is problematic in and of itself, much less at a time of national distress. In lieu of the attacks, my friends and I were not sure how we would be received.
Our perception of French culture proved to be largely incorrect during our three-day trip. Where we anticipated arrogance and contempt, we found accommodation and generosity. Where we expected disdain and callousness, we found tolerance and patience. This experience was vastly different from that of another group of American students studying in Heidelberg who visited Paris before the attacks. Their two-hour wait at the Louvre was our immediate entry. Their crowded streets were our empty city sidewalks. But our immediate access to Paris became more troubling as the hours passed. The Champs-Élysées— lined with Christmas markets—was eerily barren. Stores which should have been bustling were merely speckled with customers. The feeling of desertion was undeniable: it made me feel like I should be afraid of my own shadow. I felt as though I should always be looking over my shoulder, always expecting danger.
Because this was my first visit to Paris, I can only speculate the differences pre- and post-attack. But I do think it is undeniable that the Paris I experienced was a different city, and these differences were demonstrated by the way we approached the world around us. We each kept our own reassuring mantras looping in our heads: “Paris will not be attacked again.” But just as soon as we constructed our inner asylums, their walls dissolved. An example of this was when we took a shortcut through a clearing to get to the Arc de Triomphe. We passed an abandoned backpack propped up against a tree, and within seconds, a horde of officers surrounded the area to ensure that there was not a bomb inside. Our group was hurried away from the area and we became separated, leaving each of us frightened and vulnerable. We soon found one another in the tunnel entrance to the Arc, but we were all shaken by the experience. I never imagined that an underground passageway would serve as a bunker or, much less, that I would be relieved to be there.
As we continued to travel the streets of Paris, we saw uniformed officials pulling aside men and women who bore a Middle Eastern appearance to question them. During my stay in Europe, I had never been more comforted to be a Westerner—it shielded me from suspicion. I knew that if things were different, I could have been the one those officers were interrogating. I could have been there when the attacks occurred—I had train tickets to Paris on the 13th. I could have been in the Bataclan Concert Hall or in one of the restaurants where the bombs went off. I could have been one of the terrified, frantic people searching the city for their loved ones. I had never been this close to a massacre in my life. I could have been there.
But I only have a small part of this tragedy: I was not there. I was not in the Bataclan, I was in Heidelberg, and before that, I was in a small town in rural Ohio. I have never felt what Parisians felt that day; I do not remember 9/11. When that attack occurred, I was too young to understand what was happening. I was only in kindergarten at the time. But I do remember the expressions on the faces of people around me, the expressions of my parents. I remember my teacher staring at the television in our classroom; I remember my father discussing his fear to fly. Their faces were hollow and ashen, like they had forgotten how to breathe.
I saw those faces in Paris.
We were only there for three days. We left late in the evening on the train back to Heidelberg, our phones once again buzzing in our pockets. Our friends and families were expressing their elation over our safe return, and both their minds and ours were at ease. The rest of the ride back was filled with discussion over what we had just shared: the tension we carried and the strangeness of Paris. At the time, however, we did not realize that our world was changing, and us with it: the Heidelberg that we would soon return to would not be the same one we left only three days prior. The small city which had seemed so disconnected from the world’s violence suddenly felt less safe. The American government had issued a worldwide travel alert due to heightened risk of terrorist attacks. Europe was terrified. It was clear to me that I was no longer distanced from danger, but, rather, I was right in its path. Looking back on it, I did not fully understand the significance of my time in Paris. I was too caught up in my immediate experience to grasp what was happening around me. The truth is that I saw Paris at a time in its history that can never be duplicated. It was picking up the pieces of a destroyed city just as I was realizing that I was no longer safe from the world.
About The Author
Anika Maiberger is a junior at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio, where she majors in English literature and minors in German. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking, traveling (especially to Europe) and visiting friends that she has met while studying abroad. After graduation, she plans to take a year off to determine what she wants to pursue in graduate school.