3 a.m., November 14, 2015. A suburb of Paris.
A piercing sound jolts me awake. It’s dark, and too early for an alarm. What is that sound? Groping around in the dark with 3 a.m. cognitive capacity, I finally find Stephen’s wailing phone. “What the…”
A device locator alarm has been activated. Turning it off, I find our phones flooded with notifications of every kind: voicemails, messages, emails. All of them ask if we are okay, if we are alive. This is unexpected. If we are okay? A knot begins to form in my stomach. I open the BBC news homepage, and there the horrible truth of what had happened comes hurtling at me. The darkness is overwhelming. “Can you turn on the light?”
A light comes on, and my eyes ache. I explain to Stephen that a terrorist attack had happened in Paris, the very city we were visiting. I send a hasty reassurance to everyone who had messaged me, mind whirring and heart pounding as I try and fail to make sense of it all. An attack? How could this happen? How did it happen? How bad was it? I read and re-read the early reports but they have little details. A message comes in from my brother, saying that he had used my Google account to set off my phone’s alarm. I set the phone down again.
My heart continues to sprint and the knot in my stomach tightens. I hear a faint sound downstairs and jump violently. The shadows of the tree branches outside give me goosebumps. We should turn the light off again to try to sleep, but I don’t want to. Maybe we’ll just sleep with it on.
“Are you still awake?”
Sleeping is futile. How can one calm the mind enough to rest at such a time?
I keep thinking of the dissonance between the news we received and how ordinary life had been that day. How could a day so normal bring about a night so tragic? I had sat outside a sunny café in the very neighborhoods where the tragedy would later happen, drinking coffee without a care in the world. The Christmas market had been so bright, so lighthearted. I had bought a fuzzy scarf. I watched a young bride and groom get pictures by a fountain. The Eiffel tower sparkled in joy. How was it possible for all of that to happen so freely and then be shattered so suddenly only a few hours later? It doesn’t make sense, I can’t make it make sense.
I turn over, unable to wrestle with the complicated, repulsive feelings welling up inside of me. The light comes on. We read Narnia until the early hours of dawn. I fall asleep breathing thanks that we had been tired and took the early train back home.
Heartbroken faces, dismayed thoughts, comforting gestures.
Our host family shares the sadness with us. The house fills as friends and family members come from Paris to stay in this safe, quiet suburb. A radio offers a constant stream of updates. At least 100 people have been killed, maybe more. The borders are closed, and we are not to go into the city. Our host makes brunch.
Upstairs, I watch the neighbors from our room’s window. An older gentleman works at taking a French flag out of a bag. A neighbor bikes by. They chat a little, and then together raise the flag by the side of the house.
We get a message from the next host we are planning to stay with in Versailles. He writes that we are welcome at any time we need to come, and that he won’t let such acts of hate ruin his family’s love and hospitality. Later we will learn that one of his coworkers survived the Bataclan, despite being shot in the forearm.
Monday, November 16
We go back into the Paris city center. In the spirit of our future host, we won’t let the hateful actions of a few ruin our few days here with fear.
Guards are everywhere, and the sky is gray. We watch a group of police question a man sitting in a park. Slowly we meander to the Eiffel Tower. It is closed, but we stroll around the park area and have a picnic of bread, cheese, and cold clementines. It’s too quiet for such a world-famous landmark as this, but we eat our lunch in gratitude for the simple fact that we are able to do so.
We are finishing our snacks when a strange sight catches our eye. Across the green two men in suits and ties stand around a strange contraption. Part of it is certainly a bike. The other part looks like a trailer hitch connected to a beat-up grand piano and bench. What?
I watch as one of the men gets on the bike and starts pedaling. The piano and bench follow. We start laughing. “Let’s get a picture!” We get up and follow to document this bizarre sight. As we walk, the cyclist slows to a stop and the other man takes a seat on the bench. They begin to take off again. We follow, and the pianist commences the steady, thoughtful chords of John Lennon’s Imagine.
We’re no longer laughing. As the music begins to fill the park, people look up from their conversations and lunches. Smiles, but not of amusement, begin to grow on downcast faces. I don’t know whether to smile or cry. They continue to travel and play under the gray skies. Imagine all the people living life in peace…
The song ends, and we stand in reverence at their…hope? resilience? love? It doesn’t matter the term. Whatever it was it was moving, powerful. They had the healing gift of music and were sharing it in the city where it was most needed.
As they roll away they begin another song. I watch them as they leave the park, moving peacefully onward to share Let It Be with the next block.