I’d fallen asleep early on Friday night with a terrible head cold. The phone rang and woke me up but I couldn’t manage to get it. It was 9:15 or 9:30.
When I picked up my iPad to turn it off, not long after the missed call, I saw an alert from RFI, Radio France International in the middle of my screen. “Fusillade à Paris,” it read.
Fusillade? A shooting? In Paris? It didn’t completely register.
I clicked onto France 24, our 24-hour news channel, and for the next few hours, I watched as reporters tried to make sense of what was happening. I watched as the death toll ticked higher and higher. The information about the concert venue Le Bataclan where the American band Eagles of Death Metal was playing that night was vague. No one knew what was going on inside. Later, police stormed the club and reporters spoke about the carnage left behind; 89 people killed and more than 100 injured. Bodies in stairwells, blood everywhere.
When Hollande appeared on television, visibly shaken, he declared a state of emergency and said the borders were closed.
It is nearly impossible to describe how I felt as I watched this horror unfold on the small screen on my lap usually reserved for benign activities such as pining over an interesting pair of torn and faded jeans or a well-designed small kitchen on Pinterest. When you’re told your city is under siege by terrorists and you need to stay indoors for your own safety, despite the numbers of people already dead, estimates of injured, and maps with circles of death, it does not feel real. It can’t be. Not here. Not Paris. Not again.
An icy wind in Paris
Six hours later, I woke up. Then I cried. I may have cried while watching the short video clip of soccer fans leaving Stade de France, calmly and stoically, while singing the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise.” It may have been before that. I can’t remember. But that morning, it hit me.
Somber and heavy, the skies were grayer than usual. An icy wind blew that no number of layers seemed to combat.
I took Rose to the Bois de Boulogne park as I do every morning but it was not filled with joggers and cyclists, as it usually is on a Saturday. It was practically empty. Later I walked to the pharmacy and people were out doing their errands, but something was missing. Gone was the conviviality, the usual chatter. When I stood in line for my baguette at the boulangerie, like everyone else, I was silent. No one seemed to know what to say.
The first of three official days of mourning, the schools, museums, and markets were closed. Some of the metro stations weren’t open. The Eiffel Tower was closed indefinitely.
Paris slipped back into darkness without a sound.
Thirty-six hours after the attacks, I walked to my market to buy a chicken, which I sometimes do on Sundays. I wasn’t sure if it would be open. I didn’t see the usual parade of people along the sidewalks with roll-y carts behind them or neat wicker baskets on their arm, filled with wine, a baguette or two, and fresh vegetables.
I arrived just before noon, usually the busiest time to go, since the market closes at 1 p.m. A police car parked sideways served as a barricade at the eastern entrance, something I’d never seen before. The crowd seemed light. When I bought my rotisserie chicken at GoGo Poulet, I asked the woman who was double-bagging my bird if there were fewer people at the market. Less than half than usual, she told me. “They’re scared,” she said.
I passed two pair of policemen guarding the western edge of the market, then went home and put the chicken in the fridge. I needed to go to the other side of town to see the crime scenes for myself. To pay my respects to those who died such senseless, brutal deaths.
‘Pray for Paris’
A halo of mourners four people deep surrounded the statue of Marianne, the symbol of the French republic, at Place de la Republique around 1:30 p.m., where red and white roses, purple irises, orange tulips were haphazardly stacked on top of one another, most still wrapped in cellophane and tissue paper. Candles – tea lights and votives and tall tapers, which mysteriously stood on their own – flickered, went out, and were relit. The air smelled of sweet artificial scents.
Hundreds of people stood side-by-side, quietly moving aside to let one another through. They kneeled and cried and gently hugged one another. Parents brought young children of five and six, who left flowers and drawings in crayon – of peace signs, trees and the words, “Pray for Paris” and “Je suis Paris.” One read, “Continuons à vivre pour ceux qui ne peuvent plus,” which translates to “Continue to live for those who cannot.”
I walked 10 minutes along the canal and to the other side of the river to see Le Petit Cambodge and Le Carillon, where 15 people were killed and 10 injured by gunfire. Both of these restaurants sit directly across the street from my favorite pizza place, where I’ve gone for years.
The streets here intersect like a star. On Sunday, all five roads were closed except for pedestrian traffic. Situated on corners were semi-circles of mourners, along with messy stacks of flowers at both Le Petit Cambodge and Le Carillon. Hundreds of people again, standing together in near silence, then politely making way for someone else. Some just stood back trying to take it all in, trying to imagine what happened. Everyone looked stunned. Someone had put flowers in the bullet holes in the glass at Le Carillon. Police were everywhere.
Down the street a block or so away, another crowd had gathered in front of the Casa Nostra Italian restaurant, where five people were killed. Bullets sprayed the windows of a laundromat and a nearby bistro, injuring eight others. Broken glass was still on the ground and candy cane crime scene tape was strewn across the front of all three locations.
The sun was out but the air was heavy with sadness and disbelief.
By 3:30, the sidewalks were full of mourners, and Place de la Republique was a much fuller version of what I’d seen earlier. There were now several thousand people here, still peaceful, but growing in number. Hours later, hundreds would flee in a panic, believing they heard gunfire. It turned out to be a false alarm. Next time, it might not be.
You tell yourself it won’t happen again. This is what I said after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in January of this year. You say this because you don’t want to live in fear, and for the most part, you don’t. But when the metro stops for no reason between stations and the lights flicker and it goes completely dark, you wonder if this is perhaps it. You look at people on the train with a suspicion that you didn’t before.
You tell yourself it won’t happen again. This time, 129 people were killed and 99 critically injured. People out on a Friday night, having dinner with friends, or going to a concert to hear live music. People like you. People like me.
Ellise Pierce is a North Texan living in Paris. She writes the twice-monthly The Cowgirl Chef column in the Life & Arts section of the Star-Telegram.