Today seemed like any other day in Paris.
My wife and I were just two more tourists on the hunt for Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise, walking clichés walking purposefully in Paris—how novel. We had finally located Proust when I heard the Pixies blaring from what appeared to be a funeral service. As I turned toward the columbarium I noticed dozens of people lined up at the door, and more around the edges of the stairs and the building. Given the cemetery’s proximity to the horrific events of November 13, we presumed the celebrated was a life lost in that meaningless snubbing of so many innocents. We heard speeches by children stream through the PA system, one lad plainly and calmly stating “I love you forever.” I also made out a direct address to “papa.” I know that much French. We then more certainly concluded that this had something to do with the attacks, because everything does now.
Our spontaneous act of accidental voyeurism brought down an extended silence upon my wife and me. Earlier, as we journeyed to the east of Paris, we wondered aloud, repeatedly, about whether we should visit the Bataclan and the Place de la République. We had concerns about our safety, as well as concerns that we’d somehow be contributing to the tawdry commercialization of diabolical acts. As we wandered out of the cemetery, no iota of symbolism lost on us, we began to feel the hum of the 11th arrondissement. We heard the sounds and smelled the smells of everyday Paris. We breathed the essence of the quotidian. There was power in the normalcy, bringing us closer to the people around us and those we could no longer see. We hung a right on Boulevard Voltaire and steeled ourselves for what lay ahead.
My throat tightened, and I apprehensively scanned the sidewalk and walls for bullet holes and blood. I did not know exactly where the carnage began, and I harbored with dread the idea that not everything had yet been scrubbed. I thought about turning back, but I felt strangely compelled to lend my droplet of prayer and support to the people of this scarred and sacred neighborhood.
We soon stumbled into small pods of humans, gathered around the makeshift memorials we’d seen on TV for the past two weeks. The scene washed over us and we were drowning, suddenly living an unnecessary history, enmeshed in solemn unity.
Taking pictures seemed somehow disrespectful, and I could tell that many in the crowd were also nervously fumbling with their phones, not sure about the protocol in such a situation. To my knowledge, no handbook exists that rules on the appropriateness of snapping pictures at impromptu memorials on public streets commemorating the senseless deaths of 130 people.
I do suspect that selfies would be universally considered to be in bad taste, but that did not stop many of our fellow mourners. The image of a couple proudly smiling in front of the beautifully mutilated Place de la République will be forever etched in my mind.
I looked around. Kids were skateboarding, as kids do. Americans were eating baguettes slathered in butter and salami, wondering why French women don’t get fat. During our visit, whenever I impersonated a Parisian at an outdoor café, I made sure my seat faced the street, just like a gangster. Whether or not I could do anything about it, I wanted to see it coming. While we obviously kept our plans and are visiting Paris two weeks after a terrorist attack, and while most aspects of our visit and daily Parisian life around us seem starkly regular, I constantly consider the possibility of an attempt on my life.
When we arrived at our hotel the evening of American Thanksgiving, the woman who checked us in apologized. She would need to take us to our room and unlock the extra locks on the window to our terrace. They were locked because of “you know, everything that has happened.”
All week I’ve had strange fantasies about an attack. Sometimes I am the hero, my hyper-vigilance enabling me to predict the actions of the monster and wrestle him to the ground before hell is unleashed once more. I make the front page of Le Monde. Sometimes my mind drifts to a snarky newspaper article about how the stupid American tackled the nice Muslim girl. I’ve often silently chided myself for my persistent presumption that anyone and everyone around me might be a killer.
When near République a little girl started screaming, I held my breath. My first instinct was to run, and I saw other uncomfortable faces in the crowd. How fortunate we are to hear the screams of little girls, insane screams brought on for no good reason. I cherish the opportunity to hear children shriek on the flight home.
They have not changed the marquee at the Bataclan. The Eagles of Death Metal are still playing.
Ever since I arrived in London a few days ago, I’ve nervously scanned the news, fearful that another sign of the apocalypse might transpire in our beloved Paris. Imagine my sinking heart when I caught the CNN iPhone notification yesterday, dutifully notifying me of a shooting. Alas, it was just another American shooting other Americans, and not a deranged terrorist.