My apartment is in the 5th arrondissement, so I didn’t see or hear the actual attacks, which took place in the 10th and 11th arrondissements a good mile and half away. Still, both neighborhoods can be described as “Central Paris”, so when I called each of my family members, I needed to give brief geography lessons. My maternal grandparents, having been around boats for the past three quarters of a century, love their charts; instead of just going to Google Maps, as I suggested, my grandmother sent my grandfather to retrieve an old map of Paris. When he got back, she told me about how each arrondissement and quartier were neatly written out, about how the major sites were labeled, about the color of the paper. I told them where I live (the Latin Quarter), how I get to school (just walk along Saint-Germain or take the Ligne 10 from Cardinal Lemoine or Maubert-Mutualité), how long it takes to get to the Louvre (twenty-five minutes walking), and whether the Marais is still Jewish (sort of). That’s how I spent the night of November thirteenth into the fourteenth: switching among calls from my parents, sister, brother, and both sets of grandparents, first assuring them of my safety, then just talking and watching the news together. For a time it was like a perfect family reunion, and the closest I’ve felt to them at least since I got here in August, possibly longer.
That’s the first day. You just stay indoors and hope the terrorists don’t make house calls. You check Facebook messages from friends you haven’t seen since May, answer emails from Princeton’s Risk Service and study abroad team, and check in every few hours with your family. It’s like 9/11, when you and your brother got to leave school early and saw your uncle on the hammock when you got home and ran towards him elatedly because although he lived in the city — only a forty-five minute drive away — you never really saw him that much.
But after you turn the TV off and stop checking emails you can’t fall asleep. And that’s the second day.
The third day things are different outside: perhaps not in the way that the pundits and presidential candidates and geostrategists are writing about, but things are different. You don’t feel the clash of civilizations exploding around you — though perhaps that’s coming. You certainly don’t feel the effects of the bombs France has begun to drop on ISIS-controlled territory. President Hollande said the attack was an act of war. Yes, but it was also an act of terrorism, and there’s a difference. It’s not enough to make people stop going to restaurants, bars, and movie theaters, but when you go for the paper and a baguette the next morning, and a jogger passing on the left brushes against your shoulder, you jump. And on Monday, after having sung the Marseillaise in class and stood for a moment of silence, you’re sitting with a classmate reviewing an exposé for Thursday when a security guard slams open a door and yells for everyone to evacuate the building immediately. In the moments that follow, dozens of metal chairs hit the floor in rapid succession, and you’re reminded what a Kalashnikov sounds like. The day after that you complain with your friends about the two idiots who left their book bags unattended.
Now it’s a week later and the routine is back but the unease hasn’t left. At first, I didn’t like all the comparisons to 9/11. 9/11 made adults cry, and if November 13 is like September 11, then now that I’m twenty I can’t rely on “I was there, but I was too young to understand.” Of course, it’s not the understanding that scares me, but the feeling. And there’s a relief in knowing that I was too young to feel 9/11. But I’m not too young now and it hurts, it really hurts.
And Paris! I don’t easily acclimate to new places (is going to college in my hometown a cause or a consequence?), but Paris was so easy to settle into, more so than Berlin over the summer or Philly a few years ago or even New York, New York. I understood almost instantaneously why centuries of expats — from Pablo Picasso to Ernest Hemingway to Gil Pender — have chosen this place to live. Because while the waitress at the brasserie switches to English the second she picks up the foreign sound in my accent, Notre Dame and the Pantheon never will. Maybe it’s how small the city is. In August I asked a friend who’d been here over the summer how he went about exploring, and he said you just pick a direction and walk. There’s a kind of ease and graciousness in being able to do that, more than a little of which was lost — even temporarily — in the attacks. And though the city’s landscape hasn’t physically been altered, how it interacts with people has, which was its greatest gift. It’ll come back. I know that the recovery will take longer than the three weeks left on my lease. I’m just grateful to have been given some of it before I go.