Paris je t’aime: Putting into words what I will never forget

paris love

Baby Elliott had eaten and gone to sleep. After munching on wasabi peanuts and vinegar chips we were finally seated at the dinner table. The mushroom risotto that my wife had prepared that afternoon was served along with honey and lemon marinated chicken skewers. Our hosts, Elliott’s parents, were finally drinking their share of wine. My pregnant wife nursed her bottle of water. Our stomachs full, we laughed about nothing and everything in their cozy apartment not far from Bastille on a Friday night like any other.

Then one of my good friends called. He had invited me out for drinks the evening before, but I was too tired from school and work to go out. I had sent him a message that morning that we would catch up later. He was probably in my neighborhood and wanted to stop by. I let the call go to voicemail, and put the phone back in my pocket. It started vibrating again immediately, another call from him. I answered.

“Are you guys OK?” He asked. “It’s right near your place right? Le Petit Cambodge?” Something had happened.

“Yeah, that’s our neighborhood. But we aren’t there now.”

“Good, they hit the Stade de France too, stay safe.” He hung up.

“Turn on the TV, something happened.” Everyone reached for their phones. My friend turned on his TV. “An attack, Stade de France, and the Petit Cambodge.” My wife froze. I could see our memories running through the back of her blank stare.

Le Petit Cambodge, where we went to eat at least once a month. Where we always got the same thing: the bobun special mixte. The place where we tried to steal the recipe for their incredible sauce. The way the sun that poured through the huge glass windows in the winter afternoons made us forget about the cold. Splitting 40s of Tsingtao beer in the tiny water cups shoulder to shoulder packed around long tables.

We had personally recommended Le Petit Cambodge to every one of our tourist friends who had come through Paris over the past two years. We would never have gone there on a Friday night, there were always too many people. A line out the door that trickled into the street where diners waited with lit cigarettes or hopped across to Le Carillon for a pint.

Those huge windows that let in the sun left everyone visible and perfectly vulnerable. The long tables filled to the centimeter presented a very lethal density. The line of people and the tables outside only added to the target. “Holy shit,” I thought, “they have no chance.”

The TV was finally loaded, and switched to BFMTV. Attacks in Paris. With an “s.” Shootings on multiple streets. 5 people dead on Rue de la Fontaine au Roi. The shock started to numb out the world. All of our phones started ringing. My colleagues, my friends. “Yes, we’re OK.” “No, we aren’t at home.” “Thank God,” they all said.

Thank God, I thought. The Rue de la Fontaine au Roi is the next street from our apartment. Not even 50 meters away from our front door.

Whatsapp vibrated my phone continually, the news had reached the US. My mother, always a worrier even in good times, was freaking out. My wife marked us safe on Facebook. Friends I hadn’t heard from in years were sending messages on Facebook Messenger. We were fixed on the couch in front of the TV. Sirens blared through the closed windows from police vans speeding up the avenue.

A hostage situation. The TV crew’s shaky camera revealed police vans and special forces squatting behind vehicles. Our hearts pumped nervous blood. It’s not over. It’s only beginning. Where are they? Le Bataclan.

My wife lowered her head with a deep “oh, putain.” Le Bataclan, the concert venue next to République, just behind our old apartment. The place where we have seen terrible concerts from aging French boy bands and danced to 90’s music theme nights. Where one of our friends used to slip us free gin and tonics from behind the bar with a wink. The giant open space where more than a thousand people could pack into the ground floor with no obstructed views. Open like an airplane hanger where sound reverberated and bass could pump through your body when the crowd went wild.

Open, with nowhere to hide. An almost clear access to the street. The band’s tour buses parked right out front before each concert because there was nowhere else to park. A queue that could extend for blocks at the start of a show. At least hundreds of hostages.

The sirens were more frequent. Police cars went up while ambulances started to come down. “Stay in your homes” broadcast out of the TV. We sat on the couch in silence, the rest of the risotto cold on the table.

Another attack, La Belle Équipe. That was just down the street from where we were. My wife started to cry. She had been to that bar one week before with our friend Fanny, who lives across the street from it. Everyone was on the phone, calling everyone we knew. Posts came from across the social networks. With each “we’re safe” there was a drop of relief.

But when would it end?

The death toll mounted. 18. Then 30. Now it was 60. The Google map on the news was populated with explosion icons that cut a red gash right through our entire neighborhood. The 11th. The best district for people like us: a rowdy nightlife, trendy restaurants, all the best concert venues. Still centrally located, without being expensive, and away from the rich Parisian palaces of the Champs d’Élysées and the snobby galleries of St. Germain. Almost no tourists. A quarter filled with artists, writers, entrepreneurs, young families, and immigrants. That’s why we proudly bought our place here last year.

There is an energy – an optimism – that permeates the 11th. The neighborhood – and every one of its residents – is on the rise. When someone I just meet tells me they live in the 11th, I feel an instant bond with them because they get it. All of us together make up the energy. From the corner of every passage to the steps of every building, we make the 11th rise.

On November 13th, 2015, the terrorists tried to cut us down. They came at us where it hurts, where we were the most vulnerable. They chose the highest impact areas. They wanted restaurants, bars, and concert venues. They wanted the maximize casualties as they strapped suicide belts to their chests and locked cartridges into their AK47s. They wanted to make this an attack on Paris, not on tourists. They wanted Parisians, the people that we walk by every day on the street. Our friends, our family. Not the rich and snobby, not a specific group. They wanted to bring fear into our lives.

When the attacks in January hit the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, it didn’t inspire the same level of terror. Charlie Hebdo were instigators, threatened for years by terrorists that they would pay for their cartooning of the prophet Mohammed. They were guarded night and day by the police. When their attackers entered their offices they were killed mercilessly. But those attackers did not continue their attack on Paris. They fought off the police and fled to the countryside. Their goal was not to disrupt the lives of everyday citizens. They were seeking a specific vengeance.

The terrorists from Friday night were in indiscriminate killing mode. ISIS claimed that it was in response to the air attacks launched by France against their positions in Syria and particularly Iraq. They wanted to inspire the reality of fear in the capital of a country that had started to attack them.

War has forever changed. Western powers with jets and drones no longer lose soldiers as they drop death from the sky. Those bombs obliterate ISIS locations, but they also hit innocent civilians. The years-long war in Syria has produced a migrant crisis of people escaping the very same type of attack that happened here in Paris. Attacks like these happen on a daily basis across Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, with spillover in Lebanon, Nigeria, and Libya.

The consequences of war have changed too. For too long we in the west have believed that we would not have to pay for the destruction that we cause. We have become immune to war coverage after nearly 15 years of endless war so far away in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are no longer borders, war is no longer state vs. state. War is wherever the attacks are.

French nationals marginalized from society radicalized over time until they broke. ISIS didn’t send troops to Paris. They had troops in Paris already, waiting, ready to go at a moment’s notice. They have more troops here, quietly celebrating the success of the attack. They are waiting for the moment when France gets back to normal. Then they will attack again.

If we enjoy going to the park without passing a metal detector, if we enjoy having a drink outside at a bar on a Friday night without police vans sitting right outside, if we can enjoy bobuns in a beautiful restaurant without worrying about how vulnerable the size of the windows makes us, we have to act and we have to act quickly.

Locking down the country is untenable. Rounding up suspected terrorists will only temporarily stem the real problem: young people are willing to die in suicide attacks. The only thing that can stop them is to give them a reason to live.

We must work together to make life better for the people on the margins of society. We must give people hope, an inkling that the woes of today will wane in the happiness of tomorrow. We must reach out to create connections with these people. We must give them something to care about by caring about them. When one loses hope, bitterness grows into hatred. At that point it doesn’t matter what ideology they may cling to, they have lost the will to be alive.

We must create the necessary conditions such that with hard work and dedication anyone can build the life they want. France has an extraordinary amount of tension with immigrant groups, particularly from northern Africa and the Middle East. But the French government goes out of its way to integrate immigrants. There are mandatory French lessons. There are cultural courses that familiarize immigrants with French values. There are places to find assistance. I know this firsthand because I attended these courses and I have the certificates.

What has to change is the French attitude. I have Muslim friends who have MBAs from prestigious business schools who drive cars for a living. One rents his friend’s van to help people move. He says that after being rejected from job after job he gave up trying to find a legitimate way in this society. He had no choice but to try to make it on his own. Too many French view immigrants as outsiders who will water down the culture that’s already disappearing in the face of European integration. As a society, we have the opportunity to reduce radicalization by reconsidering how we treat people.

Unfortunately, events like this only serve to drive a deeper wedge between the mainstream and the ethnic groups associated with these atrocities. That elusive goal of inclusion will get harder and harder with each passing attack.

But there is hope. There is always hope. The migrants fleeing the Syrian conflict are our natural allies. They are risking their lives and the lives of their families to escape the violence led by terrorist groups like ISIS. We can welcome them, we can help them, and we can show them that even in the face of violence and bloodshed, we do not categorize people. We help those in need and we can give them a new reason to live. And they, in return, will appreciate and care about their new home. They will make sure that their children know what France and the French did for them. They will care about us because they will be us.

These thoughts did not cross my mind as we sat up late into the night blankly staring at the TV. The police had stormed Le Bataclan. The hostage situation was over. The terrorists had detonated their suicide belts and there were at least 80 dead. One of our close friends was in the hospital with bullets in her back. Another friend, a nurse working at the St. Louis Hospital across the street from Le Petit Cambodge, described the horror in the ER. People without arms, faces blown off. Blood was ubiquitous.

We couldn’t go home, so we stayed with our friends. As we lay in bed I scrolled through the news. Interviews started to be posted. Friends were changing their profile pictures to an Eiffel Tower peace sign. An emergency worker who had responded to help with the carnage at Le Bataclan recounted how they evacuated the wounded, needing to leave the dead on the ground. As they carried wounded bodies over the fallen masses, the scene was punctuated by the continuous ringing and buzzing of the cell phones of the dead: the family and friends trying to reach the victims with calls and messages that will never be answered.

We were the fortunate ones who could answer the calls and messages. The lucky ones who can tell our loved ones that we are OK. That we were safe. I am warmed and reassured by the outpouring of love and support from my family and close friends to the people that I haven’t spoken to in years. In the depths of abject horror and sadness, what’s important in life rises to the surface.

I love my adopted city. I love my friends and family here. I love the 11th. I love the Parisian lifestyle. I love the social approach to everything, the free healthcare and universities. I love the architecture, the cafés, the museums, and the cuisine. I love the diversity, the energy, and the optimism.

No terrorist or attack can break that love, because to love Paris is to love life.

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