Everyone is spooked that something bad is going to happen if the thirteenth day of the month falls on a Friday. I am not one for superstition, but November 13th, 2015 was a night filled with horror. The week leading up to that night, I had taken my parents on a short tour through France during my academic break. We visited the Normandy beaches, Bayeux, Dijon, and Paris before returning home to my study abroad city, Cannes. We were on the train headed out of Paris for the final leg of our journey My father was asleep against the window, with his orange Auburn baseball cap covering his eyes, snuggled with his AirFrance blanket. My mother and I were sharing a pair of headphones as we competed against each other in Fruit Ninja on my iPad. I feel my phone vibrate on my leg, but I do not check it. Shortly thereafter, I hear a woman begin to wail a few seats behind me. Out of instinct, I turned to see the woman. She was staring at her phone, weeping, hugging her young child. She wore a headscarf. Everyone else picked up their phones, and I finally checked that notification.
BBC informed me that a suicide bomber detonated outside of the Stade de France. I froze. My mom, who did not have cellular service, took the phone out of my hand and read the news. My father woke to the sounds of crying. Everyone in the train car had their heads buried in their hands, or in their neighbor’s chest. The train arrived in Cannes shortly before my phone alerted me the second attack of the evening, where 15 were killed in two cafés. Nobody spoke a word as they got off the train, and everyone was glued to their phones. We shuffled into the train station lobby, where every news outlet was broadcasting from the Stade de France. Play has stopped, and we are informed that President François Hollande has been safely been escorted out of the stadium. In the middle of a newscaster delivering her broadcast on the situation, the second bomb goes off. People are hugging their loved ones, and the only words I hear spoken come from a man of about 30, repeating “pas en mon pays, pas en mon pays, pas en mon pays (translation: not in my country (repeated)).”
We check into our AirBnB, where our host was polite, professional, but melancholic. Immediately, we turn on the television and watch the death toll rise. I start to get phone calls from my friends and family back in the states, checking in on my parents and I. I use WhatsApp to call two of my fellow Auburn Tigers, who were teaching English in Parisian schools at the time. Everyone who I knew in France was physically fine, thanks be to G-d, but all of our hearts were broken. I watched the news all night, until Hollande gave his official address, which I translated for my parents. France was officially in a state of emergency. The evening quieted down. My father flew out of the Nice International Airport the next day, and I returned to classes on Monday.
We had a school-wide meeting the Monday following the attacks, where we discussed the increased security measures. My AIFS group stayed for a few minutes after the meeting, and our coordinator asked if anybody wanted to back out of our upcoming trip to Paris. Two girls backed out, claiming that they felt disrespectful going there in the wake of such recent tragedy. I empathized with these girls, but something within me felt like it was important to go.
My reaction to these horrific events was gauged largely by how my native-French peers responded. My French friends interpreted these horrors as direct attack on the French lifestyle, that somehow by bombing the Bataclan and shooting civilians at cafés would subvert the nation’s core values. Libérté, Egalité, Fraternité. One of the journalism students I befriended explained to me that these values and the French lifestyle are only compromised if people stop drinking and smoking on café terraces, stop kissing in public, stop dancing to music, stop cheering on their favorite teams, and stop being proud to be French. The terrorists may have succeeded in ending the lives of 130 innocent people, but they failed to break the spirit of France. This is why I had to go back to Paris.
The first night we arrived, we took a river cruise down the Seine. All of the big national buildings were lit up in Red, White and Blue, sort of like Cater Hall during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but much more powerful. Seeing “la tricolore” all over the city was so powerful, and so humbling. This country was a part of me, and I stood in solidarity with Paris? How, you ask? I explored the catacombs, kissed Oscar Wilde’s tomb at Père Lachaise, sang at my new favorite comédie musicale, La Légende du roi Arthur, spent too much money on clothing au Champs-Elysées, and enjoyed long dinner with lots of laughter.
In the wake of events like these, we must find the silver lining. What I found so remarkable about this country and its people is their resilience and their steadfast belief in their values. The French spirit is gilded with a carefree, but proud and it makes this country shine like no other.
Vive la France.
Rachael Wilks ~ Fall 2015 ~ AIFS in Cannes, France