By Amy Schulman || Contributing Writer
I boarded a plane to Paris the day the Charlie Hebdo terrorists were gunned down.
I was on the verge of beginning my semester abroad, somehow managing to zipper shut five months worth of clothes and belongings into one suitcase. And then the shootings happened at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters, the airport I was supposed to fly into shut down several runways, and I mentally prepared myself for the worst scenario.
But Paris fought back, releasing policemen and soldiers all over the city, regulating a manhunt that extended beyond the city walls in an effort to seek justice for those who had lost their lives. And they did. The terrorists were killed, Parisians united together, becoming more chauvinistic than ever, pushing through the grief that had settled over their beloved city, and I arrived at JFK, laden with my suitcases, a final New York bagel, and an initial excitement coupled with fear, rumbling ever so strongly in my stomach.
Don’t worry, my host mother emailed me after I had sent an email saying I was thinking of them and France in this difficult time, the neighborhood we live in is very quiet. Should that have calmed my nerves? Made me less frightful of entering a city that had just endured such violence?
I lived through 9/11 — perhaps not truly understanding the significance of the terrorist attacks due to my young age, but I watched as my neighborhood turned to dust, the air becoming thick and heavy with smoke, and friends being evicted from their inhabitable homes, forced to reside in hotel rooms. I recognized that something that was not supposed to happen did happen. How do you start a home in a city that has just been attacked? How do you become integrated and immersed in a new place after people have lost their lives? Two days after my arrival, two million people swarmed République, the monument dedicated to the glory of the republic of France, to partake in the manifestation where flags bearing the handwritten motto “je suis Charlie” scrawled in marker on paper, sheets and flags were thrust into the air, and the French, carrying candles and flowers, marched, honoring those whose lives were lost. As the crowds dispersed after several hours of demonstrating, it was revealed that the statue was entirely graffitied, covered in spray paint, plastered in pieces of paper, and the phrase “je suis Charlie” scrawled on every space possible. Now it’s a symbol of the unity of not only Paris, but of France as well, and it’s home to tourists snapping photos with their selfie sticks, with enormous grins hovering on their faces.
I paid my respects to the statue several days after the manifestation, tracing the spray painted graffiti with my fingers and read the notes left by the French. ‘Je suis Charlie’ banners popped up on telephone booths, on buildings, spray painted along metro cars, as did an influx of policemen and soldiers throughout the city. Soldiers sporting bulky padding and enormous guns appeared outside of museums, department stores, government buildings, outside synagogues, and most notably in the Marais, the Jewish quarter. My first impression of the city was tainted by the looming sight of soldiers with enormous rifles, their fingers casually resting on the trigger.
Paris was in shock and in mourning. A definitive hush had settled over France, as the country grieved the loss of its citizens amidst a terrorist attack. Yet here I was, running off to every grand monument in the city that first week, soaking up the culture and snapping pictures at every junction. Was I disrespectful in this way, that while I enjoyed fresh pain au chocolat and a trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower, others were planning funerals and donning black? I don’t have a conclusive answer to give myself, and I can’t help but feel guilty about my haughty arrogance coupled with my ignorance to the fact that a terrorist attack had happened barely a few days prior to my arrival.
When the infamous Charlie Hebdo issue came out a week later, I, like every other Parisian, purchased my copy at a local newsstand (having to wait several days to have success since it would be sold out before 10 each morning). I discussed the attack with other study abroad students in my program, with my host family, and with my host brother who had actually gone to the manifestation. And then all of a sudden, it stopped being the center of attention. It slipped away silently, inconspicuously, and we slowly became settled into our Parisian lives, putting our efforts instead into our classes, the study of the language and becoming acclimated to the city.
At least for now.