Today I discovered Parisians are just as tough as New Yorkers. And that is a beautiful thing.
I have lived in the City of Light for almost eight months now, I don’t know why I didn’t see this before. Before the explosions, the shootings, and the bodies lying in the street for hours, reminding stupefied survivors we were lucky this time. Maybe because before, not a day had gone by in which I didn’t reflect appreciatively on the peace of living in a society that doesn’t worship the way of the gun.
I lived in New York City for several years before moving here. I have memories of numerous strolls through Upper Manhattan punctuated by the discovery of new police tape. Silent testimony that I had just missed by minutes another ultimate sacrifice to the way.
Once in a single day, I experienced two such encounters, along my regular route in East Harlem. The most haunting of these was the scene cordoned off at the corner of a schoolyard. Minutes before a young man had been shot and killed as he stood next to a baby in a stroller. The blue stroller, with some of the baby’s belongings nestled in the seat, was still at the scene when I passed by.
Friday, early evening November 13, 2015 started as a lazy, sluggish night for me. I felt a bit anti-social and had not committed to a plan for the evening. Should I grab a friend for drinks or sample the abundant and exquisite Asian cuisine of Paris? Or perhaps just wander alone through the Les Halles area? I wanted to relax for another hour or two first before going out again.
I plunged into a Facebook exchange about American gun violence with a few expats and some friends back in the USA. I started the discussion with a report that some of my new French acquaintances were amazed to learn that annual deaths from gun violence in the USA far exceeds the number of deaths from terrorism, including the attacks of September 11, 2001.
A Caucasian American expat friend, who has been based in Paris for three years, suggested that I:
“.. tell them that in America we don’t depend on government for everything. When the wolf is at the door you don’t want to wait for the gendarmes because they sure as duck don’t care as much about your ass as you do”
I reminded her thousands of Americans were killed each year by guns in their own home and/or by people they knew. My libertarian buddy, undeterred in her intentions to spark a gun control debate, then asserted that the matter was about distinguishing between “the criminals having guns and the right to bear arms”. I told her I was not commenting on either point of view, but lamenting the loss of “the right to life” for the rest of us.
I stepped away from my laptop for a moment and returned to see thirty plus replies to my original post had sprung up, most of them a debate on racism between the libertarian (seeming) expat and another African-American like me, who had recently spent some time in Paris. Some others understood the original sentiment of my post, including a Caucasian high school friend living in the UK for a number of years and an African-American science teacher and mother living in Columbia, SC.
Suddenly, I was distracted by another social media announcement. A contact in Paris reported gun shots and explosions in the city. Another colleague posted that people had been shooting in her neighborhood. Then, a friend in the UK, who had been following the aforementioned debate wrote, “BBC, now!”
The next several hours I sat mesmerized by death estimates, which quickly escalated from 15 to well over 100. The number of attack sites rose, too, from three to, depending on the news source, six or seven. Like millions of others, I dutifully worked my networks, texting, posting, and calling to find out if the people I cared about were also alive and well. Panic engulfed me when I recognized from a report a location near another friend, who I had not heard from at all that day.
Real talk, folks: despite the relationships I had developed here, I seriously deliberated booking a flight home to be near family. I grabbed my passport and took out my credit card. But that plan was quickly decimated when I learned we were on lock down. President Hollande had closed the borders of France and a curfew for Paris, the first since World War II, had been established by the mayor. Military trucks were rolling through the streets.
And then I saw the crazy, wonderful, badass thing. Thousands of Parisians were giving shelter to thousands of strangers seeking cover, tweeting #PortOuverte, open door. Some of these places were private homes, other were business locations. My favorite bookstore, the Latin Quarter based Shakespeare & Co., invited nearly two dozen people to spend the night in the shop.
I was astonished. When the Pourte Ouvert began, no one knew whether or not the attackers were still at large. What if one of these killers or their accomplices were hiding amongst the respite seekers? When some might advocate for buckling down the hatches and arming themselves for arrival of the wolf, Parisians, took on a completely different mission. They ignored their vulnerability in the chaos and became modern-day examples of the Good Samaritan.
Just one sunrise later, Paris pedestrians re-claimed their streets from the military trucks in a valiant effort to maintain their Saturday rituals no matter what. I recognized that same spirit from New York City in the days following September 11. I could have easily been in or near any of the places where horror-struck last night. Yet, today, after a respectful remove, I still feel safer in this city than in most major American cities.
I also can’t stop thinking of the people in other countries who face this kind horror on a regular basis. Many of whom have nowhere to hide, no strong and capable military and police force to stop the attackers, and no mighty allies holding press conferences to say, “We stand with you. We will give you whatever support you need.” Places like Beirut, Eritrea, Syria and Charleston. I wonder about them. I hope we are seeking solutions for them; I hope we are praying for them, too.