What It Was Like Living Inside a Week of Fear and Tension in Paris

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that shocked the world, the city is recovering—but slowly, in a fog of suspicion and worry.

af Thomas Chatterton Williams
22 november 2015, 3:00pm

French soldiers patrol near the Eiffel Tower. AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani​

I got word of last week's atrocities in the city where I live by way of a text from a friend. "Are you good?" a buddy wrote from California. "Hearing about bombing and shoot out in Paris."

I'd just put my two-year-old to bed, heated up a bowl of Thai soup, and was settling in to Y tu Mama Tambien on my computer. How could death be so close to such a scene? But the texts kept streaming in—"You OK?"—and the news kept rolling in on my browser: coordinated, ongoing attacks, spreading across the right bank— our bank—of Paris; hostages at the Bataclan; explosions just beyond the péripherique at the Stade de France; gunmen shooting up restaurants in the 10th arrondissement— my wife was having dinner at a restaurant in the 10th. I called her, got her voicemail. I still couldn't believe it.

As I kept trying her, bits of the previous night's conversation returned. Two friends in town from New York had come over to share what will always be for me one of the great and simple pleasures of life in Paris: a perfect roasted chicken from one of the neighborhood rotisseries, paired with a modest red wine. They had said we were lucky to live here and asked if we were scared in light of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January. Yes, my wife and I admitted, it was scary to imagine such butchery, impossible to square it with the sheer beauty of the city. Just a block away, there are still armed guards posted around the clock at the entrance of the apartment of one of the Charlie Hebdo contributors—a constant reminder that this really is a matter of life and death. We talked abstractly, the four of us, about the hypothetical pain of losing a child or a spouse to such random barbarity. Would it be possible to recover? I said I didn't think it would be.

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Now here I was looking at all kinds of reports—some true, some false—of a moveable massacre on a scale not seen here since the Nazi invasion. I began to panic. Finally, my wife called me. She and her friend were fine; the restaurant had lowered the steal curtain, sealing them inside as they waited for calm. With the Métro closed and no chance of hailing a taxi, they would be stranded for several more hours.

In the morning, I went to get groceries. The word was to stay indoors, but the streets were already full. I was amazed that people were able to open their shops and serve their communities, that we could remember to buy our bread, and that while doing this, many of us could still manage to make eye contact and smile. On the way back, I stopped to see if the Turkish tailor where I'd dropped some clothes would be open. He was, and I needed an ATM to pay him. A young man, another customer, told me where I could find one and then offered to walk me out of the shop and all the way to it. I knew where it was, but didn't correct him—he seemed to want to do this. As we walked, he asked if I was all right and listened as I answered.

It is impossible not to be struck by the heart that people can muster.

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Central Paris is an astonishingly small town. If you are Parisian, the chances are very high that you know someone directly or know someone who knows someone who knows just about anyone you can imagine, from President Hollande to DSK to Marion Cotillard. In our demographic—twenty-, thirty- and fortysomethings on the more socially diverse and less touristy right bank, young adults who lean left and tend to work in creative disciplines, it's a smaller town still. Facebook's Safety Check—originally designed for natural disasters, but impressively suited for something like this—appeared out of nowhere like a small miracle to help us quickly establish that we had not lost family or close friends.

But as people began to contact one another over the weekend, it also became clear that everyone knew people who were witnesses to, injured in, or casualties of, this madness. A girl I had seen only recently was at the Petit Cambodge, seated directly next to a man who was sprayed with gunfire (she is in counseling). A colleague at my wife's office lost four close friends at the Bataclan. A friend of a friend took a bullet in the leg; another knows a girl who was struck in the back. My brother-in-law knows a guy who managed to crawl out of the concert hall after concealing himself under a body. These strands of individual horrors have woven themselves into a blanket of sadness that covers the city.

The evening after the attack, an American friend invited people over to his apartment in the Marais, the fashionable, formerly Jewish quarter in the third arrondissement where, many now forget, Palestinian terrorists killed six at a restaurant called Chez Jo Goldenberg in 1982. In debating whether to go, I remembered Camus: "The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion."

The streets at dusk felt different—jumpier—than in the morning sun. Now, in the dark, people averted their gaze from one another, or watched each other's approach a little too solicitously. Those Parisians who out of deep thirst or stubborn instinct took their usual places at the café tables seemed visibly tense, and I couldn't blame them—how many killers were still on the loose? I walked with a brisk pace. The last time I'd felt this kind of acute, statistically irrational but irrefutable fear was in the wake of those sniper attacks that wracked DC for three weeks in 2002—days when to venture in the street was to feel your very back tingle with the anticipation of a bullet.

I have not heard one person, this time or the last, say anything resembling "woe is me."

At my friend's place there was bread, cheese, meat, wine, whiskey, and conversation among both French and American guests, all of whom felt the need to be together, talking and drinking. I was once again struck by what I can only describe as the French proclivity for a stylish stoicism. The men and women around evinced none of the fury or lust for war I remember so well from those days in the US after 9/11. The Europeans gathered seemed, above all, exhausted—even the ones who are younger than me—in a most un-American manner.

A recurring theme I have picked up on since Charlie Hebdo is that this is not a culture given to self-pity. I have not heard one person, this time or the last, say anything resembling "woe is me." One 25-year old graduate student told me that no fewer than ten of his friends had been held hostage in the Bataclan and that, miraculously, all had made it out. He'd stayed up waiting to hear from each of them and hardly got any sleep. I asked another Frenchman sitting beside me if he had hesitated, as I had, before venturing out tonight. He told me he is not in the least afraid—this is not Beirut or Baghdad. He believes in his society, and the way to demonstrate it is to get on with his life.

Not everyone felt that way. On my way home I turned onto the Rue Blondel, a street notorious for solicitation, where there would normally be faces peeking out of every other doorway. Tonight, there was only a heavyset, fiftyish woman with enormous breasts and an unflappable demeanor shooing away a prospective client trying to capitalize on the lack of traffic with an insultingly low offer. Around the corner, the Rue Saint-Denis—normally even more of a teeming flesh market—was completely desolate. Pope Francis has said that the attacks were part of a "piecemeal World War III," but the emptiness of the street, combined with the alarmingly unseasonable warmth and the lingering discomfort, made it feel like I was the survivor of some surreal Armageddon.

You can't help but imagine the violence of the Middle East seeping into the very fabric of France.

At the start of the week, the city—or at least the part of it we inhabit, within a two-kilometer radius of the assaults—seemed to palpably deflate. No one could function at work. Friends came over and burst into tears in the middle of conversation. Anxiety mixed with what is very clearly a form of collective depression holds all of us in its fist. The mood this time, in comparison to January, is not at all cantankerous—I have heard no one arguing—but it is far darker. Some people try to put on a brave face, at least on social media, with #JeSuisEnTerrasse. Event invites for "protest orgies" and other sybaritic pleasures circulate online—perhaps some are even serious. There is a deep desire for defiance, but there is a brittle vulnerability, too.#JeSuisXanax, one friend—a witness, I am told—cryptically posted. Many people lapse into a version of the following: Last time they targeted cartoonists and Jews, but this time they attacked our entire way of life. Virtually everyone catches themselves in this terrible construction.

On Wednesday morning, I woke to news of a raid in Saint-Denis, near the basilica that entombs the kings of France and near the soccer stadium. The police fired 5,000 rounds into a dilapidated building. The 26-year-old female cousin of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the organizer of the attacks, was killed by a suicide bomb; the most grisly tabloid accounts described her head and spine flying out of a window and landing in the street.

Abaaoud is dead, too, though the story feels far from concluded. You can't help but imagine the violence of the Middle East seeping into the very fabric of France.

I would like to say these atrocities won't change me, but at the beginning of the week, I caught myself paying extra attention to the two Maghrebi men dressed as handymen who slipped through the door to my daughter's daycare as I was stepping out. I found myself scrutinizing them, trying to see inside their bags. One smiled and thanked me as I let him pass. I left with my heart in my throat, a double pang in my breast: guilty for profiling, horrified that I am so baldly incapable of protecting my child. And it was not lost on me that this suspicion and doubt I felt inside me is precisely what the terrorists want. Still, I wonder, how many more attacks would it take before I shut the door and refuse to let these men enter?

Thomas Chatterton Williams is an American writer living in Paris. He is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool.

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