I traveled independently with two friends to Paris this weekend. Let me start off by saying, the day was wonderful. You tend to hear reports when tragic events happen how the day started off like any other day and then about the tragedy afterward. This was no ordinary day though; I had been dreaming of going to Paris since I was a little girl. This was one of two trips that were "musts" for me and I couldn't have been more ecstatic! Seriously, I have no idea how many times I said to my friends, "guys, we're in Paris!". We started the day off meeting up with another friend at Sacre Coeur, making our way to see Moulin Rouge, then the Arc de Triumph, going all the way to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and seeing Notre Dame, and then the Louvre at night. Through these events, of course we were careful, especially with the stereotype of pickpockets in Paris, but I never felt unsafe. There were police at almost all of these sites, and if anything, that made me feel safer. It was an event filled day and up until that point, it was one of my favorite days since being in Europe. We left the Louvre right before 9:00, made our way back to the hotel the school was staying at for our friends to drop some stuff off, and we all went out for dinner. It took us a while to walk there, but nothing really seemed unusual. I know some basic French and I didn't hear anything around me unusual, let alone see panicked people. We made our way to Chipotle and enjoyed our first real Mexican meal since being in Europe. Laughing, having a good time, and glad we were finally eating, we had no idea that bombs, shootings, and hostage situations were happening all around Paris.
We were all tired and knew we needed to get up early the next morning, so the friends that went with the school trip and those of us who traveled independently said our goodbyes and parted ways. We boarded the metro, just ready to go to sleep once we got back. It was about a twenty minute train ride, and right at the end, my friend Natalie got a call from our friend Anabel, who was staying back at Harlaxton. Dismissing it, and not sure exactly how she was getting the call without wifi, we waited to answer until we got to our flat. The phone kept ringing though. We definitely thought this was strange, but it was a two minute walk, no big deal. As we walked into our flat, Natalie answered and on the other line was an extremely panicked voice asking if we were okay and if we were all alive. "Yeah…" we answered, "why?" And that's when we heard.
All three of us were frozen in shock. Natalie had to have Anabel repeat it several times because it wasn't registering. When Natalie told us, she only mentioned the shootings, and while I was shocked and saddened, it didn't seem like that big of a deal at the time. Later I came to realize that it speaks more to how much gun violence we have in the US to the point that yes, it's sad, but it's made many of us desensitized to the horror that a shooting really is. Then, more information started flowing in, many shootings, a hostage situation, and bombs. What in the world?
We turned on the TV and found an English news station and were horrified at the images, numbers, and sayings on the screen. We were scared. We realized we were very close to some of those areas that day and some of our friends were even closer right now. What made it worse was that all the places attacked were soft targets. These were places that we went on holiday, that normal everyday Parisians and tourists alike visited on a daily basis. A soccer stadium. A concert venue. A bar. Restaurants. These were people living their lives and having fun on a "normal" Friday night.
The three of us gathered on the couch, contacting everyone who had sent us messages, all while watching TV keeping up to date where the latest attack was, and praying for safety. For those who contacted us, and I'm speaking on behalf of everyone at Harlaxton, we thank you. We thank you for your prayers, your messages, your thoughts, and your concerns. It really makes you realize how loved you are. Throughout the weekend there were countless stories of people telling of both close friends and family checking on them and of people who they hadn't talked to in years contacting them to make sure they were okay, both from students who were in Paris and elsewhere.
I have to say, I was impressed with how the school handled the situation (and they're not requiring me to say that, paying me, or anything else like that, that's my honest opinion). Those who were on the school trip were all accounted for, but they went through the Alpha list of students who were anywhere in Europe to check to make sure they were alright. For us, we were soon in contact with the Principal of the College, Dr. Seaman, who was also in Paris with the school, and he helped us walk through what we needed to be doing. They contacted the American Embassy for us. They kept us informed about what was happening in Paris and how the students were doing. They helped us figure out our best plan of action both for events with the school and by ourselves, and they did that for each of the groups traveling independently in Paris. I could not be more thankful for the College I am studying abroad with for all their help through this time.
I was also impressed with how France responded. The first bombs went off right about 9:00 and by 10:30, they had 1,500 troops in Paris. This city refused to be knocked down. At the hotel the school-organized travelers were staying at, they had an armed guard guarding the front door to keep them safe. We heard many ambulances go by all weekend long as Parisians took care of their people. Paris leapt into action, didn't leave room for any chances, and did everything they could.
The next morning we got up to video chat into the school's meeting about plans going forward. The metro was still closed from the night's events (it probably closed just seconds after we got off that night), and therefore we didn't have a way to get to the hotel that morning. The administrators and staff decided with much deliberation that the students with the school would make the original travel plans to go back on Sunday. The independent travelers continued to be in contact with the administrators and staff to decide what our next steps would be.
My friends and I continued to watch the news all while discussing what to do next. We were already starting to go a little stir crazy in our flat and had very minimal food, so we knew we were going to have to go out and hopefully find something. With all this, we decided to meet up with our friends at the school's hotel to have safety in numbers, to talk, and to continue going through this together. In the city it was eerily quiet, people were definitely on edge, and had solemn faces as they walked around the streets. Nearly everything was closed, all tourist attractions, many markets, restaurants, and shops. When we found an open place and sat down for lunch, I couldn't help but think about those who had lost their lives doing this same thing the night before. I can't shake the feeling that at some point during the day, I may have seen one of the 129 people who died, let alone one of the 99 who were in critical condition, or one of the 352 more that were wounded. This affected me and many people I know, yet we didn't even know anyone who was hurt so I can't even begin to imagine what their friends and families are feeling. I am thankful none of the Harlaxton students were harmed and our deepest sympathies are still with and in Paris because we left a part of our hearts there with them.
Just last week I was reminded of why I came to Harlaxton in the first place: yes, I came to travel, but even more so, I came to live my life, because life is short and I want to experience as much as I can. My dad told me not to let this weekend's events keep me from traveling for the rest of the semester (or ever, for that matter). I honestly had hesitations when he said that, but when I reminded myself of why I came to Harlaxton I was encouraged. Yes, there is the possibility that another attack could happen somewhere, but if I live my life in fear, is that really living?
This weekend each one of us studying at Harlaxton grew up a little bit more. We hug a little more. We are there for each other a little more. We are going through this together. It's going to be a process moving on in everyday life, just like in Paris. We won't ever be the same, and that's okay. My hope is that we grow from this separately and together.
I realize I am only relaying one story of the forty or so students that were in Paris this weekend, let alone the professors/administrators that were there, or the students who were not but were concerned for us, and that is just those at Harlaxton. This weekend we were all a part of history; it'll be a day we never forget.
Written by: Kristen Sanders