A very personal account by a young Austrian journalist about the weekend after the attacks in Paris on Friday 13, 2015.
By Catherine Lankes
“Paris is always a good idea” – This overused “Sabrina”-quote by Audrey Hepburn served as my last resort when trying to convince my girls that a weekend in Paris, in my beloved Paris, was a fantastic idea.In late August, we booked our flights for the early morning of November 14, 2015.
On Saturday, November 14, 2015, the streets of Paris were empty; a heavy, grey sky hung over the French capital. It was windy and cold – what a horrible autumn day, I thought upon arrival in Roissy – Charles de Gaulle. It felt as if some gifted French filmmaker had wanted to choreograph a particularly pathetic atmosphere: eerie, frightening, terribly sad; it ticked all the right boxes.
I went alone, my girls stayed in Vienna and Copenhagen. Their parents had discouraged them from going by reasons of security; I had discouraged them from going, remembering the days after Charlie Hebdo.People in Paris wouldn’t be in the mood for dancing in Oberkampf, for drinking cheap Côte du Rhône in a bar or even for strolling around town, I thought.My mum didn’t even try to talk me out of it, she knew I wouldn’t listen.
I had also warned my girls that I would be busy, that I had work to do and that they wouldn’t see much of me. Not even a year after Charlie Hebdo I expected Paris to be the worst and most accurate déjà-vu I could have imagined.
I got off the RER B at Châtelet, one of the most frequented metro-stations in Paris. That Saturday the hallways were empty and the shops were closed, of course. I was shocked by how much I was used to the sight of heavily armed police patrolling the station.
I got as close as possible to Le Bataclan, the concert hall where nearly 130 people died (or rather:“ …were brutally killed in a cruel massacre on an ordinary night out”), got some interviews, did my job. It hunted me that I was filing my story sitting on the kerb of the exact same boulevard where I tried to get my story sorted ten months ago. The old Charlie Hebdo-offices are ten minutes walking distance from Le Bataclan.
That Saturday night no-one felt like going out, even calm home parties were cancelled. It seemed as if people were gladly and voluntarily accepting the curfew at midnight. And still, people did not want to spend the evening alone, feeling the need to talk to their close friends, trying to come to terms with the attacks and reassuring themselves that they were all save and sound, over and over again. We tried to get past this feeling of it all being a mere nightmare.
How can terror be so close to home?
During those two days, I had asked many people whether they felt safe in their neighborhood, whether they were afraid, anxious of new attacks. To my immense surprise, one 60-year-old retorted my question: “And you, are you afraid?” Was I afraid? No, of course not. Why on earth would I be?! Never, not even for a split second, had it occurred to me that I could – only theoretically – be afraid, too. It hadn’t occurred to me, not because I was the great heroine, fearlessly running into whatever conflict there is – far from that. But because I just hadn’t realized it. I hadn’t realized what had happened, even after having witnessed Charlie Hebdo from upfront as a reporter. I hadn’t realized what had happened, even with “It’s atrocious, it was an attack on youth” being my set-piece argument about the attacks. I hadn’t realized what had happened because I was unable to understand the proximity of terror.
Back home in Vienna the situation still feels surreal, so very difficult to grasp. Yes, it could have been me during my time in Paris, getting a last burger at this one McDonald’s on the corner every young person in Paris knows, the one near Canal Saint-Martin and Oberkampf. Yes, it could have been my dear friend Rita who– only a week ago! – had a glass of wine on the terrace of that very bar, behind that very window which was shattered by random bullets on Friday night. Yes, it could have been one of my French friends, dancing in Le Bataclan, a place where people in Paris just go to enjoy their nights. It could have been us; it could really have been us – us being French, Austrian, British, Chinese, whatever.
“You want a battle of cultures with France?! Good f***ing luck!”
When covering a story of this scope, abroad, alone – a story you think far beyond your capacities – you don’t take the time to wallow in any sort of personal feelings implied in the happenings. You are on adrenaline, hardly taking note of anything not imminently relevant to your reporting. The only justified thoughts are those revolving around news concerning your story, research for your story, and calls from your newsroom about your story. It’s a rush, surreal like a drug: Wasting even a single minute doesn’t seem to be an option.
However, that this did not hold true for the days following the attacks.On Sunday, Paris seemed to be in a relaxed mode of recovery, and I was too. I had acafé allongé, did some people-watching and enjoyed the moment. The whole Parisian system was in a defiant mood, including the weather: The sun was shining and it was too warm for November, spurring people to get fresh air. The streets of Marais were busy, terraces near Bastille were full and, despite the ban on assembly, small groups had formed on Place de la République singing “Imagine” by Paul Lennon. Paris that Sunday was a joyous place to be: It was that colourful funeral where people laugh and dance and drink champagne, celebrating the deceased, rejecting black veils and lonely grief in tiny flats.
So, being in Paris felt genuinely good.It is a quite a sensation to witness the French stand up against terror, once again, united, no matter of what had happened. FluctuatNecMergitur, ‘tossed but not sunk’ – the motto of the City of Paris, has become the catchphrase of this “révolution” – overnight. The Place de la République has transformed into a collective commemoration spot, social networks as well as foreign media are full of supporting statements, condemning the attacks to its full extent.
And as trivial as changing one’s profile picture or sharing John Oliver’s fantastic “Last Week tonight”-video (“You want a battle of cultures with France?! Good f***ing luck!”) might seem, it is not. It is the very proof that we, the youth, the general public, the people, are standing together in this – and that we, not the Security Council, not our commanders-in-chief, not our heads of states, are simply not willing to shrink from this perceived danger.