The night of the attacks on Paris, Brent and our young children ages five and seven, were walking the streets of Paris to exchange dollars into euros. We had just arrived by bus from London the night before. As darkness fell, they sat for a break to enjoy a Nutela and banana crepe unaware that, minutes away, teams of terrorists prepared to kill diners at a similar sidewalk café.
The rest of our family was in a hotel room as two-tone sirens began blaring all over the city. Still unaware of what was going on, and unnerved by the sirens, I gathered the older children together to pray for their papa and siblings.
The day before, we had taken a bus past the same soccer stadium where France and Germany were scheduled to face each other. The night of the game, however, the French president would be swiftly ushered out during a bombing at this highly attended event. Onlookers fled onto the field. All of Paris was on alert.
Paris, to say the least, was “on the edge” the day after three teams of suicide Islamist terrorists killed 130, injuring around 300, many seriously.
For the first days in Paris after the attacks, our hotel kept the doors locked to all but already checked in guests. The phone lines were overloaded. Local cafes and shops shut down as France declared a state of emergency.
We have been staying in the Levallois area, about 15 minutes from the worst of the attack venues in la Republique. On the day after the attack, we went out to get some essential items from the convenience store two blocks away. We were in the store less than a minute when one of the employees immediately approached us.
“Do you have any luggage?” shouted the manager, pointing to an unaccompanied black carry-on. Seeing our blank expression, he hastily ushered us out with the remaining customers. Within minutes, police blockaded four streets to check the suspicious item. It was a false alarm, but the event demonstrated how vigilant both civilians and authorities felt that day.
In the City of Lights, Muslims and non-Muslims peacefully carry on business side-by-side. In Paris, after the attacks, the tragic events cast a pallor of suspicion on all ethnic Middle-easterners. Older, ethnically French citizens, cast slightly longer sideward glances when Arabic was spoken.
Our children will always remember the moment we saw two policeman (perhaps, subconsciously) move toward their weapons as a birka-clad woman crossed the street at a police blockade. She was a local (maybe a mother) on her way to pick up bread at the nearby patisserie.
One block from our hotel, four blue-bereted camouflaged soldiers with automatic weapons keep a round-the-clock guard over a synagogue. At the local laundromat, a local explained that the vigilance has been in place since January when Islamic extremists killed twelve journalists, predominantly Jews.
The French flag still flies half mast all over the nation. For three days, museums shut down and major tourism sites closed. Many tourists cancelled their trips, flew home early or stayed locked in their rooms.
Then, in an act of defiance to terror, Parisians continued on with life. We and other tourists ventured out of our rooms against the advice of the hotel staff. We stood united with our French host country. We loaded up our nine children and hit the streets of Paris with smiles on.
We visited the Eiffel Tower just three days after the attack. Parisiens, in a display of solidarity, proudly displayed the tower in the national tri-color pattern. Normally, the blue-white-red lights are reserved for other national holidays. Our children enjoyed watching the display as nightfall came to the City of Lights. Soldiers patrolled the base of the tower, keeping watch over the reduced number of visitors.
Like other major European cities, Paris has her own Christmas markets. The market along the well-known Champs-Elysee had been scheduled to open on the 14th. Hearing that the market was further delayed in the interest of security, we came a couple days later. Paratroopers walked in groups of four, brandishing automatic weapons and red berets proudly marking their parachutist rank. They walked beside us, vigilant but willing to offer us directions and brief but friendly banter.
The markets are filled with gingerbread men, hot apple cider and cocoa for the children. Brent and I enjoyed a German sausage roll on hot bread, smothered with grilled onions, green and yellow peppers. The children had huge waffles topped with fresh cream and Nutella. The white lights sparkled, and childhood dreams came true.
Security is also visibly increased at major tourist areas like the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay and Notre Dame. Red-beret soldiers are visible at all these areas. At each museum, we went through metal detectors, guards briefly checked our bags and luggage.
Our children saw the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s Dying Slave and the Seated Egyptian Scribe from 3000 years before Christ. I have a post about our lovely day of learning at the Louvre coming soon.
We visited the Notre Dame and even stood in the ever-present line to enter. Kind and sensible security agents pulled us and our crew of children (which represented about 98% of the under 18 crowd that day) and whisked us past the frisking routine. Inside, their heads were all drawn upward and jaws dropped in wordless wonder. We happened to come at the start of a beautiful mass, which was sung 90% in French, the rest in Latin. I will not soon forget the otherworldly sound of the organ and soprano soloist reverberating off eight centuries-old marble.
We have had some beautiful family days in the City of Lights. Paris is very much drawing together.
Tonight, French national news cameras ran as our children shouted, “Vive la France!”
Shortly afterwards, off the camera, we started on our way home. Our euros were getting low, but we wanted to make happy memories for our children. We stopped by a Kurdistani-owned restaurant. The Muslim owner served us a huge portion of grilled chicken, hot bread and salad. At the end of the meal, he flatly refused to accept any payment.
Baby Jeriah Inion just made friends with the most adorable little Pakistani girl. The children played, crawled and giggled. We mama´s (both of us in long dresses and veils on our heads) shared twinkling smiles and proud laughter as our bright children played.
Finally, I asked, “Are you Muslim?”
She cast her eyes downward and answered, “Yes and I am so sorry for the violence that has been done because it is not at all a part of what I believe or have practiced.”
Then she asked, “And you? Are you an American Christian?”
I answered, “Yes, and I am so sorry for the violence and hate you have seen in the name of Christianity. It is not at all a part of what I believe or practice.”
As we left, I offered my hand; she shook it with both of hers.
Like most people watching the events of the last two weeks, we have felt the shock and sadness that resident and tourist alike have felt. French authorities continue their heightened security measures in high visibility areas. Aside from these measures, Parisiens are resolute to keep fear from encroaching on the joie de vivre. Like the scheduled barges plying the Seine, life (with persistence) flows along business-as-usual.
Autumn leaves litter the streets. Our children laugh and tossed them skyward in the sunset shadows of Notre Dame. Cool turns to cold as shopkeepers adorn their displays with Christmas lights. These are the scenes we have tried to capture. While teaching our children to be aware and careful, we have given our children a very limited dose of the sadness and violence.
Instead, we have filled their minds with the wonder and awe at the treasures that have graced this city for centuries. DaVinci, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Monet and Manet are becoming familiar names. Our little ones’ tongues are becoming more bold with French pleasantries; merci and bonjour roll a little more easily off their tongues. Foie gras (duck liver) and escargot (snails, mercifully drenched in garlic and butter) have made their way to their tongues–and down with a smile.
The lights are on. Come for a taste of Paris.
Want to see more? Click this link to see the short video our family enjoying Paris.