Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Children: A week after the Paris attacks

I have avoided writing this for days. I keep putting it off. I feel like when I post it, it will be time to move on. And I don’t know if I can do that. I feel frozen. On hold.

Unlike after Charlie Hebdo, when my friends and readers allowed me to leap into action, posting more than three-hundred notecards for them at the memorial site with good wishes from around the world, this time I haven’t felt like doing anything.

Why is it different? Maybe because this time I’ve felt like hiding. Maybe because it feels like it’s not over.

The morning after the attacks, I slept until 8:30, when the kids came and piled into bed with me. I had finally fallen asleep at 3:30 a.m., after resorting to half a Xanax to help block out the ambulance sirens and lights outside my window.

“You can watch cartoons,” I croaked. My kids cheered at the unexpected treat and ran out to turn on the TV. I had a moment of panic, thinking that they might turn on a news channel, but as soon as I heard Spongebob speaking in French, I knew they were safe.

Almost immediately, my phone started buzzing with new messages from worried friends and family, and I gave up on the idea of sleep. I got up and walked into the living room, where my kids stared at the screen, mesmerized by the mindless animation. And I had the overwhelming desire to press “pause” on the scene before me. I wanted to stay in the “before they knew” just a little longer.

I got breakfast and put it on the coffee table. That got their attention. Breakfast in front of the TV? The world must be coming to an end. Little did they know.

“Something bad happened last night,” I said. They looked at me, waiting. “It’s kind of like in January with Charlie Hebdo. Bad guys killed people in Paris, but this time it was worse. More people were killed.”

“Okay,” they said.

“I know we were supposed to go to the Science Museum and swimming today, but people are still upset, so the museums and swimming pools are closed. We’ll just stay at home. Daddy’s worried too,” I added. “He wants to come back to Paris to see you.”

“Is it dangerous outside?” my son asked.

“It could still be dangerous,” I admitted. “The police aren’t sure yet. That’s why we’re going to stay home.”

“Tell Daddy not to come until it’s safe,” he responded.

“If we’re staying home all day, can we have more screen time?” my daughter asked, fishing for more than their half-hour per day of games on weekends. I said yes.

They turned back to the TV.

And that was it.

There had been a massacre in Paris, the second terrorist attack in ten months, and my kids were more concerned about Spongebob and video games. As I went back to my room to start answering messages, I realized that this is my children’s reality. This is the world they are growing up in. One of random killings. Of unknown danger.

At lunch I did what we, as parents, had been told to do in January. Instead of dishing out information, I asked the kids if there was anything they wanted to know.

“How many bad guys?” my daughter asked.

“I think seven or eight,” I replied.

“Did they catch all of them?” she asked.

“Some of them are dead,” I responded, “but they might have friends. That’s why the police are asking us to stay inside.”

“How did they kill them,” my son asked.

“They shot them,” I said. If I mentioned suicide vests, that would necessitate an explanation. No way was I going there.

“How many people died?”

“A lot,” I said. “Do you want to know a number?”

“Twenty?” he ventured. “Thirty?”

“More than a hundred,” I replied. My kids gasped.

“It’s very sad,” I said, and they nodded. And that was it for question time. They didn’t ask, so I didn’t push.

I watched them later that day, when we finally went outside. A friend down the street had texted, “If I don’t get my kids outside, we’re all going to go insane.” We agreed to go to a tiny park two blocks away. When we arrived, the park gates were locked. We headed for the next-closest park at Place des Vosges, only to discover that its gates were locked too. We opted for standing under the square’s arcade, where the kids used the bag of chalks and soccer net I had brought to turn the 17th century walkway into an art gallery and then a soccer field.


Chalk drawings, Place des Vosges, November 14, the afternoon after the attacks.

Another mom from our school texted my friend and joined us, just as desperate to get her little boy outside for fresh air. I heard the children pass information between themselves. “There was a bomb at the soccer stadium.” “I know.” “A hundred people were killed in our neighborhood.” “I know.” “The bad guys have friends.” “Oh.” They didn’t even look at each other as they traded this information. They just checked in. Made sure they knew what their friends did. Showed that they knew what was going on. It felt more like a ritual than communication. As long as they all knew what the others did, then they were fine.


Playing soccer, Place des Vosges, November 14, the afternoon after the attacks.

My children hadn’t actually shown fear until Lucia saw an ambulance on the way to the park. She had grabbed my hand in fright, and I had said, “It’s okay. It’s just one ambulance. It only matters if you see a lot of them.”

On the way back from the park, a convoy of five ambulances, sirens screaming, rushed past us. Lucia looked at me, eyes huge. I checked Twitter. No new attacks. “It’s okay,” I said. “They’re probably just taking people from one hospital to another.” As soon as I said that, she relaxed. And I felt the weight of responsibility bear down on me. My children trust me to keep them safe. That was the scariest realization of the day.

The next day, my ex brought us croissants for breakfast. He was visibly relieved to see his children. “You know, it’s safer in the countryside,” he said.

“I barely survived the countryside,” I replied. “Living isolated amongst foreigner-hating farmers is not an option, but if you say you’ll move to New York, I’ll be packed in five minutes.”

“It would be the same in New York,” he responded.

“So I guess we’re staying,” I concluded.

Friends and family had been writing me non-stop, suggesting, “Maybe it’s time to come home.” But this is home. My parents are dead, and I don’t have family in places I would live. Anywhere else would be picking a random American city. After living eight years in New York, I can imagine living there. But my ex is staunchly against the idea, and I know myself that Paris is more family-friendly. At least…it was.

I talked about it with an American friend whose kids go to school with mine. She lives next to Bataclan, and still had bloody surgical gloves scattered around her courtyard—leftovers from where paramedics had set up an emergency triage center on Friday night. “It seems paranoid to want to move,” she said. I agreed. “But I can’t help wondering,” she continued, “if this is one of those situations that people will look at in hindsight and say, ‘That’s when we should have left.’”

The next morning, I had an email from our school’s parents’ association. Attached was a letter asking for more security at the school. We were asked to sign it and forward to the mayor of Paris, the mayor of our neighborhood, and the police chief. It insinuated that the location of my children’s school—between the old offices of Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan—dictated the level of future risk, and suggested scenarios that quite frankly scared the shit out of me.

Every time there’s a school shooting in the U.S., I thank my lucky stars I won’t have to ever worry about that with my kids. Monday morning, I walked my kids to school thinking, “This must be what American parents feel like the morning after a school shooting.” I was so frightened that my stomach was in knots. I saw fear on the other parents’ faces and knew they were similarly affected.

We watched our children until they disappeared down the hallway, and then stood outside and talked. One of my son’s friends lives on the same block as Bataclan. Her Japanese mother told me the 9-year-old had been asleep during the attack, but her 12-year-old son was awake. “He heard everything,” she said. “Explosions, shooting…” She was too polite to say more, but trauma was etched into the lines of her exhausted face.

The mother of my son’s best friend texted me to ask how he was reacting. She was worried because her son wasn’t reacting at all. Le Petit Cambodge is on their street. She kept her kids inside until the blood was cleaned up, but said he had seen the bullet holes in the windows. She apologized for bothering me, saying she was just worried. I reassured her that my son hadn’t shown much of a reaction yet, and promised to keep in touch.

The stories began to roll in. A girl from my babysitter’s high school was missing. Her father had taken her to the concert at the Bataclan, and lost her during the stampede. Two days later she was reported as dead.

A mother of two kids at a local school was killed. Her husband was on business in China, and rushed to get back for his children.

A British friend had to choose between going downstairs and helping with the injured at Le Carillon and Le Petit Cambodge and staying put with her frightened 9 and 11-year-old daughters who had heard the gunshots. She stayed put.


Downstairs from where my friend sat with her daughters…three doors away.

When I picked up my children at the end of the school day, there were five police officers standing outside the school. However shocking it had been to read, our letter had worked. I asked my kids what had happened in school. They told me there had been a minute of silence, after which the principle had summarized what had happened. They didn’t remember what he had said exactly, but my daughter said, “He didn’t mention the bad guys’ friends.” So they were listening on Saturday, I thought. Listening but not responding. At least, not right away.


Outside my children’s school, Monday, November 16.

This weekend marked one week since the attacks. Late Sunday afternoon, the kids and I were walking home down a long narrow one-way street. I was very conscious of the fact that on the next street over—identical to the one we were walking down—was the side-door concertgoers used to escape from the Bataclan. It’s where the video was shot with the woman hanging out of the second-floor window. I, of course, hadn’t mentioned this to my children.

The sun was beginning to set. Shadows lengthened in the doorways. The sky was turning dark. My daughter grabbed my hand with her pink fluffy glove, tossed a nervous glance behind us, and said, “I’m scared.”

“What are you afraid of?” I pulled her in to wrap my arm around her shoulders as we walked.

“I’m afraid that there’s a bad guy walking behind us, and he’s going to shoot me right here.” She bent her arm back to touch between her shoulders.

I turned toward her, bending down so that my eyes were level with hers. “No one’s going to shoot you, I promise,” I said…

Wishing that I felt as confident as I sounded.

Wanting to be able to shield her every moment of every day.

Torn between the urge to hide and a fierce inner rebellion against those who want me to. Furious that those two choices are even a part of my consciousness.

Feeling that primal animal instinct that wants to lash out and hurt anyone who endangers my children.

Knowing that hatred is not the answer.


And feeling.

And feeling.


The Attacks on Paris, Friday night

On Friday night I put my kids to bed around 9pm, then went to bed myself around 9:30, ready to tuck into the new Robert Galbraith mystery, freshly downloaded onto my Kindle. I was just getting into the story, a few chapters along, when I started hearing sirens outside.

My apartment is on one of Paris’s major boulevards—the one leading from Place de la Bastille to Place de la République—which means that every time there is a parade, march, or marathon, it goes under my window. It’s exciting when thousands of bikers dressed as Santa roar by on motorcycles or the Republican Guards ride their horses past on their way to the Bastille Day parade. As for the other various demonstrations that happen at least once a week, I’m so protest-jaded that I rarely get up to look.

All this to say…sirens are background noise to me by now. I don’t usually notice. But when they continued for a full twenty minutes, I put my book down and got out of bed, opened my black-out curtains, and looked down at the street. My heart dropped when I saw that these weren’t just police cars blaring their way down the avenue. They were ambulances.

I opened my laptop and went directly to Le Libération’s website. The banner at the top of the page read, “Shootout happening in Paris’s 10th arrondissement. Several dead.” It was 10:15. I clicked on CNN and HuffPost. Neither said anything about Paris. This was new news. This was happening now.

At 10:18 I tweeted that there were sirens going by my window. Two German friends responded immediately that there had been explosions near the soccer stadium where their team was playing France.

That is when I got the feeling.

It was the feeling I got when I heard the first few details about 9/11. The feeling I had in January when I finally realized, an hour after seeing a stretcher being wheeled away from Charlie Hebdo’s offices while walking my daughter to ballet, that this wasn’t just a horrible shooting. It was a pre-planned terrorist attack. It was the numb feeling that something had happened that will change life as you know it. That you and your loved ones are in danger because the target isn’t someone in a gang or drug ring or the mafia. The target is everyday people. The target is you.

At 10:26 I posted a message to my personal Facebook page, my go-to for communicating with family and friends around the globe. I posted that the kids and I were home and in bed, and that we were safe. I got onto my Amy Plum Facebook page and posted a similar message, knowing that I’m the only French connection for many of my readers and that worried messages would soon be rolling in.

At 10:30 I got on the phone and called my ex-husband at his house in the Loire Valley. “The kids and I are safe,” I said. He was confused. “There are multiple shootings in Paris,” I explained. “In our neighborhood. People are dead. I just wanted you to know that we stayed in tonight, and the kids and I are safe.”

By then, sirens were going past my window non-stop. The boulevard was still full of cars, but I noticed that several headed toward République were doing u-turns in the middle of the boulevard and racing off in the other direction. The news was getting out.

At 10:35 someone Tweeted me a headline from CNN reading, “Breaking News: Several People Killed in Paris Shooting. 7 Others Injured.” The news was out. And on the French news it was getting more specific. There were several shootings: all in the 10th and 11th arrondissements. All nearby.

Le Petit Cambodge, a favorite restaurant near the Canal Saint Martin, had been attacked. There were dead bodies on the ground. The other addresses were ones I knew. Ones I have frequently walked by going about my daily business. Paris is small, and this is my neighborhood.

And then I heard the news about the Bataclan. The café and concert hall just a five-minute walk from my house. A block and a half from my children’s school. I took them there to celebrate the last day of school, eating ice cream outside at one of their café tables. There is a playground in the park right across the street where I have taken my kids to blow off steam after school. We walk by it all of the time.

The Bataclan was under attack, I read. Gunmen were inside, while there was a concert going on. An American band I had heard of. I knew the type of people who would go to their concert, and I imagined gunmen entering and starting to shoot.

The ambulances were now going in the other direction. Before, they had been going toward the Bataclan. Now, they were racing away. One after the other. I saw ten in a row. It was 11:32. Someone Tweeted me that 60 were confirmed dead. That’s when I started crying.


As seen from my living room window…


At 11:33 my children’s father called me back. He and his parents were following the news and were, understandably, very worried. I reassured him that we were fine, that the kids hadn’t even woken up, and that we would stay inside. He rescheduled his return to Paris for the next day. He wanted to see his kids.

By then I had been able to contact all of my friends who live nearby. One by one, they all confirmed that they were safe, although a few had gone out and were stranded in other neighborhoods. Those had decided to stay put, finding nearby friends to stay with.

As some of you might know, my childhood was marked by violence. The very worst thing for me is witnessing violence and not being able to do anything about it. I noticed the #porteouverte #opendoor movement starting on Twitter, where Paris residents were offering a place to stay for anyone needing shelter, mainly geared toward tourists who had become stranded. I offered my apartment since it was so close to Bataclan. Although news of my offer was spread quickly by social media, no one answered my ad. It felt like 9/11 once again: people were out there willing to help, but no one was there to take them up on it. Those who had internet access weren’t using it to find shelter. They were using it to call for help.

The next few hours were spent pacing. Outside my window, ambulances had begun to park along the side of the boulevard. Traffic got sparser. At 12:45, I heard a loud noise, and looked outside to see that a motorcyclist had just been hit by a car. Within seconds, forty people, half of them policemen, were there to help him. After a while, one of the ambulances sped him away.

At 12:53 a few dozen police gathered on the corner just across the street from my house. I wondered if they were preparing to storm a building nearby, or had gotten some sort of warning. After ten minutes, they all walked toward the Bataclan together. It had just been their meeting-point.


Police gathering across the street.

By 1:30 police had blocked all traffic on the boulevard. It had become a parking lot for ambulances. This was my view:


Police tape was put up on my corner, and from time to time, a gurney was rolled from one of the ambulances past the tape. I discovered the next day that the block north of me was used to load the corpses. The ambulances in front of my house were taking bodies to the morgue. A few blocks north, near République were the triage stations. Those ambulances were taking a different route to the hospitals.

On the news, the body count grew by the minute. The police had raided the Bataclan, and the attacks seemed to have stopped. By 3am, I knew I needed to sleep. I checked on my children. Though their bedroom curtains flashed blue and white in the glow of the ambulance lights and the sirens were never-ending, they slept soundly.

I went to bed, fearful of what the next day would bring. I wasn’t afraid of more killings. That thought hadn’t crossed my mind…yet. Instead, I feared the aftermath. The news of what had actually happened once the dust settled and the chaos ended. The body count. The grieving relatives and loved ones. I feared seeing Paris like it was just ten months ago. Paris in mourning.

But more than anything, I feared seeing my children’s smiling, innocent faces the next morning and having to tell them that something terrible had happened. Again.