After terror

Montmartre Sacré-Cœur basilica, looking out over Paris. (photo by Eliza Siegel)

Montmartre Sacré-Cœur basilica, looking out over Paris. (photo by Eliza Siegel)

…in the days following the Paris attacks…

Maybe there’s a way to look past this empty city: the ghosts of rushing travelers, the holographic outlines of people lounging at cafes, the vacant Metro cars, doors sliding open and shut, admitting no one. If there is a way to forget the corrosive fear that is eating away at Paris, I don’t know it. Drawn faces surround me, tired from grieving and forgetting and grieving again; I am one of them, another grim, grey face reflected blurrily in passing shop windows. My lungs feel tight as I walk down the street — the air rushes out easily enough, but trails back in as if one molecule at a time. It is a war with the atmosphere, for oxygen and the right to breathe it.

I didn’t leave my apartment for forty-four and a half hours after the story broke. It was dark inside, the shutters and windows closed, lights on halfway, and three locks bolted on the front door. Two pots of coffee and stared at the news, took some Advil, stared some more. The first night, my heart pounded too fast for sleep; the second, the bass from a party upstairs shook the carefully constructed walls of my room, slipped in through the cracks under doors, crawled into my skull and trembled in my brain. Why were they partying while the entire world was shrouded in mourning? Were they defying the fear that ISIS had planted in the heart of Paris? Or were they drowning their sorrows in a swell of alcohol and the thunderous pulse of blaring stereos? There are countless questions that can’t be answered by anyone, or forgotten by dancing the night and morning away, nor by drowning in medicated sleep, exposed and alone in a foreign bed.


But is it really so foreign anymore? A week, days ago, even, the answer would’ve been an unequivocal yes. Despite the months I’ve lived here, writing and composing and sketching Paris in a creative frenzy, the thing I craved most of all continued to elude me: a sense of belonging. Language barrier aside, there was an inexplicable distance between myself and the culture I wanted so desperately to be part of; even while boarding trains, memorizing announcements like please mind the gap between the train and the platform, sitting outside cafés and wandering the Jardin du Luxembourg, a sense of isolation barred me from feeling truly at home.

Things have changed, though, in ways that are still unclear. What was once a faraway city is now a familiar one, and I am no longer a stranger to it. I inhabit this city, and now grief inhabits me. It is everywhere, it jolts like a quick sliver of fear, and it numbs me to remember the freedom of walking alone down the streets, stopping at the corner patisserie for a croissant, laughing as the wind blew the hem of my dress straight up while descending the steps of Saint-Sulpice Station; the freedom to think of other things — to be mindless and careless. It is over now, the violence and the needless bloodshed, but it doesn’t feel over. Ceaseless sirens color the air with crimson sound. Exhaustion weighs on me, heavy as a perpetual sigh.

After terror is quiet, the kind that’s full of things that can’t be heard: the silent suffering of a people in a broken city. What remains of Paris’s spirit is collective, fragmented — like trying to fit together the remains of a shattered glass. I grasp at the facts, the numbers of dead and wounded, charts and tallies that will rationalize the irrational, and wake every hour or so to check for updates, prying my eyelids apart to track the mounting number of casualties. My pillow is damp from crying myself to sleep over and over again. It soon becomes clear that no amount of analysis can explain atrocities such as this. There is only destruction, and then, over time, there is putting the wreckage back together.

It feels as if the journey is starting over. Upon arriving in Paris, I walked as though someone was chasing me, afraid to look up or slow down enough to experience the city in all its beauty: buildings that haven’t changed in centuries, Parisians walking fashionably by, taxis and buses, autumn-brown leaves carried across a bright grey sky. Loss weighed heavily on me then, too, for the people and places that were far away in New York. Eventually, I grew comfortable in the streets, walking slowly on my own down bustling Rue de Rennes, or else staring serenely at the Seine from Quai Saint-Michel. A Sunday morning ritual began to form: reading under the towering Eglise Saint-Sulpice with café crème and a freshly baked pain au chocolat.

Now I race around again, not lingering long enough to taste the cigarette-singed air or drop flaky bits of pastry for the flocking pigeons. Soldiers carrying massive guns stand impassively on street corners, and I am unsure whether this makes me feel more or less safe. Upon entering Monoprix to purchase ingredients for dinner, my bag is searched by a man wearing a suit and a suspicious expression. A sense of security, acquired over the course of months, has vanished in a few short hours. I will leave in one week, feeling more nervous and unsteady than when I arrived.

But then I am infinitely changed; not just as a result of the horrors that have rocked Paris, but because of the months spent here. I have learned that it is fairly easy to survive on my own, to shop and cook and shower, but much harder to live and experience, to explore the city at night, to try the things that terrify me. It has taken nearly all of my strength to peel myself from beneath my sheets some days, to leave the apartment and venture out into the wide-open world. There were days without sleeping, where it felt as if I were drowning in loneliness; but I have also traveled far and seen incredible things, and am vastly better for it. I have proven it to myself, and now it will be difficult to return to New York where people will take care of me — much of the unflagging independence I have come to cherish will be traded for a safer existence, surrounded by loved ones.

I will leave Paris behind, watch the City of Lights slowly receding from the window of an airplane, and fly across an ocean. Even still, I’m petrified of change, but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that change is the way in which life goes on.


Eliza Siegel is 18 years old and lives in Shokan. She graduated from Onteora High School last June and is currently taking a gap year. She just returned from three months in Paris, where she studied creative writing at the American University of Paris, and is now interning at McPherson & Company Publishing in Kingston. She plans to study writing and literature at Barnard College next fall.