I knew something wasn’t right.
What do you mean there aren’t any taxis available on a Friday night in Paris? The waiter had just told the people next to us at the restaurant that he was having trouble getting a taxi to come for them and were trying to contact another company.
Odd. But I didn’t give it much thought.
Merideth and I were out celebrating our twentieth anniversary at Goust, a nice restaurant in the second arrondissement near l’Opéra Garnier. It was 44 days after the actual date since we’d been on different continents on September 30th, but it was worth the wait. A Michelin starred restaurant (our first time to one) with an adventurous tasting menu: we tried things I’d never had before (like sea urchin). Meanwhile the girls were back at the apartment, no doubt happier to be having tomato soup and toasted baguette rather than sea urchin.
As the waiter helped us with our coats, he told us to be safe, that some kinds of attacks had been occurring in the city. We thanked him and headed to the metro to get back home.
The streets in the 2nd arrondissement were fairly quiet. The air was still and it wasn’t too cold; November was turning out to be mild. We passed a few other people on the sidewalk, saw homeless men bedding down in doorways, and soon came to the metro entrance right in front of the grand Palais Garnier, the historic opera house in Paris.
We descended into the metro tunnels and got to the platform. An announcement came on. I couldn’t understand everything that was said, but I could tell that the République metro stop was mentioned, and it sounded like it was closed. Our destination, the Passy neighborhood, lay in the opposite direction. I tried checking the internet on my phone for news, but I couldn’t get a connection underground. The metro arrived, we got on and were on our way. It was fairly full, with people quietly minding their own business and not making eye-contact. In other words, an utterly normal metro experience.
We changed lines at La Motte-Picquet Grenelle in the 15th arrondissement where the number 6 that takes us home runs above ground. Just three stops to go. As we came out of the underground portion, I finally got some information about what was happening when a text from Carolyn came through:
Not the kind of news you ever want to hear, not the kind of texts you ever want to get. We were home soon and there were plenty of hugs and kisses. I checked the news and updated my status on Facebook to let people know we were okay; I was already getting messages from friends in the U.S. wanting to know if we were safe. Sometimes social media is a vortex of distraction and triviality; this time it was an absolute blessing to be able to so easily let so many people know that we were out of harm’s way.
For a little while I surfed from news site to news site, reading varying accounts of what was happening where and how many people had been killed and how many were still in danger. Finally, with heavy hearts over so much loss of life and so much ongoing uncertainty, we went to bed. It hadn’t been the anniversary celebration evening I’d expected.
At the end of September I participated in a group exercise in which we prepared for dealing with an armed attack by a gunman on a train. I was at a retreat for missionaries serving in Europe with my denomination and it was just a month after the incident when three Americans took down a shooter on the high speed train from Amsterdam to Paris. I’m not a missionary, but I’ve been invited to the last two of these retreats to lead the worship sessions. As part of the program, we had a session on safety and security on the mission field. The presenter covered such topics as dealing with medical emergencies, kidnappings, and evacuations from unstable situations—circumstances more associated with the developing world than Europe. Serving in Europe is safe, right? You can drink the water. You don’t need to get any special vaccinations. There are doctors and hospitals and functioning governments. Pickpockets and scam artists abound, but even savvy tourists learn to deal with those minor threats. The biggest danger is overpaying for a mediocre meal.
But then there was that shooting on the train. And earlier in the year, the Charlie Hebdo attack. Proof—as if we needed it—that nowhere on earth is truly, perfectly safe.
And now this. The worst act of terror ever on French soil.
In the morning, we learned that the city was going to be closed for business. All museums closed. Schools and universities (some are normally open on Saturdays). Swimming pools. The outdoor markets. I got an email from the girls’ fencing club that they were canceling lessons due to des circonstances dramatiques. Reading the news reports, we learned that Paris residents were being advised to stay home. While we got mixed reports about borders being closed, it sounded like air travel was still operating.
So the day after the worst terrorist attack ever in France, we cleaned house. Just like one of our more boring Saturdays. Sweeping, vacuuming, dishes, laundry, scrubbing sinks and toilets, taking out the trash.
All morning our street was quiet, but we could still hear cars going by and see people on the sidewalk. After finishing our chores, Merideth and I went for a walk. A nice view of the Eiffel Tower from the Trocadéro is only ten minutes away; I was curious how many people would be there. It turned out to be about the same as ever, people posing in front of the empty landmark and waving their selfie-sticks. A few officers with rifles were patrolling, but they were far outnumbered by the guys who are always there selling cheap souvenirs.
We continued our walk through the neighborhood. Most restaurants were open and tourists were scanning menus. We stopped by one of our favorite bakeries and picked up a sweet. Heading back home, we took a street we hadn’t been on before and passed through another one of the many lovely parks that you’ve never heard of scattered throughout the city. Even though it’s mid-November, its planting beds were a beautiful sight.
It brings to mind a scripture that means so much to me, especially as someone given to melancholy thoughts:
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
In the afternoon, Merideth and the girls went to their trapeze lessons. The gym is way outside Paris in a sleepy suburb and the coach decided to go ahead with the sessions. I went for another walk, this time down to the Seine and along one of my favorite paths on a narrow man-made island in the river. I stopped for a coffee at a place in a nearby mall, but was told they’d be closing soon. The girl working there said they shouldn’t have even opened since the movie theater there hadn’t opened at all and the other shops were closing early.
Back in my neighborhood I went to my local grocery store. I’d never seen it so busy. Were people stocking up for the apocalypse or was it always like that on Saturday night? When Merideth and the girls got home, we ate in, put candles out on one of our window ledges, and watched a movie.
There’s no denying we’re lucky. Blessed. Thankful. And yet struck by how little we’ve been impacted or even inconvenienced by the tragedies around us. It’s truly humbling.
Life is precious, not to be taken for granted. You know that. I know that. Sometimes things come along to remind us just how precious–and how fragile–life really is.