I went to a conference on “Mixedness” at the Sorbonne in Paris. On the last day of the conference, some of the conference participants and I decided to grab drinks to celebrate. We were a multinational crowd, although I was the only American. There were two Dutch people, an Italian, a Belgian, a French person, and myself, all women. Around 9pm, I was worried about getting drunk, so I needed to eat something to prevent that. After our aperitif, we decided to go to a less touristy (and less expensive) neighborhood near the streets of Oberkamf and Parmentier to grab some dinner. The area had been recommended to us by a Parisian conference participant. We went to a restaurant called Ave Maria that had a youthful, hipster feel to it. They had colorful Mexican “papel picado” decorating the restaurant, which made me skittish about eating there. One does not typically leave the Americas to eat food from the Americas. However, the pitcher of drinks that we shared while we waited for our table erased any hesitancy that I had.
Finally, our table was ready and I had a dish called the “Indian Ocean” that was served in a clay pot and was delicious. Finally, we had finished eating and were just sitting around chatting when the once emptying restaurant became full of people again. A couple sat at the table next to us– a slender blonde guy and a smaller blonde woman, both in their twenties. The young man spoke English to us. “Don’t go outside,” he said. The people at my table huddled around him as he explained that something terrible had happened and that people were running in the streets away from something. He whipped out his cellphone and started to explain that it looks like bombs had gone off at a stadium where the Prime Minister was. One of the conference participants, I don’t know who, said, “Everyone is looking at their cell phones.” Indeed, I looked up and many people were staring at screens. I pulled mine out too as the French man narrated events to the rest of my friends. Initially, I strained to hear what he said, but could not because of the loud music that was playing. Looking at my phone, I saw that several bombs had gone off in a stadium I-don’t-know-where. In addition, shootings were happening I-don’t-know-where. The restaurant filled with the sound of happy American songs such as “American Pie” and Broadway show tunes.
I heard the French man say, eyes wide, “That is just 1000m from here.” Some of the women around me nodded in understanding, while others gasped. Of course, Americans do not use kilometers, so I felt like he was speaking Greek to me.
“How far is that?” I asked.
“Very close, very close” he said. “It is just a few, a few….” His English failed him.
“Blocks?” I asked again.
“Yes, very close, very close” he repeated.
One of the Dutch women pulled out a map and he explained where we were in reference to the attacks. Initially, I paid attention but then I remembered my personality trait of absorbing the energies of people around me. I did not want to get caught up in panic over something of which I had no control. Also, my sad spatial abilities limited my understanding of what he was saying. He said that there had been multiple attacks and pointed to where the stadium, which looked far from where we were, at least to me. Since I am somebody who absorbs other people’s energy, I remember making a conscious effort to block other people’s worry from entering me. I essentially constructed a mental wall to keep out the concerns of other people because it would not change the situation that I was in. I stopped paying attention to their conversation as I said to myself, ‘There’s nothing I can do anyways. Just stay on your guard.”
The restaurant was filled with smoke because French people smoke like chimneys but they could not go outside to smoke. Our tall, slender waitress looked more and more wobbly as the night progressed and she gathered with the other waitress and bartender to smoke. The conversations that flowed so easily among us conference participants had slowed to a crawl as the night progressed. I was still jetlagged from my flight from Philadelphia days earlier and just wanted to crawl into bed. But I could not. Instead, I went to the bathroom and I had an internal leap for joy when I saw that one of the toilets had an actual seat- a delicacy for Parisian toilets.
To ease my boredom and to stay awake, I walked to the front of the restaurant. I saw that in this overwhelmingly white restaurant, they had posted a black man with medium brown skin in plainclothes at the door for “security”. The door was locked and he peered out, looking for suspicious activity. “Of course they’d put the black guy there,” I thought to myself. I recalled how in the U.S. and Brazil, so many security guards are black men as well.
I walked back to my table. I texted my family in the United States and updated my Facebook status to let friends know that I was safe. I purposefully left out the “for now” part. We had used up all of our conversation over the last several hours. I never wished for a pack of cards more than at that moment. Out of boredom and as a way to distract us, I asked if anyone knew of any games that we could play. One of the women from The Netherlands taught us a children’s hand game that was much like Simon Says but that involved holding fingers against the edge of the table. After a few rounds of that, however, we stopped, likely because we are not easily amused children.
After several hours, we were told that it was safe to leave and the restaurant quickly emptied. Lisbeth, a tall Dutch woman, and me decided that since we were not staying too far from each other, we would share a taxi to get to our destinations. Daphné, a French woman, was with us and the three of us decided to each pay our shares of the bill and leave to catch a taxi. She told us that all taxicabs were free for the evening because of the attacks.
“Who will pay for it?” I asked her.
“The government will pay them because it is a special circumstance, a state of emergency,” she replied.
While I was surprised that the metro did not run 24 hours, like in New York, I realized that the metro was the last place that I wanted to be during terrorist attacks on the city.
We walked down the street and turned right towards where the taxi had initially dropped us off. As we were walking down the street, suddenly, Daphné asked, ‘Where’s Angelica?’ Angelica, an Eritrean-Italian woman, had been indoors with the other women at the restaurant. Abruptly, the two women turned around and walked back to the restaurant. Given my health issues, including two foot surgeries that I was still healing from, I realized that I could not keep up with them. Between the jetlag, foot issues, standing, and walking that I had done all day, my feet were about to give out. The cane that I used was not enough to give me support to walk back to the restaurant and again to the main street to catch the taxi. I did not know what to say as I watched them turn the corner. I stood in place, expecting them to return after a few minutes. When they did not, I walked back to Avenue de la Republique (not knowing that was where the attacks had occurred) to try and hail a taxi by myself. Several taxis drove past me with their red lights on, saying that they were occupied. Apart from the taxis and emergency vehicles, the street was almost deserted.
After ten minutes, I spotted an ATM close to me and realized that cash is always good to have on hand in emergencies. I withdrew 100 euro, looking quickly from left to right to make sure that no one suspicious was nearby. Cash in hand, I walked to the corner to try and hail a cab, once more to no avail. After ten more minutes of doing so, I debated in my head what to do. “Should I walk back to the restaurant? There would at least be more people there.’ Suddenly, I saw a group of four people and started to walk behind them in the direction of the restaurant. Then, feet tired once more, I stopped because I saw taxis. I decided to signal, even for the taxis with red lights. Starting to silently panic, I struggled to remember the verse in Matthew where Jesus urges us not to worry. I tried to remember how God feeds for even the birds of the air and how flowers in the field were more finely dressed than even King Solomon. “But we,” I told myself, “I, am more precious than these.” I also recounted what Mr. Rogers said about in times of tragedy, God always sends helpers. “Where are my helpers, Lord?”
Suddenly two people walked up to me. “Are you okay?” The man asked. It was the couple from the restaurant that had sought shelter from the madness outside. At that moment, I burst into tears. I explained that I did not know what to do.
The blonde guy spoke. “It will be hard to get a taxi but we are not going to leave you here crying by yourself.”
They waited with me as I tried to hail a taxi once more, signaling even for those with their red lights on, as they advised. “Tonight is a special circumstance,” the guy explained.
After patiently waiting a few minutes with me, the guy explained that there was a hotel above the restaurant that we just came from. “I recommend you stay there, just for tonight. We are going to my friend’s house. He lives close by. I would invite you to stay too, but there are already a lot of people and I already asked for my friend to stay with him.” He gestured to the blonde woman that he was with.
After some hesitation, I agreed to walk with them back to the restaurant. I moved slowly and the young woman offered to walk ahead of us to talk to the restaurant owner to see if he could help with getting a room. I kept looking at the dwindling bars on my cell phone, angry at myself for once more forgetting my charger at my friend’s apartment. I wanted to call Christiana, my friend with whom I was staying, to ask for advice. However, I knew it would kill all the battery life on my phone, so I postponed the call for when I had decided what I would do.
The manager, Carlos, agreed to help me get a room at the hotel above the restaurant. He explained in English that hotels were told not to rent to foreigners for the night, but he would help me navigate the hotel manager. “I told them that you are a regular customer,” he explained. The people who brought me to the restaurant anew left to go stay at the guy’s friend’s house for the night, now that I was safe and had accommodation for the night.
The waitresses and the bartender were cleaning the bar and the restaurant and tallying the receipts from the night, speaking quickly to one another. I eyed the IPad that they had used to process payments for the night and asked Carlos if I could charge my phone on the Thunderbolt charger. He quickly agreed and plugged my phone into the charger.
I sat in front of the bar, watching the hustle and bustle of the waitresses and the bartender at the now closed restaurant. I also kept an eye on my phone to make sure it would not disappear. The restaurant bartender walked over to me.
“My friends were at the Bataclan,” he said in English. I told him that I did not know what the Bataclan was. “It’s a concert hall. The Eagles of Death Metal were playing. Several of my friends went to the concert.”
I had never heard of Eagles of Death Metal.
“You remember the band, Queens of the Stone Age?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Well, one of the members of that band formed Eagles of Death Metal.” He continued, “My friends were at the concert. They are okay, but many people are not.”
As I was trying to recall the song by Queens of the Stone Age that I was familiar with, Carlos, the restaurant manager, handed my phone to me. It was at 60%, useful enough for the night, as long as I refrained from looking up newspaper articles about what had happened. He explained that he just had to lock up and that afterwards we would both go to the hotel to rent rooms for the night.
“I am in the same situation, so I am just going to rent a room here for the night.”
All of a sudden, I heard somebody speaking in Spanish with a Castilian accent. I heard the “lispy”-accented Spanish as someone walked out the door, calling to Carlos as they did so. While I could not make out their conversation, I realized that Carlos was a Spanish name and that he was probably from Spain. Having lived in Spain for two years, I became exited.
“¿De dónde eres?” I asked him. Where are you from?
“Spain,” he replied. He quickly pointed out the brunette who was walking past as we spoke. “She is from Brazil,” he said in English.
I became even more excited, since I am writing a book about race in Brazil and lived there on and off for almost a year.
“Você é de onde?” I asked her in Portuguese. Where are you from?
“Brazil,” she responded, in Portuguese.
“Obviously, he just told me that!” I joked. “Where in Brazil?”
“São Paulo,” she answered. I told her that I had lived in the city of São Paulo years ago. As she explained how long she had been living in Paris, I observed the hard r’s that are typical of the interior of her state. We exchanged kissed goodnight. The tall, slender, blonde drunken waitress from earlier gave me wobbly kisses goodnight as well as she exited the building after her shift.
Likely influenced by my conversation with his Brazilian worker, Carlos began to speak to me in Portoñol, a mishmash of Portuguese and Spanish (Español). I became nervous as I realized that only the two of us were in the restaurant at this point. He locked the front door of the restaurant.
“Would you like some cheesecake?” he asked me. “It’s the best cheesecake you ever had!” he pronounced in a heavily accented English. “I will go get some!”
I was nervous about being in a locked restaurant alone with a male stranger. When he emerged from the kitchen with a slice of cheesecake, I felt my inquietude subside a bit. “Here it is! It has two types of lemon,” he said. “The yellow one and the green one!” he exclaimed proudly. Lemon and lime. I understood his conundrum in how to describe the two types of fruit. I immediately recalled the contention among Spanish-speakers for the nomenclature of these two varieties of citrus fruits and was grateful for the lack of ambiguity in English. My mind was going a mile a minute about the lemon versus lime distinction, so I simply nodded as he thrust two slices of his gluten-free chocolate cake on me as well.
“Oh, I’m so stressed!” Carlos exclaimed as he stuffed a slice of his gluten-free chocolate cake into his mouth. I visualized the words “taste-free” in my head as I wielded container that he gave me holding the three slices of baked goods.
After he turned off the lights, Carlos guided me to the right of the front door where there was a side entrance to the hotel lobby.
“It is not a luxury hotel, but it is clean,” Carlos explained as we walked through the door. He repeated himself right before we presented ourselves to the young man with dark hair behind the desk. The young man explained that the room that they had was on the third floor (fourth floor by US standards).
“I will help you up the stairs,” Carlos said, eyeing my cane.
After I paid the 40€ for the room, Carlos offered his arm for support to go up the stairs. “I got it, just hold my bag.” I had been carrying my workbag since the conference and was glad that someone else had to carry it for a little while.
We walked up the stairs and Carlos pointed out the shared toilet on my floor. He also pointed out the shared shower next to my room in case I needed to use it. He opened the door to my room and explained how the key functioned.
Carlos was being extremely kind and helpful. I wanted him out. As kind as he was, I was still extremely guarded about being in a questionable hotel room with a stranger. I took in the sight of the old bed covers on the simple full bed. I placed the baked goods on the desk and thanked Carlos for all of his help.
“You can come down at 11 and I will make us breakfast in the morning,” Carlos offered.
“Great! Thank you so much!” I said as he exited the room. I quickly locked the door.
I immediately took off my sweater and my shoes. At this point, I called my friend Christiana and explained my situation to her. “Just stay there,” she said. “We will come and get you in the morning.” I also called my father to let him know that I was fine and staying in a hotel room for the night. I texted the name and address of the hotel at which I was staying to both Christiana and my family in the U.S. I googled and then called the American Embassy. After reaching an electronic greeting with useless options, I hung up the phone and went to sleep in the hard bed with all of my clothes on. I woke up occasionally, to use the shared bathroom, my own toilet paper roll in hand. However, I slept most of the night. In the morning, I ate Carlos’ cheesecake for breakfast, called a taxi to the hotel, and eagerly reunited with my friend, Christiana. Two days later, I took my direct flight back to Philadelphia as scheduled.
All of my life, especially when abroad, I have relied on the kindness of strangers. I am still incredibly grateful to the random people that I met in Paris who looked out for my well-being. God really did send “helpers” to me in a country where I sound worse than a five year old speaking French. It was not until I was safe in Philadelphia that I allowed mysel to take in the gravity of the situation that I had been in.