They closed the Eiffel Tower.
Everything else here in Paris is closed too, but when the most widely recognized manmade structure and most visited monument in the entire world is completely shut down for three days, well, that's when you know this event and the lives it destroyed aren't just another blip in the news cycle.
I see tourists wandering about in a confused daze, with nowhere to go. Locals congregate in groups familiar and new, filling up the still-open cafes (nothing could ever close down the cafes in Paris!).
But they are talking differently now.
The tones are hushed, raw, somber, torn. Laughter has been replaced with silence. These are grown men now, with red eyes, ugly from crying but who cares, tears running down their stubble as they point at blood on the ground. You hear the question in every heaving sigh: when did the world stop making sense?
The date will be remembered as its own noun. The names of the concert hall, the restaurants, and stadium will forever shift in meaning, something sinister about them now, sounds which carry the weight of lost years.
Although 9/11 took place in two locations, its focus on the Towers have led us to conceive of it as primarily taking place in one part of New York. Friday Night, however, happened all over Paris. It feels different, here on the ground. The multiplicity of attacks makes it feel like everyone was close, was there, is hurting, knew somebody.
I was four blocks away, at a laundromat, oblivious. I folded my clothes and took the short way home (the other route I sometimes take would've put me three blocks away). For some reason I felt like turning in early that night. Now at my hostel, also four blocks away, I sat on the floor and made pleasant conversation with my hostel-mate, a recent graduate from Taijung on a solo traveling adventure. She and I talked of careers, possibilities, pleasing others, customs, travel.
Four blocks away in exactly the same moments, nineteen people were murdered in two adjacent restaurants while probably having similar conversations. An unknown further number were injured or hospitalized.
What staggers me into bafflement is that the universe has space for these two completely different worlds to be happening simultaneously, in almost exactly the same place. I hardly know what to think. I'm reminded of Joyce's description of the sky as a "vast, indifferent dome," always there, forever silent.
I learned of the events early the following morning when the night-shift receptionist wouldn't allow me outside, as per the instructions of the television. There was no functioning bus or Metro currently, and impromptu refugee encampments had been set up around the city for the millions who couldn't make it home. After an hour I convinced the night guard to let me outside, and I went immediately to the intersection of Rue Bichat and Rue Alibert.
Initial reports state that only those at Le Petit Cambodge, a restaurant, were affected; that is incorrect. Le Carillon, the bar across the street, is just as rent with bullet holes and shattered glass. I arrived before police or news did. Sawdust had been laid down over the square to absorb the blood. There was punctured concrete from bullet strafing throughout the entire intersection, and splintered bicycles and motorcycles from the same. Blood pooled on the entry steps to Le Carillon, some of it gristly with the remains of flesh, elsewhere leaking into the crevices and gutters before anyone could bring flowers. It was still wet when I got there.
I was part of a very small group of strangers, and as light came to the morning so did more and more people, with their silences, roses, candles, cameras and consternation. We staggered around each other, stupid and raw. No matter what we did, or where we looked, at the evidence of violent death, at the spaces between each other, up to the unblinking sky... what was the name of this thing that had happened here, just a few hours ago?
Death disorients us because it is enormous. We're so good at focusing on what is small in life. This has significant and obvious dangers (not being thankful, namely), but I wonder if this tendency carries a silver lining. For it is only because of our amazing ability to forget how near death always is that we get anything done in life.
We get up in the morning and throw ourselves into matters of varying importance. We have some unique sense which lets us forget about imminent mortality as we continue the Search, the Great Search for happiness and meaning, the quest in which we do the dumbest and the smartest of things, feeling our way in the dark towards the answers.
Because the successes we find along the way are worth it, whether we live another hour, or for a hundred years.
Also: I was woken up this morning by none other than CNN, calling on behalf of my friends and family, asking if I was alive and unharmed. I am. Thank you ever so much for such an outpouring of concern. It means a tremendous deal. My heart goes out to- well, everyone, but especially those were happy before Friday Night, and cannot be now.
Information on the events and some of what we've been going through here.
Thoughts on the same, with hindsight: Paris, One Year Later: A Personal Perspective
Photographs of mine in the hours and days afterward: Death in Paris