By Marianne Camerer
The Paris police said stay put where you are, don’t go out unless absolutely necessary. The streets were starting to empty. My hotel was about a 20-minute walk away from the Odeon restaurant where my Parisian friend, Pierre, and I were having supper.
Should we take a back street to my hotel, I wondered? Would that be safer?
We sat there glued to our phones.
I live in Cape Town, I was in Paris for the launch of a new partnership programme on African leadership development.
A few minutes earlier, as we were ordering food, Pierre took a call from his mother asking if he was okay. “If my parents call, something must be wrong,” he said. His parents told him there had been an explosion and 80 000 spectators were holed up. But Pierre reassured me: “We are safe Marianne, that is in the north.”
But now there was an unconfirmed report of a shooting at Les Halles, near the Louvre. This was closer to us.
I started looking up Google maps, the stadium and the hashtag #ParisAttacks were already trending with 60 000 tweets. I learnt there had also been a shooting in the east at a restaurant near where the Charlie Hebdo attack had taken place in January. “What is the Bataclan?’ I asked Pierre. “There seems to be a hostage incident underway.”
The tables around us seemed oblivious to the terror unfolding. But gradually we could see calls coming in, people starting to leave. Our food arrived, but I had lost my appetite.
It was almost midnight in South Africa. I posted a note on my family WhatsApp group. “I am in Paris and I am fine.” Of course, who wouldn’t be fine being in Paris on a Friday night? I did the same on Facebook and also checked in my location.
I called my husband in Cape Town. It was late and he sounded dozy. He tuned into the international news on television and started telling us more than we knew sitting in Paris. There were multiple terrorist attacks, at six different locations. Somehow I needed him to know where I was all the time.
I told Pierre we needed to move — I need to get back to the relative safety of my hotel room. But it would be almost three hours before I would get back to my hotel.
With no visible taxis on the street, Pierre found an electric Autolib car to unplug — “the future” is what he called this mode of transport. The car was about 200m away, across the road, towards the Louvre. We got the bill and left quickly. I hadn’t started to shake yet.
I found myself directing Pierre to my hotel.
The rest of that long night, where Paris woke up to a state of emergency, is a bit of a blur.
At my hotel, I talked intermittently to my husband. I could only tune into local French TV, which I couldn’t fully understand. I kept connected on Facebook. I wrote my colleagues an email titled, Paris. “I’m OK. They have just announced that the borders are closed. I am not sure what this means for flying home Sunday night. I will keep you posted.”
Then the shaking started – my entire body was trembling.
I had a bath to try and stop the shaking. I took some rescue remedy. I tried to rest. My twin sister responded to the WhatsApp message at around 3am South African time. Now she too knew I was okay, and could reassure my seven-year-old son when she saw him. I tried to sleep, but kept my phone on next to me on the pillow. At 6am I called home. I wanted my son, who often watches television alone on Saturday mornings, while we sleep in, not to worry about me when he saw Paris on the news and soldiers on the streets. The message would be: “Mommy is fine. Something happened in Paris, but I am OK. And I will see you soon.”
How much do we tell our children? His favourite book is The Fireboat, which I bought at the World Trade Centre memorial. It tells the story of the John J Harvey fireboat that played a heroic role in the 9/11 attacks by spraying water from the Hudson River when the water pipes at ground zero had burst. He knows the book by heart.
President Francois Hollande appeared on television. He was visibly shaken talking of the horror, announcing a state of emergency and the closure of the borders. Three days of national mourning were declared with all public spaces closed.
Downstairs the concierge was on the phone which was ringing off the hook: “Yes, there are a lot of controls. Yes, it is fine to cancel. No, we won’t charge you.”
I called friends who live near the Eiffel Tower, not far from where I had walked two nights earlier. Then it had lit up the skyline. Passing the National Assembly, the streets were empty and flags were flying at half-mast. Two army trucks with fatigue covers were outside and soldiers with machine guns were guarding the length of the building. Overnight, France had become a country at war with a state of emergency imposed that gave powers to an already fearful government responsible for delivering on the French values of liberty, equality and fraternity — values literally emblazoned on every public building.
Over breakfast I met the son of my friends. He was off to play tennis, not cancelled, and would then later attend a kiddie’s birthday party. His mother told me it takes a few minutes for a school of several hundred pupils to descend into a bunker from the Second World War. This is now a regular security drill.
I recalled my own school drills for security threats in apartheid South Africa; bells, whistles, under the table, away from the windows, parents patrolling the perimeters of the school. It was just part of life.
The taxi took me back to the hotel. I charged my phone, the most vital link to the outside world. I checked in with my family. There were now 10 million tweets for #ParisAttacks. The world had woken up.
I had to move hotels at noon and summoned the courage to walk 200m with a suitcase, across the road. In the new hotel, I locked the door, ran a bath, put on the local news, and relentlessly searched Twitter. I was exhausted and shaking. I finally allowed tears to come.
The brasserie on the corner was open. Visitors and locals squashed at tables, as described so accurately in Ian McEwan’s post on Paris. I ordered quiche lorraine and a glass of wine. Next to me were a couple from Shanghai on a round-the-world trip. A weekend in Paris was their final destination before flying to New York for Thanksgiving. We talked, and not only about what was unfolding in Paris, in hospitals and in the investigation. We covered the student uprisings in China that culminated in Tiananmen Square, the demands of student movements in South Africa, where were you on 9/11, and the experience of being in the place where an event is happening, rather than observing it on television.
Being there, here, present, is strangely easier than being away. There is a calmness in the eye of the storm. Until you shift focus from being present and get caught up in the external drama and the reality that it could have been you. Until the shaking comes, and the awareness of the clenched jaw.
Watching sport, sitting outside on a café, gathering for a music concert, everyday activities are now laced with fear. Clichéd couples in romantic Paris now cling to each other, uncertain of which table to sit at. Is inside safer?
Flying home on Air France on Sunday evening was an act of faith as the fear came in waves.
I am not a Catholic, but I joined in the early 9am mass at Saint-Germain-des-Pres on Sunday morning. The picture of the stained glass window I had taken Thursday morning, when I first arrived in Paris, now seemed from another lifetime. Flowers placed there for November 11 remembered the dead from another war. I lit a candle and said a prayer. During the mass, the peace was shared, with strangers, reaching out to each other, in solidarity. For a moment, I stopped shaking.
Marianne Camerer lives in Cape Town.