The sun was pouring in through the windows, bluejays were noisily scolding each other in the neighbor’s trees, our little rescue was happily chewing on her favorite squeaky. I was catching up on some reading that had piled up when my phone beeped with the notification that Paris was under attack. One of the shootings had been at Le Carillon and Le Petit Cambodge in the 10th arrondissement not far from Place de la République.
My hands were shaking as I called up Google Maps on my phone. We have very close friends right around the corner from Le Petit Cambodge. The place is actually their six-year old’s favorite hangout. We have had lunch with them there. Never having seen my American grandkids go for soup with such passion, I can still picture the lust with which the little girl had attacked her bobun (a kind of brothy soup) and her dexterity with the chopsticks.
It couldn’t be that very place, right? There had to be another Cambodge somewhere else.
I managed to center the map.
My heart fell. It was their hangout. Their quartier. Their blessed little corner of Paris.
On the map, I could see rue Bichat, a street that we know well for having walked the length of it many times. One I remember fondly for the kindly face and bright smile of the Arab grocer from whom we used to buy fruit in the evening on our way back to our rented apartment.
On the map, I could see Théâtre Laurette where we have seen several plays over the years. Including one in which another friend’s youngest daughter once made her stage debut. The theater is minuscule, so tiny you almost walk straight from the street onto the stage and the actors hang out in front while waiting for the doors to open.
On the map, I could see the canal. Gorgeous but at times very dirty (at night, after a few drinks too many, some find it entertaining to upend garbage cans into its dark and silent water).
An urban village. Shabby chic, as they will later say in the news.
On that bright California afternoon, the sun suddenly went from the sky.
I remembered another Friday, thirty-five months ago almost to the day.
I had to make sure our friends were safe. I knew they had been out for the evening. I also knew they would be walking home from the métro. I tried calling: land line, cell phones. Nobody picked up. I left voice mails. I texted. No reply. More than an hour passed. I couldn’t stop shaking.
I heard from them the minute they got home later that evening. They had been confined behind police barriers, then stuck in the métro with no signal on their cell phones. Their only thought had been to get the six-year old safely back home.
Some families are still waiting to hear, the lack of news both a blessing (there is still hope) and a torture (wouldn’t they have heard if s/he was still alive?). With love and longing, I look at the faces of the victims. They look like all of us. They are all of us. In our wonderful diversity.
A couple of days before the attacks, I met two women who lost their sister in a mass shooting three years ago. Like ours, their grief hasn’t abated. Like us, they still can’t bring themselves to believe their loss is for real and forever.
Last Friday so many new families have joined our fellowship of despair.
And yes, I write about the Paris attacks because Paris is and will forever remain my hometown. When I open my mouth to speak, my voice is the voice of the city, the accent of home. Both in French and in English. On the night of the attacks, I fell asleep listening to a France-Inter podcast, a literary one, unrelated to terrorism. I couldn’t tell you what it was about to save my life. I just listened to the accent. As soothing as a lullaby, it took me back home.
I woke up in the middle of the night, my heart too heavy for my chest. The memory of what had just happened came back in a flash. I tried to fall back to sleep but my thoughts wouldn’t let me. I put my earbuds back on. But this time it was painful. As if I were listening to the waning echoes of an age of innocence. I switched to a mainstream American podcast. The voice of home too.
And don’t think that because I only write about what happened in Paris, I have no feeling for the victims in Beirut, Baghdad, Kunduz or elsewhere. Whatever the weapon of choice, each and every attack on civilians is a monstrosity and a crime against humanity. A few months after we lost our grandson, I remember reading about an entire family wiped out in the Middle East, an entire family save one member. I don’t recall whether it was the mom or the dad who survived. The loss was so horrifying I blocked out the details. But I remember thinking: how does one survive with such pain?
Looking at the faces of the victims, I remember commuting to work through Grand Central Terminal in post-9/11 New York City. Flyers everywhere. People searching for loved ones. I remember being awed by the courage and dignity of my fellow New Yorkers.
Now it is the turn of my people in Paris. Please watch this conversation between a father and his little boy.