- - Monday, November 23, 2015

Just six weeks ago I was sitting in one of my favorite Paris cafes under a pure blue September sky. My friends and I ordered drinks, made fun of my terrible French accent, laughed, Instagrammed pictures of our food and of each other. We watched the world walk by as we sipped wine on la terrasse, the famous French patio. All Parisians are natural-born anthropologists, observing the city from a seat on the terrace.

Today, I’m in a Paris I barely recognize. Everyone is guarded and on edge. My plane landed five days after the Nov. 13 massacre, and I feel the difference immediately. I see it on every face, the stress visible in the eyes of my neighbors. The patios are empty, the sidewalks are bare. Paris has changed.

As I stood in line at the Franprix supermarket my first day in Paris, I felt the heaviness of the city. People walk in and scan the faces in the store. Is it safe? Is something bad going to happen here today? I travel here frequently, and this was all foreign to me — the Paris I knew was never this tense. I was astonished to see it in the eyes of everyone around me. No one wanted to congregate. I began to feel deeply uncomfortable. This little store in the 5th Arrondissement is probably not a target, but who knows?

Had I made a terrible mistake coming here so soon?

Walking home with my groceries, I noticed how desolate the streets were. There were more police on the sidewalks that morning than pedestrians. For those first few days, no one sat outside watching the world walk by over a steaming cup of coffee. The monuments were the same — the glass pyramid of the Louvre as beautiful as always — but when I passed by midday on Friday, there was no line, unheard of on a weekend in November. It was so shocking I stopped to take a photo of the missing crowd, a snapshot of what was not there.

And that is the knife of terrorism — a savage act meant to create fear and discomfort that seeps into your smallest activities. Even going to the grocery store becomes stressful. Travelers worry. People start to rethink their plans. Vacations get canceled, locals order pizza for delivery instead of going out for dinner, everyone hovers in wait-and-see mode.

On the Friday night marking a week since the attacks, I asked a Parisian friend to go with me to the site of the cafe shooting. I needed to bear witness to what had happened. There is something powerful about simply standing there, refusing to stay home with the door locked.

Parisians must have felt the same, because cars jammed the streets of the 10th Arrondissement that evening.

For the first time in days, I saw sidewalks crowded with people moving quietly down the streets. They walked alone and in pairs up to the steps of the cafes, around the Place De La Republique, and up the street past the wide police barrier outside the Bataclan, the theater where so many were killed that terrible night. Large gatherings in public have been banned under the state of emergency, but people simply could not stay home.

Coming to terms with evil

Flowers and candles soggy from the rain surrounded the dark cafes. I watched as a woman walked to the edge of the sidewalk and placed a single rose on the pile of flowers now knee-high. People brought candles, notes and bouquets. Some stood quietly to observe, some took pictures. Everyone was there to bear witness, to come to terms with the evil, trying to understand why jihad is being waged here, on the streets of Paris.

The terrorists know that the fear comes from striking us in the most banal places. The cafes that were attacked were little neighborhood restaurants. It is the equivalent of someone walking into your local lunch counter with a machine gun and a suicide vest. These are not places of war — no soldiers or governments or religious regimes are at work. The targets were filled with students and parents and ordinary Parisians listening to music, drinking coffee, eating dinner, checking in on Facebook or Instagram.

We didn’t stay long at the site Friday night. It was too hard, and as the crowd got thicker, you could feel the tension again.

Even so, passing the one-week mark felt significant somehow. Saturday morning was cold and rainy and the streets of Paris were bare for November. But by midday you could see people returning to the cafes. Families with small children paused outside the Christmas display at the Galeries Lafayette. Young boys resumed their posts on the Rue de Rivoli selling umbrellas and chestnuts and Eiffel Tower key chains to passing tourists. Life must be lived. Life must go on.

It’s Sunday now in Paris, and you can see life struggling to return to normal. The French and Americans have a lot in common: We both love our lifestyles, our countries, our families, our routines. I’m glad I did not cancel this trip. I’m glad that, even though I was scared, I got on the airplane anyway. I’m glad that tonight I had hot chocolate outside on la terrasse. Having a warm drink on a patio is not particularly brave, but it felt like an act of defiance. Defiance may be the only weapon an ordinary person like me has — a choice, a way to keep life the same.

But, of course, Paris is not the same. Life has been forever changed. It is naive to hope this terrible series of events won’t have consequences. For me 9/11 happened so long ago that the changes it brought are the new normal. I can barely remember what it was like to have your family meet you at the airport gate or remember a time when you could pack your favorite shampoo in a carry-on bag. I am used to “See something, say something!” and standing in long lines at airport security stops. I grew up like that. It makes me sad to think of the Bataclan Generation and, all the small, innocent freedoms now lost to the French because of these savage attacks.

Yes, life in Paris will continue; of course it will. This is Paris, after all. But will it ever be the same?

Laurie Perry is a writer and Francophile living in Los Angeles.

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