Thursday morning, Tommy, Hailee and I set out for London. It’s a weird feeling, but going to London seems normal now. Despite the level of comfort I now feel there, it was still exciting. We walked all around the city, saw Yoda in Trafalgar Square, almost ran into the Indian Prime Minister, and pretended we were part of the Beatles at Abbey Road. We ate diner at a nice little pub, felt really poor as we wandered through Harrod’s, then headed to the bus station.
Our 9:30 bus would get us into Paris at 6:30am. A horrible trek, but we’re cheap college kids so overnight buses are perfect. Ouibus takes the route to Paris via the Chunnel. This was going to be a first for me since my previous trips across the English Channel have been by ferry. The Chunnel was not fun. I don’t think I got a normal experience because I was on a bus. But, The Chunnel on a bus is not fun. The entire bus drives into a train car, and that train then goes through the Chunnel. Unfortunately, this means that I was sitting on a bus, engine off, no air, closed windows, trapped inside a train car, going underwater. The walls of the train car were about a foot away from the windows of the bus. It was a tight, uncomfortable, stuffy ride. The only plus side is that it is much quicker than the ferry.
I knew there would be culture shock, but we weren’t prepared. When we got off the bus, it smacked us in the face. We walked in the bus station and tried to figure out where we were going. Fortunately the station had 20 minutes of free wifi so I was able to look up how we were supposed to get to our airbnb. But, there’s a difference in knowing where you’re supposed to go and actually knowing how to get there. The atms and ticket machines were in French. The Metro signs were difficult to understand. The lady working the snack stand didn’t speak english. We were total foreigners. Luckily another American was riding the same struggle bus as us and we all finally found the Metro station we needed. The M14 took us about half the distance to our room. When we got out, we were inside a huge mall where we wandered for about 15 minutes trying to find the correct exit, or really just any exit. Luckily we finally found it and slowly made our way. The streets weren’t completely empty, but you could tell the city was just waking up. It’s such a strange and almost unsettling feeling to walk around and have no clue what anyone around you is saying. But, at the same time it’s fascinating. (I’ve developed a new appreciation for language since coming to Europe. It amazes me that there are so many ways to say the same things. The syllables that sound like gibberish to me are articulate and meaningful.) Finally, we made it to 29 Rue de Gravilliers. Our airbnb host had told Tommy that she hid a key outside her door for us to get in since she wouldn’t be there. Upon arrival we noticed one small issue. We needed a code to get into the building before we could even look for the hidden key. Since we’re all foreigners, we don’t have cell service and are totally dependent on wifi. So, we searched for wifi. After roaming around a bit, we found a Starbucks. (Say what you want about Starbucks, concerning their cup design or the quality of their coffee, but I will always love them because they are an international wifi savior.)
We quickly messaged Aly, our host, to get the door code only to realize that she had sent it to us but we didn’t see it. Go us. We walked back, got inside, cleaned up a bit, and tried to plan our day. We knew the general location of Notre Dame, and decided it would be our first stop (after food). You know how Paris is always shown in movies as this magical, enchanting city of love and charm? It’s true. Just walking the streets in the morning, breathing in that Parisian air, seeing the cute little stores and cafes put a smile on my face. Yes, our morning had a little bit of a rocky start, but we were in Paris! Following the instructions of Levi Leet, I got a fresh baguette for breakfast and we ate as we walked to the Cathedral. Notre Dame is breathtaking. When I go home, I will greatly miss the expertise in architectural detailing that I’ve seen these past few months. We made a few Hunchback jokes, took note of the huge stereotypical Asian tourist groups (which Tommy pretended to be a part of), and got in line to go inside. Touring cathedrals has been one of my favorite tourist things. They are so hugely different to our modern churches, and it’s so cool to see how closely connected the Church is to so many of the major events of global history. This is the first cathedral I’ve been in that had confessionals actively running for visitors. I’m sure it’s got to be a huge deal to say that you went to confession at the Notre Dame Cathedral. And, I fell in love with the stained glass windows as I do in every cathedral we visit.
After Notre Dame we set out for Love Lock Bridge (Pont des Arts). We arrived at a little deck that hangs out on the Seine, and it was covered in locks. It was definitely not what I was expecting, but we stopped and took pictures anyway. We continued walking and approached 2 more bridges also covered in locks, the past of which was real deal. Because the Love Lock Bridge is so famous, the original one has been mostly removed because the weight of the locks was destroying the bridge. So, people have spread out to many other locations to express their eternal love. At most of the bridges we encountered some sketchy people. I was warned about them before going to Paris and knew we would run into them. Gypsies and pick-pockets. They walk up to you, get right in your face, asking if you speak English and if you want to sign their petitions and donate to their cause. While the main person distracts you, others go around and try to lift stuff off of you. The people we came upon were trying to raise money and awareness in support of deaf and mute children, some even going so far to pretend they were mute themselves. They were very pushy and difficult to avoid.
From there we decided the Eiffel Tower was our next stop. We wanted to take the Metro but got mixed up and turned around and ended up just walking. The walk took about 40 minutes, but thankfully it was scenic. Let’s be real, all of Paris is scenic. We simply followed the curve of the Seine. We walked by a few big sites like the Lourve, Musee d’Orsey, Hotel des Invalides, and Pont Alexandres III, but were ok to pass by because we planned on seeing them the next day. (Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.)
It was like a treasure hunt. As we walked towards the Tower we would get little peeks between buildings and trees, growing as we got closer and closer.
The Eiffel Tower is huge. Like, enormous. Way bigger than I imagined. So big.
When we walked up to it, we just kind of stood there and looked around, and of course took a billion pictures. It was like a little city all by itself. We thought about going up into the tower, but expected it to be really expensive. Thankfully, we thought wrong. So, 6 euros later, we started our climb. There are 3 different levels, the first two are accessible by stairs and the third only by elevator. I think it’s just about 700 steps. It felt like 70000000. But, I wouldn’t trade the trek for anything. It was a weird feeling, almost like being outside and inside at the same time. As we climbed higher and higher I could see the view changing. My excitement to reach the top was louder than the screaming of my leg muscles. The views from the tower were spectacular. Everything was so small but still felt so big. Our timing was perfect as we stood in the tower just before sunset. The entire city looked golden and gleaming. We looked out and tried to retrace our steps and see all the places we had already been. Following the recommendation of our friends who had already come to Paris, we wanted to eat macaroons at the Eiffel Tower because it doesn’t get any better than that. We didn’t notice any bakeries on our walk to the tower, but we got something even better. There is a macaroon shop on the 2nd level of the Tower itself. So, we ate macaroons on the Eiffel Tower while looking out of the entire city of Paris in golden hour. It was a dream. I can’t think of anything that would have made those moments any better. We wanted to take the elevator up to the very top, but didn’t realize that you had to buy tickets for that at the bottom. So, we got our fill of selfies and took in as much Paris view as we could, then began our 700 step descent. Without knowing all that the next 24 hours would present, I am so thankful we made this a priority in our first day or sightseeing. I would have been crushed if we didn’t get to do this.
By this time, we were hungry and trying to plan the rest of our night. Originally we were going to head to Musee d’Orsey after the tower since it closed at 6. But, we didn’t realize how much time we were going to devote to the Tower and didn’t have time to see the museum before it closed. So, we went to dinner at a cute little restaurant, paid way too much money for what I didn’t realize was just fancy mac&cheese, then headed to the Arch de Triumph. This was another sight where I wasn’t really sure what to expect. But, my dad specifically requested a picture of me at the Arch so we had to go. We took the Metro, got out, and boom. There it was. Once again, just like the Tower, way bigger than I was expecting. It is sort of on its own little land island in the middle of busy roads, so we were a good distance away. But, we saw people right at the base of the Arch and wanted to try and get there. We saw an opening to a tunnel that had a sign for the Arch and went down thinking it would take us to the monument. When we got out on the other side, the Arch was behind us instead of in front. The tunnel took us directly under and past it. Apparently you have to pay to go through a separate path that takes you directly to the Arch, so we missed that.
Shooting out straight from the Arch is the Champs-Elysees, so we walked all the way down this famous stretch of Paris enjoying the extravagant Christmas market that is already set-up and full of life. At the end of the road was the Roue de Paris, the huge ferris wheel that gives a beautiful view of the city. Of course we paid too much money and waited in too long of a line and nearly froze to death, because we’re tourists and we wanted to do it all. The timing of our day was really perfect because the Tower gave us a city view during the day, and the Roue de Paris gave us our nighttime view. By this time it was getting late, we were cold, exhausted, and ready to get some rest before day 2. We took the Metro back to the apartment and sighed with relief when we were finally sitting in warmth with our shoes off and heavy packs off our backs.
Then, the night really began.
Our phones starting blowing up. My family was asking if I was safe. People were texting me to make sure I was alive. We had no idea what was happening.
I don’t even really remember what we heard about first. I just know that in a matter of moments my feelings of rest and relaxation vanished. Hailee fell asleep quickly (lucky) while Tommy and I stayed up talking with people back home. Of course, our parents were stressing, we were being bombarded with questions that we couldn’t answer, we still didn’t really know what was going on, and it was impossible to keep up with the constant messages to confirm our safety. From around 11pm-4am all we heard outside were constant sirens and horns. Knowing what I know now, and how close we were to the main attack, I am so thankful that’s all we heard. Sirens I could handle. Gunshots and screaming are another level of terror. I would have panicked. We tried to look online and keep up with the massive flow of information, but much of what we found was obviously in French, so we heavily relied on our friends and family back home to keep us up to date on the news.
It’s hard to put into words what I was feeling. It’s all God’s grace, but I didn’t fear for my life. I wasn’t afraid. I was extremely tense, very nervous, and really unsettled. As I rapidly texted, I could feel my hands shake and my legs would twitch. Sitting still was impossible. I was running on pure adrenaline. As the night went on, it became very clear how serious the situation was. This wasn’t a random act of violence. This was a terrorist attack. We were in the middle of a war. It felt surreal. And it still does. The one weekend, possibly in my whole life, that I go to Paris, this happens. I don’t say this as a self pity “poor me, my weekend in Paris got ruined” kind of thing. I just can’t wrap my mind around it. These events are happening around the world way too frequently. But this is the first time that it has happened so close to me. Yes, 9/11 closely impacted me because I am an American, but this was different. It was a different kind of close. Not just emotionally, but physically.
The reports continued. The death count grew. The night turned to morning. Sleep wasn’t a priority. News came in that the French borders had been closed and the country was under a state of emergency. This brought up a whole new issue because we were scheduled to leave the next night. Eventually I realized that I wasn’t going to change anything by staying awake on social media, so around 4am I finally fell asleep.
The next day was more of the same. We were planning on Saturday being our museum day, including the Lurve, Musee d’Orsey and then going to the Sacre Coeur and Montmarte. Obviously, that didn’t happen. The government had requested that everyone stay indoors as much as possible. All the major tourist attractions, including the Eiffel Tower, were closed. So, we stayed inside. Thankfully, our airbnb host, Aly, came home, made us breakfast, and helped us stay up to date on all the news. We’ve been saying that she was our Parisian Angel because she really was an answer to prayer. It was so comforting to have the presence and opinions of a local at a time when we were feeling so disconnected.
Our bus was scheduled to leave at 11:30pm so we had quite a long day of just sitting and waiting. In early evening we went outside for a bit, walked down as close as we could get to the Bataclan (the surrounding roads were all closed off and guarded), got some dinner from a local supermarket, then went to a little newsstand and souvenir shop. If you asked me on Thursday, I would not have said that my main souvenir from my weekend in Paris is a newspaper about terrorism. But, it is. And I’ll keep it forever. The streets weren’t totally empty, but they definitely weren’t busy. There was an eerie silence that covered the streets. Possibly from fear, discomfort, or respect. Probably all three. I know we were all thinking about the same things, so there just wasn’t a need to say anything.
The walk/ride to the bus station was a bit unsettling. The streets and Metro stations were patrolled by a great number of police and soldiers. And all of them were very openly carrying big automatic weapons. At one point we had to stop and ask one of them for directions. It was the most intimidating thing. I thought Tommy was going to pass out while talking to them. They were really tall so the guns resting on their chests were basically face-level for us. It was both terrifying and comforting. If we were intimidated merely by their presence, other people (maybe bad people) would be too.
The drive home was very uneventful, and for that I’m so thankful. Crossing the borders was a breeze and not at all what we were expecting. The only thing we can think of is that perhaps the borders between countries that are normally unguarded are the ones where heavy security went. Since traveling between France and the UK already has typical border patrol, I guess it was considered secure enough.
Even while typing all of this, I still can’t really explain how I feel. During the events of Friday night/ Saturday morning, I felt like I was stuck in a twilight zone. I felt really close, but still so far. I’m not French. These weren’t “my people” getting attacked. This wasn’t my home town, my neighborhood, my neighbors. At the same time, I wasn’t home in America, or even England, watching the events unfold from a safe distance. I was there. I didn’t know how to respond. Do I react with the horror as if this was my home too? Do I stay calm and look at this through the lens of a foreigner?
No, these weren’t my people. But they were people. Ultimately my nationality paled in comparison to my humanity. The terrorists didn’t care about race or gender or age, and neither did the people of Paris. When people were told to get off the streets, homes opened their doors to random strangers. Because in situations like this, there are no strangers. Just people. I am blown away by the love and consideration shown by the people of Paris during these dark few days. It was shown personally to us through our host, but it was also so evident in the city in general.
I have no idea why it was part of God’s plan to have me there in Paris on this specific weekend, but I trust He’ll show me eventually. I didn’t get my weekend in Paris that I had planned, but I got something else. A painful and all to real reminder of how beautiful and sacred life is. So many innocent lives were taken just miles from where I was, yet mine was spared. If we had been out just 20 minutes later, we easily could have been swept up in the madness. What if we had chosen to go to one of those restaurants or bars? I can’t imagine.
I don’t have some insightful piece of advice on how to handle the the challenges our world now faces in regards to refugees and war. I don’t know how we are going to respond as a nation. But I do know that we, as Christians, are called to love. We are called to be the hands and feet. For so long, the middle east has been an area where it is very difficult and dangerous to send missionaries. Now, all these people, hopeless and scared, are coming to us. Yes, bringing them into our country opens the door to many risks and unknown dangers. But, it also opens the door for many lost and searching people to hear the Gospel.
This past weekend has been convicting, opening my eyes to how little I actually pray for the world. We hear about horrors happening around “the world” all the time, and “the world” feels really distant until you’re actually in it. I was in the world this weekend, and the world needs Jesus. It needs His love, His hope, His mercy, and His grace. And we need to show it.
Vive La France.