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November 19, 2015

While you were away

Paris becomes a second home for study abroad students, but how will things change moving forward from the attacks?

It’s amazing how in times of tragedy and their subsequent mourning, the two polar ends of humanity intertwine.

Right before 10 p.m. in the Bataclan concert hall on Rue Voltaire, lovers pecked cheeks and noses and mouths. Old French friends greeted one another with a bises on each cheek, while Americans stuck with handshakes or hugs. New acquaintances shouted, “Nice to meet you!” over a sea of concert sounds as their friends introduced them to their friends and their friends’ friends. Rebellious teenagers snuck in bottles of beer and smoked a joint or two. Kisses, joy, good music, and too much cigarette smoke permeated the room.

Right before 10 p.m., three unknown men barged into the hall, shooting indiscriminately into the crowd. Singing became shrieking, and laughing turned to screaming. Lovers broke their embraces and shielded each other as the “pop pop pop” of bullets halted a performance that would never resume.

Why?

In the dictionary, humanity is defined in two ways: 1. human beings collectively and 2. the quality of being humane; benevolence. This double definition implies an intertwining of the two things: humans and benevolence are inseparable. But are we, humanity, naturally good? Do we have the inclination to do good and to love and to be kind?

The night of November 13 juxtaposed the two ends of humanity’s spectrum: hatred and love, anger and peace. But I still firmly believe that our natural state of being is that of goodness.

A great perk of studying abroad in Paris is that I have the opportunity to travel nearly every weekend. The hour the attacks occurred, I landed in Heathrow. In line to clear customs, I connected my phone to WiFi and instantly received texts from my two high school best friends.

9:21 p.m. “Are you okay?”

9:22 p.m. “Please tell me you’re alright.”

I stared at my screen, genuinely puzzled, and shoved my phone in my back pocket as I handed my passport to the woman at counter 23 of border control. And without once breaking eye contact, she scanned my passport and spewed out a string of interrogative questions that rubbed me the wrong way.

“What are you doing in Paris?”

“I’m a student.”

“What are you studying in Paris?”

“I’m, uh, undecided, but maybe...political science.”

“How long are you studying in Paris for?”

“Just until the middle of December.”

“What are you doing in London?”

“Visiting a friend.”

“When do you go back to Paris?”

“Uh, at the end of this week.”

My friend and I met up on the other end of the room, both a little weirded out, both asked the same set of questions. Maybe it was just procedure.

And that’s when I got the text message from my high school friend.

“I’m only wondering because there was a shooting in Paris.”

Shit. I was just in Paris an hour and a half ago.

And then message after message started flooding my phone. Notifications from BBC, Yahoo, and CNN kept popping up on my lock screen. BREAKING NEWS: Shooting in Paris.

I pulled out my laptop and immediately started getting the gist of what was happening. It wasn’t one attack. It was two. Then three. And four. And each news organization reported a death toll that climbed each time I refreshed the page.

Paris was under attack.

It’s a really strange sensation when your home becomes the focus of uninterrupted breaking news. There are 57 undergraduate students studying abroad with me in Paris this quarter, many of whom hang out near the areas that were under attack. The Oberkampf metro, one of the first reported areas to be under attacked, is where my friends and I go to explore Parisian bars. The Petit Cambodge, where a shooter opened fire on a tranquil setting, is a popular restaurant that more than a handful of my friends have eaten at in the past week.

So what will it be like when I return to Paris in less than a week and inevitably pass the spots where people were gunned down? How will I deal with this fear and anxiety?

I believe that fear elicits both sides of humanity, the good and the bad. Fear drives us to do hateful things. But fear also drives us to act in solidarity. A friend of mine sat trapped in a bar under lockdown for five hours, a mile away from the Bataclan. And in the early hours of the morning, helpful strangers paid for his hotel room because all public transportation halted. The ‪#‎PorteOuverte hashtag, meant to welcome strangers without a place to stay, flooded Twitter feeds when numerous corpses draped in blankets and sheets laid in the street.

Paris endured a literal hell on earth, while I was on vacation. I felt completely removed and yet directly affected all at once.

After this tragedy, we’re keeping all of France and the French people in our thoughts. That includes the foreigners killed, the travelers, and the tourists. We tend to think about people being united in relation to a cultural or national identity, but there’s always a gray area. Even just as a visitor, this tragedy has affected me so profoundly—I’ve come to view Paris as a second home. I’m not sure what I will find when I return.

Brooke White is a second-year in the College majoring in political science.

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