Je Suis Charlie

Story by Nicole Sims
Photos by Lisa Setyon and Nicole Sims

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While I sat at the Charles De Gaulle Airport that morning, many thoughts went through my head. Probably the first one being to email my family and let them know I’d made it to Paris safe, then excitement. I was in a beautiful place out of the country for the first time, but a lingering feeling of nervousness stuck with me for the new experiences I would have. I wasn’t sure what to expect, however as I sat there waiting for Lisa Setyon to pick me up, I would have never thought that my vacation would coincide with a devastating piece of history.

While Lisa and I sat on the train nostalgically discussing our past semester at school, the conductor made an announcement, and I came to the realization that the language barrier would be inevitable. However as the announcement ended, many people got up from their seats and left the train, which at first seemed strange to me. As I looked to Lisa for clarification, she told me that someone died and the train would not be running anymore. Ironically I thought, “This would happen when I come,” not knowing the true severity of what was happening just a stop away.

After taking a cab and arriving at Lisa’s house, I took a nap, only to be woken up by a concerned email from my grandma about something that had happened in the city. A quick Google search told me the rest. I was shocked by the images of masked men running in the city with guns, the video of them murdering a policeman in broad daylight, and reading the terrifying details of what happened at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters just hours after I’d landed.

I remember thinking it was interesting that I didn’t find out about this first as opposed to my grandma ,who was over 6,500 miles away. I remember thinking that if the same event happened in America, the entire city would be shut down. There would be panic and fear, and not the smiling faces, bustling movement and incessant chatter that filled the air near the train exit we’d left earlier that day. The beautiful image of Paris I’d always imagined was slowly shadowed by the realization that I was watching something terrifying that was, for once, a lot closer to me than on my television in America.

Unsure of how the rest of my trip would go, I decided the best thing to do was to follow the lead of Lisa, which was that everything would be fine and not to worry… and I listened. It was easier to fall into this mindset than to worry about what else could happen, or even acknowledge the terrorists hadn’t been caught. Although this remained in the back of my mind, I choose to enjoy my first night in Paris with some new friends. Uncertainty melted in the laughter and cocktails that we shared. The streets and trains flowed as usual, and that night as I lay comfortably in bed, I hadn’t forgotten about the attacks, but at least in the moment all sense of fear seemed to drift a little further away.

The next morning, I was awakened by a message from Lisa telling my about another murder, although it wasn’t confirmed that this attack was related to Charlie Hebdo. The realization that the terror wasn’t yet over was all too real, especially after learning that the attack happened just stops away from the nearest train station. Not knowing if the attacks were linked, and furthermore what else might happen before the suspects were caught was terrifying. In a way, I was of two minds, thinking about how my family would likely react compared to what I wanted to do. I didn’t want my trip to end so soon, but knew it wouldn’t be fair to leave my family in a panic with every new development. However, I decided to stay, and settled on more emails and phone calls ensuring them I was safe, and even more so telling them about what’d I’d done and the fun I’d had.

That day, there was an increased presence of police carrying large guns near shopping centers and inside train stations, which was reassuring, but allowed fear to niggle back into my mind. What happened that day seemed to put more people on edge… but life went on along with the shops and many sales that still attracted large crowds on the streets of the Champs Elysées. Again, I found it easier to go along with acting like nothing would, or even could happen at the places we went, although I knew this was unreasonable. Later that day, Lisa and I agreed to march in memory of those that were killed, despite the terrorists not being apprehended.

As that night faded into another day and later afternoon, the developments of the men being killed was welcomed news, and in a shortened way justice was carried out. The news also added more meaning and clarity to the march that we would be participating in. Much like the nights I spent with Lisa’s family watching the news together, there was a feeling of comfort, safety and in a way, being a part of a new family in the absence on my own. That feeling would return immensely while days later I witnessed train cars that were so packed, we had to wait for cars that had space to board. Thousands of heads swarmed out of the station waiting in herds to exit and join the march with signs, gloves and scarves in hand.

That morning I didn’t have any doubts or fear about an attack on the march, and maybe I should’ve. However once we arrived, that feeling drifted away into the solidarity that radiated in the air. Walking alongside such a multitude that came from so many backgrounds was inspiring. As I looked around taking pictures to capture my own slice of history above the balcony I remember thinking, “I was here.” The march was the peaceful culmination of renouncing hatred, and sharing a united love.