I was on the Metro today with several classmates, talking about writing and a lecture we were coming from when a Parisian woman turned to us and said “Do you know that 20 people died?”
Our conversation stopped abruptly. I felt too embarrassed to even exhale. I fiddled with my leopard gloves, passing them back and forth between my hands. She got off at the next stop.
I knew how it must look. A group of five Americans talking loudly and excitedly on a mostly empty train. Didn’t we know that Paris had just suffered a national tragedy, that people were mourning?
Of course I knew that 12 people were murdered by two brothers because of the cartoons they published, and that more died today after being taken hostage.
The nights since the shooting, I’ve walked through République on my way home to look at signs saying “Je Suis Charlie.” Last night there was a circle of tea lights with “Liberte Charlie” inside, and it was so hot standing over it that it made my neck sweat under my Parisian-looking scarf.
Although I’m acutely aware of the charged situation in Paris, I can’t say I have thought it for the whole of my days. I’m here for a 10-day creative writing graduate residency, so today I’ve thought about how to effectively write flashbacks and whether reading Proust will turn me into one of those people who talk about Proust. Yesterday, I looked out my classroom window and saw a man tethered at the waist with a safety rope walking along a nearby peaked rooftop. I thought it was odd he’d be out there, walking through wind gusts to repair someone’s cable when people were just killed. But who I was I to think that because there I was listening to a lecture on French history and drinking French wine. Last night, bistros were packed along the Canal Saint Martin and today at lunch, people stood in line to get a crepe from the father and son storefront on Blvd. Saint Germain.
When us loud Americans had a moment to recover from the shock of being publicly shamed by this woman on the Metro, we thought maybe if she knew we were discussing literature, maybe she would have been less offended by us. Maybe if she had known that we’d also been saddened and scared and worried about our country after a terrorist attack, she wouldn’t have said anything to us. And maybe if we hadn’t been self-conscious about how we think the French see Americans, we might have said something back to her.