A letter from France


Proximity — both physical and emotional — affected how the community where I am living in has experienced the Paris attacks of the past week. Physically, I have some distance. I’m living about three hours outside of Paris living in Cesson-Sévigné and going to school in Rennes, studying abroad for the school year. Since my arrival in September, I’ve built steadily stronger connections with France. Yesterday, while discussing the Paris attacks, a classmate remarked that we are between cultures: Our American identities are intertwining with our new French ones. This perspective builds a particular environment for dealing with the recent tragedies. Our non-native viewpoint allows for a more objective, sometimes slightly distant perspective. Simultaneously, our personal connections to this new home create an environment of deeper emotional response than we would have had four months ago.

The evening of Friday, Nov. 13, and the dazed early morning of the 14th, were horrific and surreal. My host family and I found out about the attacks when my host mother got home Friday evening. After she filled us in on what she knew, we migrated to the living room. We remained glued to the television for the next several hours, clinging to the news, even though it offered no security.

At first, there were only reports of a shooting in the Paris area. One of my friends described her initial reaction: “An alert popped up on my phone that said there had been a shooting in Paris. I live in New York, so I’m used to hearing about shootings every day, so I almost didn’t even think about it. It’s really kind of sad that we’ve gotten accustomed to hearing about these kinds of things.”

As the tragedies snowballed, however, and as the death toll skyrocketed, everyone who was still awake began to grasp the reality of the attack. One of my friends, who was in Paris that weekend, told me about the aftermath; it was a vivid description of a blank scene. The streets of Paris — normally bright and lively — were almost deserted. Those who did venture out were either disconsolate Parisians or out-of-place tourists who didn’t fully grasp the gravity and pain of the situation.

As a society, the French are often more private about their emotions than Americans. I heard “My host family seemed so calm about the whole thing” many times at school on Monday. Because of this cultural gap, we foreign students sometimes felt at a loss.

“I didn’t know what to do,” one friend told me. “I wanted to hug my host siblings and ask if they were OK, but I didn’t know if that would be weird or out of place.”

The front page of the Saturday-morning newspaper simply stated “L’Horreur,” echoing President Hollande’s address the night of the attacks. Emotions could be felt only dimly, through a haze of shock and confusion. Texts, emails, and messages poured in all night from our American contacts. “I’m OK,” we answered, and mentally added an unspoken P.S.: “but I don’t know if France is.”

France, however, proved her strength and resilience 10 times over.

It’s 7:50 on Wednesday morning as I write this, sitting on a desk in our common room. Around 4:30 this morning, more gunshots and explosions racked the suburb of Saint-Denis, just north of Paris. Although I had no idea what had happened until my host brother turned on the television over breakfast, I woke up to a feeling of uneasiness, as if the heartbeat of France had skipped. Reality once again fell into place as panicky newspeople threw their reports together. The event reminded us that we shouldn’t assume this is over; things can’t snap back to exactly the way they were before the attacks. On Monday, our head of school urged us to be discreet in public, and gently but gravely reminded us to keep the school gate closed.

Outside of France, there has been an amazing affirmation of support from all over the world. The phrases “We’re all French” or “We’re all Parisian,” garnished with a hashtag, have inundated social media. The solidarity behind the messages is beautiful and important, but as France grieves around us, and with us, I am reminded that the attacks of this past week cannot be fully understood from a distance.

Almost immediately following the attacks, the French community rose back up, making everyone wonder if she ever fell down in the first place. “Continuer c’est resister,” she said: To continue is to resist.

Pearl Vercruysse of Aquinnah, a Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School junior, is spending the school year studying in France.