We didn’t realize what was happening. My friend M was helping herself to one of my fries, and we were contemplating another Côtes-de-rhône, when five or six police ran past the window of Centreville, on rue de Charonne, where we were having dinner. The Americans at the table next to us continued their conversation but something in the air shifted. As regular diners on this corner, where armed guards are always stationed to protect, I believe, the home of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, we were initially unconcerned by the police presence. But then, the wait staff began to move diners inside from the terrace, and those at the restaurants opposite did the same. The barman was glued to his phone and, all around us, people were checking their smartphones.
When the gendarmes outside took up protected positions and raised their rifles, M and I gathered our things and moved away from the wall-length windows that overlook the intersection with rue Keller, then retreated further into the stairwell towards the toilets. It seemed impossible to believe that such a measure was necessary, but we were not alone in our nervousness. Outside, the tables were filled with half-eaten burgers and half-filled glasses.
We stood, listening to the sirens outside, waiting and wondering. After an hour or so, a waiter printed out our bill and apologetically told us we had to leave. I asked him which route home would be most expedient, but he said he had no idea.
Outside, the street was quieter, but people were moving with apprehension, paused at traffic lights or bunched in restaurant doors, looking furtively up the road, at each other. I spoke to a friend in Sydney, then to my brother in London to get extra details but they knew little more than I did. M decided to walk towards Bastille, so we parted with a double kiss and a promise to text as soon as each got home.
My plan to head east up rue de Charonne was scotched by a roadblock, the street lit up with the strobing blue lights of emergency vehicles. I turned back, unsure of which way to go. At the main intersection, a police officer yelled at us, stray pedestrians, to get off the street. I crossed the road and waited in a recess. Calm again. Heading left down avenue Ledru Rollin, I reached the Métro, which was alive with announcements that République and Filles du Calvaire stations were closed on line eight. A woman asked me if I knew what was happening. On the opposing platform, a knot of twenty-somethings, the usual crowd in the 11th arrondissement on a Friday night, were huddled together. The train came, and my journey passed without incident and without delay.
It wasn’t until I was back on the couch at home, after speaking to my parents, that I realized how close we had been. (Over the course of today, more details have been reported. About six blocks from Centreville, according to a witness in Le Monde, a gunman bearing a high-calibre rifle got out of a car and opened fire on the capacity-filled terrace of La Belle Equipe, killing a reported 19 people, before leaving the scene in the same car. More orchestrated attacks across the city resulted in the shocking toll of 128 dead and 257 wounded.) Suddenly the furrowed expression on the face of the young gendarme outside the restaurant made sense. Suddenly, the police crouched with fingers on rifle triggers made sense. The running. The instructions. The lockdown. The roadblock. I checked social media, reassured my friends and tried to work out what had happened. Delayed shock and gratitude. We had been close. But close is mercifully distanced.
This morning, I talked for the first time to the woman who panhandles daily by the Métro station. She asked what had happened, so I offered, in my basic French, the version I had of events. Later, after my usual Saturday language exchange, I talked to the friendly guys at the halal butcher where I buy roast chicken. If I allow last night’s events to change the way I see my neighbourhood, it will only be to appreciate more acutely how so many nationalities, cultures and religions can peacefully coexist. My sympathy is with all those lost and who have lost loved ones in these appalling events.
Illustration by Jean Jullien