On Thursday, August 17th, a van plowed into crowds of tourists in Barcelona’s popular Las Ramblas neighborhood, killing at least 13 and injuring at least 80. Police are treating this as a terrorist attack. This sort of violence has plagued Europe for the last few years, including the city from which my family hails, Paris.
I still visit Paris every summer with my family. It’s where my grandmother was born, where I lived and attended school for several years. But in the spring, there was a wave of terrorist attacks in European cities: Paris, London, Manchester, the list goes on. My family and I began to feel apprehensive about our upcoming trip.
We all anxiously imagined trucks on sidewalks and stabbings in outdoor markets. We were nervous about flying and being in crowded places. The stories that seemed to keep coming in the weeks and days before our trip didn’t help. Every time a new attack crawled along the bottom of the TV screen, or a picture of a glum politician addressing grieving crowds in front of a circle of flowers and candles showed up on the front page of the New York Times, we exchanged anxious glances and wondered aloud if it might be smarter, safer, and more comfortable to just stay at home. The night before we got on the plane, we learned that a police officer had been attacked in front of Notre Dame cathedral.
Notre Dame is about a ten minute walk from my family’s apartment. I was a little on-edge when I agreed to meet a friend on the afternoon of my arrival. When I got there, I was taken aback, but not surprised, to see squads of soldiers wielding assault rifles. The walls of public buildings were plastered with big scarlet triangles announcing that the “Vigipirate” terror alert system was at its second highest level. The highest alert is reserved for an imminent attack.
The Vigipirate measures have had an anxiety-inducing effect: my friends all have to go through metal detectors and identity checks to get into their high school. When we all went to the new Spiderman movie earlier this summer, we had our bags searched before we were allowed into the theater. One night as we walked to a friend’s house, lines of policemen in full body armor crossed the Boulevard Saint Michel in front of us. Soldiers in camouflage wielded guns big enough to give some parts of the city a war-zone feel.
Of course the state of emergency does have an impact on everyday life. Every summer, the city of Paris holds a giant music festival, with musicians playing on every corner. Usually, there’s a big concert at Denfert-Rochereau, next to the lion statue. This year it was cancelled.
My friends and I speculated it was because of terrorism. I was inclined to avoid touristic sites with lots of people because of anxieties. My friends also wanted to avoid the crowds, though they weren’t thinking about terrorism.
When I tried to broach the subject outright, and asked if they were at all scared, my friend Emilia responded, “Pour moi, il faut vivre sa vie,” or, “In my opinion, you have to live your life.”
Over the course of my two months in France, I was able to adopt the same attitude. Although the Paris terrorism attacks were horrifying and tragic, I got to a place where the looming threat didn’t have to change how I conducted my daily life.
But now, watching the news of Barcelona from relative safety in California, I am brought back to the same fear and anxiety I had before leaving. Still, I try to remember my friends’ (and country’s) poise and insistence on continuing life as usual in the face of terror.