This is part of the Stories of Our Travels Series. If you want to read more about our fun, curious or plain creepy experiences abroad, just click here.
Travelling is a wonderful thing isn’t it? How many of us haven’t got addicted to that moment when we step into a different country, see faces we’ve never seen before, and try to unsuccessfully read and decipher the nearest “Exit” sign written in the local language? There’s a certain rush attached to it. You feel far away from home, yet you don’t feel alone or unsafe. You just feel the rush.
When the place you’re visiting is arguably the most popular tourist destination in the world, a city that is perfectly prepared to welcome tourists, you never feel such thing as danger. Sure Paris has its shady areas, but generally you can enjoy the city without having to worry about your assets, let alone your life. So make no mistake, we do not intend to bash Paris in this post. Paris is a magnificent city, the most beautiful on Earth we even dare to say. A city so full of light, beauty and outstanding landmarks one could spend his entire life exploring it without running out of things to see, meals to have or experiences to enjoy.
Yet, when we think of this city, our first memory is not the iron titan called Eiffel Tower, the lovely Latin Quarter, the colourful glasses of Sainte-Chappelle or the over-the-top opulence of Versailles. We mostly remember the Paris terrorist attacks – the day a group of religious fanatics tried to shoot and blow-up everything within their sight. The day we could have died… the day we were afraid to die.
We spent four days in Paris last November (10th to 14th) to celebrate my birthday, and, if you’ve been following us, you should know a visit to a local football stadium is mandatory. We knew a friendly match between the national teams of France and Germany was going to take place on the night of November 13th – curiously a Friday – and so we bought two tickets for the match on the day before we departed. That was part of some kind of last minute deal so we were quite happy to get the chance of experiencing another football match abroad without having to spend a lot of money.
Our trip to the French capital had been a success up until that night. We had managed to stay under our budget, we had taken two day-trips to Disneyland and Versailles and, most importantly, we had seen and visited pretty much everything we wanted, although it was not possible to climb the Arc de Triomphe due to the Armistice Day celebrations. To be honest, and despite the cold and overall rudeness of restaurants’ staff, Paris was exceeding our expectations. Then came Friday the 13th.
It all started half-way into the game as we suddenly heard two loud explosions that scared Daniela. Considering we were watching a football match, my first thought was that someone had set off firecrackers, which was an odd thing to do since this was a friendly match. Little did we know that was the sound of two people being disintegrated by the blast of homemade bombs. Then, we started receiving lots of calls from our families back in Portugal. First news had spread about mass shootings and explosions in the centre of Paris and around the stadium, and since everybody knew we were at Stade de France, they were worried about us. Honestly, and apart from the loud sound of “firecrackers” we had no idea of what was going on. Everyone at the stadium was calm and no one left the venue. We thought our families were overreacting or that the news were about some random shooting between criminals and local police. The fans simply stayed there watching the game until the end, and so did we.
We only realized what was going on when we tried to leave Stade de France. While we were walking back to the train (RER) station everyone started running back into the stadium, as if they were trying to escape something we couldn’t see. That was the first moment of panic we felt during what would turn out to be a long night. Children were crying, people were trying to find their way back to their loved ones and everyone was trying to get back to the stadium at the same time, which as you can imagine created a big mass of people smashing each other against the ground’s gates. After finding our way back to the stadium (we were separated for a moment), people started leaving the stands and invading the pitch area and when we started asking locals around us what was going on, a man with his entire family behind him and a concerning look on his face simply muttered the word “Attentat”. Much like the quite similar Portuguese word “Atentado”, the French expression is also used when talking about terrorist attacks, and that was the moment we realized our families were right all along and how serious the situation was.
After spending about 30 minutes on the pitch, the police created a safety corridor and people were allowed to leave the stadium. Since we didn’t know where the corridor was leading, I tried to ask one of the police officers if we were heading for the train station. As soon as we approached him, he pointed his gun at us and ordered us to stop. We just froze! After asking him how to get to the station (while staying at least 5-meters away from him) we thanked him and kept on walking.
We will never forget that train ride. Hundreds and hundreds of people absolutely packed into a single carriage and yet you could hear nothing but the crushing sound of silence. No one spoke, no one laughed, no one cried, people were just numb. That was one of the most uncomfortable situations we’ve ever been. So unbearable in fact, we decided to leave the train before our destination (Gare de l’Est) and cover the rest of the path back to our hotel on foot.
That was such a bad decision. As soon as we left the train local police officers started shouting, ordering everyone to run back to the surface as if we were in eminent danger. Chaos ensued. People started jumping over the turnstiles and breaking them with punches and kicks. After fighting our way through the panicking crowd, we managed to slide through the broken turnstiles and then ran our way back to the surface through an underground tunnel.
Have you ever felt like time is going by in slow-motion? I think that was the first moment I felt something like that. We were holding hands while running through a long tunnel, without knowing why exactly we were running or whether we would be safe once we reached street-level. I would turn my head to Daniela and see her crying her eyes out while her phone wouldn’t stop ringing (mine’s battery had died). I felt lost.
Once we reached the streets the panic stopped and we were overflown by a different feeling: discomfort. Bombs were exploding, bullets were being fired and people were dying… yet the streets weren’t empty. We could still see lots of people on the streets, but once again everyone was silent and staring at each other, as if trying to detect any sign of danger.
After a long walk we finally reached the hotel, where we met the most useless clerk ever. That man had the sensitivity of a beetroot. We had to pay for wi-fi connection, but we no longer had any money on us since our return flight was scheduled for the following morning. French TV networks were talking about closed borders and cancelled flights, so we had no idea whether we would be able to return to Portugal on the day we had planned to. We needed to look for informations about this subject online and search for the Portuguese Embassy contacts, but the clerk simply ignored our pledges and stated he didn’t own the place so he didn’t make the rules, which basically means we weren’t granted access to the internet.
After spending the night watching French news, we were finally able to fully realize the seriousness of what had happened and learned about the Bataclan Massacre, the same theatre we had just walked-by the day before. We slept to the sound of ambulances and to the update of the death toll. 20, 50, 70, 100 people. All innocent victims of a meaningless attack.
The next morning we decided to take our chances and do everything as we had previously planned. The city was empty, silent, grey… wounded. We took the metro where several military members were patrolling the stations with heavy guns and we left at Porte Maillot, where a bus would take us to the Beauvais Airport. That was the first moment of relief. As we were boarding the bus and leaving the City of Lights, we finally felt we were no longer in danger. After a 1-hour drive, we finally arrived in the airport to find out all the flights were taking place normally. We waited for another hour and finally made our way back home. Never had I been so happy to be on a plane and returning home (the return is usually a bittersweet experience).
The truth is that it took a long time until we felt safe and sound again. For several weeks, every day we were flooded with news about the Paris terrorist attacks, questions about what had happened from our friends, relatives and co-workers, and even interviews for national TV channels. It’s quite a sobering experience to be that scared. You always picture in your head that death is quick and sudden. You won’t feel pain, you won’t realize it’s happening and, most of all, you won’t feel scared. Can you imagine what the people who died at the Bataclan felt? They had plenty of time to realize what was going on. They feared, they thought about their loved ones, they witnessed the cruelty and barbarity of the cold-blooded perpetrators, and, in the end, they perished.
That is why we can’t live our lives as victims. We must remember all the Parisians who had to stay in the city after the attacks and managed to move on. All the people who lost someone they loved on the attacks and managed to move on. All the ones who had to run for their lives on that night or play dead to survive and managed to move on. And more importantly, all the people who, outside of Paris, have to deal with bombings and mass shootings every single day and have no other choice but to move on.
For our sake and for them, we are moving on, and we will never stop travelling.
In memory of the 130 victims of the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, and the 4000 war refugees who lost their lives in 2016 while trying to escape the same fate.