My home is now a crime scene. The police took my information last night and then returned this morning to inspect the damage and dust for fingerprints.
Yesterday started out beautiful. If it had stayed that way, this post would have been about something else entirely. I went to the Eiffel Tower and went inside it for the first time. I met a journalist from Georgia (the country) dressed in all red and carrying a red balloon. We did a photo shoot for 30 minutes because it was her last day in Paris, and as a solo traveler, she hadn’t had any photos taken of herself. She called me her sister and said I would always be in her heart. It was a bizarre and great story I’d like to tell you someday.
After the Eiffel Tower, I went home for about 10 minutes to change into a warmer jacket before walking to the 6:15pm mass at Notre Dame.
After mass, I went to dinner with my first and only friend here in Paris, an American expat named Winnie. We were having a great time, talking about how grateful we were to have met each other last week, as we feasted on roast chicken, mushroom soup, bread, and wine.
Then I saw frantic text messages from my landlord. A missed call. A voice message. I immediately started going through a checklist of fire-causing appliances I may have left on–the stove? The radiator? My hair straightener?
I listened to the voicemail. My breathless landlord yelled words into the phone. All I understood was someone had “tried” to break into my studio. I called her and she was so upset I could hardly understand her. She said they had busted my neighbor’s door in. What she didn’t say was what had happened to my apartment.
We told the waiter to bring us our check immediately. As he looked at me with confusion, I explained, “My apartment’s been broken into.”
“Where do you live?” he asked.
I told him I live in the 7th arrondissement, bordering Saint Germain des Pres, on a little street with lots of fancy art galleries. He nodded to indicate he knew the area.
“It’s a nice area, isn’t it?” I asked him, inwardly pleading with him to confirm that my neighborhood was indeed safe.
The waiter just shrugged and with a roll of his eyes said, “This is Paris.” As we rushed out of the restaurant, he handed me a mint and wished me a good night.
During the car ride to my studio, I kept telling Winnie there was no way they had broken into my studio. “The door is massive,” I assured her. “So massive I have a hard time shutting it. And I always deadbolt it.” Safety. I needed to assure myself, more than anyone else, of my own safety.
When we arrived, we ran up all five flights of stairs to my floor to see a gathering of neighbors in my hallway and two police officers with guns in front of my door.
When I walked into my ransacked apartment and saw my massive and dead-bolted door flung wide open, the dead bolt having ripped through my wall, all my illusions of safety were as shattered as the fragments of cement scattered on my studio floor.
Sure, I was upset they had broken into my apartment, but I was more upset that “they” (a mysterious, faceless “they”) had violated my trust. Where could I feel safe again?
Immediately the police started yelling at me in French. “Madame!” yelled one. “Get out of the apartment!” I threw my hands up and froze. This once welcoming place was now a crime scene, and there were police with guns right behind me. Wasn’t this my apartment? My things? My safe place? It never occurred to me that you are not supposed to touch anything in an area where a crime just took place. It never occurred to me because it’s never happened to me. Until now.
There were lighthearted, even beautiful, moments last night too. Like when the police officers finally let me into my apartment to see what was stolen.
“My laptop,” I said, pointing at the now empty space on my desk where my MacBook Air had been. When the officer didn’t understand, I said, “Computer,” and stuck my hands out to type on an invisible keyboard suspended before me.
“Ah,” he said, nodding his head and scribbling a note on the paper in his hands.
Then he said I must go to the police station in the morning to file a report, and they would give me a–when he couldn’t think of the word, he made a motion in the air with his hands drawing a square.
“A form?” I asked.
He shook his head. “The thing you get when you buy something,” he said, throwing me a clue.
“Receipt!” I shouted excitedly. We both smiled. He nodded yes.
I couldn’t help but chuckle at our little game of Charades in the middle of my burglarized apartment.
Last night brought out so much kindness too. Thank God for Winnie. She accompanied me to my studio and stayed with me the whole time as the officers drilled me in French; my landlord kindly translated for me. It was also the first time I actually got to meet my neighbors. One offered me crackers. Another let me use his iPhone to try to track my MacBook. Another was concerned about where I would stay that night. My landlord offered to let me stay with her. Winnie insisted I’d be staying at her apartment, and that I could stay as long as I wanted to. Thank God for kindness.
After an hour or so, I was allowed back into my apartment to pack a few clothes and head to Winnie’s place. As we walked out, my landlord pressed 20 Euros into my hand and insisted we take a taxi. She was too worried about us taking the metro.
Once we arrived at her place, Winnie immediately set to making me at home. She made me hot tea, gave me clothes to sleep in, and apologized that the sheets she was putting on the sofa bed in her living room were too thin and not the Egyptian Cotton she’d prefer them to be. I couldn’t believe she was actually apologizing that her sheets weren’t nice enough when I very well could be wandering Paris right then looking for a place to sleep if it weren’t for her generosity.
Within minutes, I was lounging on my new bed in her (much nicer) apartment, wearing her clothes, sipping her tea, eating her tortilla chips, and using her computer to finish some work assignments. And to think, I only just met Winnie last week. I thought back to when my landlord had asked us when we’d met. “Wow,” my landlord said. “I thought you two were friends from way back.” It certainly seemed that way.
Then I started running through all the “What if’s.” What if I’d been there when the burglars had busted my door in? What if I hadn’t gone to mass? What if Winnie hadn’t invited me to dinner? What if I had been home (like I almost always am at nighttime in Paris)? I didn’t even know how to call the police in France. What if I hadn’t met Winnie last week? What would I have done in this situation?
Before we finally went to bed at around 4 a.m. (we’re both still jet lagged), I yelled out to Winnie, “Happy Thanksgiving!” And I meant it. I don’t think I’ve ever had a Thanksgiving in which I was this grateful.
Dealing With the Aftermath
I wish I could tell you I awoke this morning feeling hopeful and brave. I wish I could tell you I’m not going to let the terrorists or the thieves win. But, I am sorry, I am not the “travel setback champion” you were hoping for.
Paris, a city I had idealized and romanticized so much in my mind, now carries a gray cloud over it everywhere I go–and it’s not just the typical gloomy winter weather.
And to be honest, it’s not just the terror attacks. It’s not just the burglary. For the past three weeks I have felt a growing sense of…I don’t know the word. But I do know I have finally found a feeling worse than loneliness: the feeling you don’t even exist. The feeling of “otherness.” I can’t shake it here. Two nights ago I walked into a Latin American restaurant in Paris and begged them to speak Spanish to me. “Claro!” the waiter said, and my heart filled with fondness over my memories of Peru. After that, I walked the streets of Saint Michel, a touristy district by Notre Dame, just waiting for someone to acknowledge me. When a store owner saw me passing his store and yelled out, “Bonsoir!” (“Good evening”), I nearly cried tears of joy.
But, really, can you think of a better place to have an existential crisis than the very birthplace of existentialism? In fact, the district I live(d) in houses the cafe in which it is said Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir discussed that philosophical movement. Anyway, I digress.
I used to think French was such a beautiful language. Actually, I still do. But now when I hear French, I associate it with negative feelings: The fear I felt when the police yelled at me not to touch anything (“Ne touchez pas! Ne touchez pas!” ). The otherness I feel when I can’t properly pronounce the words to the waiter at a restaurant. The lostness I feel when I can’t repeat the responses back to the cantor at church. Everything sneers at me, “Amy, you don’t belong here.”
I haven’t told my friends back home about the burglary. I haven’t told them about my feeling of not existing. I fear they won’t understand; they won’t care; or they’ll give me a lecture; or they’ll tell me cliches. I’ve had enough of both.
My landlord says they will repair my door on Monday, but even after that, it will be take a few days to reinforce it (I’m guessing because they have to repair the wall too). But I honestly don’t want to go back there. I’m thinking of going to Spain because I miss speaking Spanish, or Italy, because I felt so welcomed there when I went in 2009. It’s not so much that I’m afraid to stay here; it’s more that I just don’t want to anymore.
At daily mass at Notre Dame today, my mind wandered as the priest was preaching. Since they only do mass in French on weekdays, I of course could not understand anything he said. My brain snapped to attention when I suddenly understood the words; the priest, probably sensing that the majority of today’s crowd did not speak French (as most of us did not sing along or say the responses and probably had a dazed look in our eyes), had switched to English: “We must build when others destroy,” he entreated us. “We must be the light to others, even when bad things happen in this world. We must teach others how to behave like children of God.” Tears started welling up in my eyes. Sometimes I am too tired, too weak, too cowardly to teach. Sometimes, I just want to run.
Paris is beautiful. And yes, even now, I encourage you to visit it. But I think it is best I take a break from the City of Light.
Also, I know I am rambling now, but writing is cathartic. Because of the recent upsetting events in Paris, I feel it is time to review the appropriate way to respond to someone who’s gone through something traumatic. This is, of course, just my personal opinion:
- Don’t tell me I’m brave. Please. I’m no hero. How is it brave to have no control over something that happened and then continue living? You don’t really have any other choice.
- Don’t tell me what I should have done. Because, believe me, I can replay my own regrets in my mind and beat myself up over it without your help.
- Don’t tell me what I should do. Because no matter how empathetic you are, no, you don’t know exactly what I’m going through. You also don’t have to live with the consequences of my decisions, like I do.
- Just listen. And then tell me everything’s going to be okay (even when both you and I know there’s never any way to tell). That’s really the best thing you could do. That, or buy me cake.
Anyway, thanks for reading this rambling, rant-y, stream of consciousness drivel. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have someone to “talk” to, even if it is a reader whom I may never meet. Thank you so much.
If you want to help, could you help me decide on a nice place to stay in Spain (probably Madrid, Barcelona, or somewhere in Andalusia)? I’m looking at Airbnb right now, but I’m not familiar with the area. I’ve been to Madrid once for 2 or 3 nights in 2009.