It was the last night of my conference in Paris, and I was sitting with some new friends in a Brazilian restaurant near the Avenue de la République. We had just wrapped up a day of panels and presentations on the topic of race at the Sorbonne, and the six of us—two Dutch scholars, an Italian, a Belgian, a French woman, and me, the American—had gone out to celebrate. I felt a bit sheepish, as an American, to be eating food from the Americas in Paris, but a few drinks erased that feeling.
We had just finished eating and were sitting around chatting when the once emptying restaurant became full of people again. A young French couple hurriedly slipped into the restaurant and sat down at the table next to us. The man spoke English to us. “Don’t go outside,” he said.
The people at my table huddled anxiously around him. People were running in the streets away from something, he told us. I glanced around the restaurant and saw that everyone was already staring at their phones. Looking at my own, I saw a news alert that said that several bombs had gone off in the Bataclan concert hall.
“That is just 1,000 meters from here,” the French man said, eyes wide. Some of the women around me gasped.
“How far is that?” I, the American, asked.
“Very close, very close,” he said.
The group continued to talk about the attacks—in addition to the theatre massacre, apparently there had been bombings at a stadium and shootings elsewhere. After a while, I stopped paying attention to their conversation. I didn’t want to start panicking. “There’s nothing I can do anyways,” I told myself. “Just stay on your guard.”
We waited inside the restaurant. The air was hazy because people could no longer go outside to smoke. I found myself listening to the sounds of the happy American songs playing over the restaurant’s speakers. “American Pie.” Broadway show tunes.
I was still jet-lagged from my flight from Philadelphia days earlier and just wanted to crawl into bed. To stay awake, I walked to the front of the restaurant. I saw that the management had decided to post someone at the door for security—the only black person working there. The door was locked and he peered out, looking for suspicious activity. “Of course they’d put the black guy there,” I thought to myself.
I texted my family in the United States and updated my Facebook status to let friends know I was safe (I purposefully left out the “for now” part).
As the hours passed, our server seemed more and more unsteady in her step—apparently she was drinking to deal with the stress. The once lively atmosphere in the restaurant had become quiet and grim. My friends and I spoke little. It was no longer the time for small talk.
As a way to distract us, I asked if anyone knew any games that we could play. One of the Dutch women taught us a children’s game that was like Simon Says, except that it involved holding our fingers against the edge of the table. After a few rounds of that, we stopped. I never wished for a pack of cards more than at that moment.
After several hours, people started to leave the restaurant. Our French colleague Daphné, who had been smoking at the front of the restaurant, walked back to the table and said that it was now safe to go. She and another colleague were staying near me, and we decided to share a taxi. Daphné looked at her phone and said that all taxicabs were free for the evening because of the attacks.
As we were walking over to the strip to find a cab, Daphné suddenly asked about one of the women, an Eritrean Italian scholar, who had been sitting with us. Did she know how to get back to her hotel? Abruptly, my two friends turned around and began walking back to the restaurant.
I was still recovering from foot surgery, and with my cane and aching foot, I struggled to keep up. Eventually I stopped walking and just waited, expecting them to return after a few minutes. When they didn’t, I decided to hail a taxi by myself. I walked back to Avenue de la République, not knowing then it was one of the streets where the attacks had occurred. Several taxis drove past me, their red lights indicating they were occupied. Apart from the taxis and the occasional emergency vehicle barreling by, the street was almost deserted.
Starting to panic, I tried to think of comforting things. I remembered that passage in the Bible about how God feeds even the birds of the air—and we, Jesus said, are more precious than these. I also thought about the advice that Mr. Rogers’s mother gave him as a boy. In times of tragedy, she said, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Suddenly, two people walked up to me. “Are you okay?” a man asked. It was the French couple from the restaurant.
At that moment, I burst into tears. I told them I didn’t know what to do.
“It will be hard to get a taxi,” the man told me, “but we are not going to leave you here crying by yourself.”
They waited with me as I attempted to hail a taxi again. The man suggested I try even cabs with their red lights on (“Tonight is a special circumstance,” he said). But the drivers still didn’t stop, and after several minutes, we gave up.
The man told me there was a hotel right above the restaurant we had just left, and he said I should stay there tonight. He and the woman were going to a friend’s house close by. “I would invite you to stay too, but there are already a lot of people.”
They insisted on accompanying me back to the restaurant. As we walked, I kept looking at the dwindling bars on my cell phone, angry at myself for forgetting my charger at my friend’s apartment.
When we got to the restaurant, the couple spoke to the owner, a man named Carlos, and asked if he could persuade the hotel upstairs to give me a room. Carlos told me that as a result of the attacks, the government was instructing the city’s hotels not to let foreigners check in for the night. But he talked to the hotel and was able to get a room for me. “I told them that you are a regular customer,” he said.
Now that I had a place to stay, the French couple left for their friend’s home. The restaurant’s staff were cleaning up and tallying the receipts from the night, speaking quickly to one another. I eyed the iPad they used to process payments and asked Carlos if I could recharge my phone with its charger. He quickly agreed. I sat in front of the bar and waited as it charged.
The bartender and I started talking about the attacks. “My friends were at the Bataclan,” he said. “They are okay, but many people are not.”
Soon Carlos and his staff were ready to lock up for the night. Carlos said he would come with me to the hotel. “I am in the same situation, so I am just going to rent a room here for the night.”
Carlos told me he was from Spain. He introduced me to one of his workers, who was from São Paulo, Brazil. I told her I’d lived in São Paulo for about a year (I’ve been writing a book about race in Brazil). As she chatted to me in Portuguese about what had brought her to Paris, I noticed her hard r’s, a way of speaking typical of the people in the interior of her state. Unexpectedly, I found myself comforted by our conversation. Serendipitously finding someone from a country I knew well—a place halfway around the world—somehow made me feel less alone.
Their work finished, the staff left for the night. The drunk server who had waited on our table earlier gave me polite, if wobbly, kisses goodnight.
Carlos locked the door behind them. I noticed the two of us were alone in the restaurant. “Would you like some cheesecake?” he asked me. “It’s the best cheesecake you ever had! I will go get some!”
When he emerged from the kitchen with a slice, he proudly announced that the cheesecake had “two” types of “lemon” (“the yellow one and the green one!”). I didn’t argue with him about the English distinction between lemons and limes. I simply nodded as he foisted two slices of his gluten-free chocolate cake on me as well. “Oh, I’m so stressed!” Carlos groaned as he stuffed a slice of chocolate cake into his mouth.
After we finished eating, Carlos took me to the hotel lobby. The young man behind the registration desk told me my room was on the fourth floor. “I will help you up the stairs,” Carlos said, eyeing my cane.
Once we made it to my floor, Carlos pointed out the shared toilet and shower and explained how the key to my room worked. He was being extremely kind and helpful, but I wanted him out of my room—I was nervous about being alone with a stranger in an unfamiliar place.
“You can come down at 11, and I will make us breakfast in the morning,” Carlos offered.
“Great! Thank you so much!” I said as he left. I quickly locked the door.
In the morning, I ate Carlos’s cheesecake for breakfast. Two days later, I was on a direct flight back to Philadelphia—grateful to be home, and grateful to the kind strangers who looked out for me in Paris.
Chinyere Osuji is an assistant professor at Rutgers University–Camden. An earlier version of this post appeared here.
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