Last fall, I was an American college student in Paris, studying international security and terrorism. I knew when I chose Paris that it would be an excellent place to further my studies, but I did not expect to experience the subject first-hand.
Everyone I met in Paris felt safe there, whether they were other Americans or French. I had one friend who felt safer in Paris than she felt in Austin, Texas, where we attended the University of Texas. We all thought our discussions about terrorism were mostly theoretical and about events taking place somewhere else.
But that changed in an instant, on Nov. 13, 2015.
It began as a typical Friday evening in Paris. Cafes and bars bustled as people sat outside with friends. People made their way to concert halls. Tourists went up and down the Eiffel Tower to see the City of Lights all lit up.
Then came the news of the multiple bombings and shootings across the city. I was just getting off the subway after my last class and walking into my flat in the city’s 8th arrondissement. The attacks took place only 20 minutes from my apartment, in an area so many of us had visited.
At first, I didn’t think too much about a shooting. I had lived in the U.S., in Illinois and Texas, my entire life and shootings happen so often, it’s hard to keep track of them. But this was Paris, a place where the police were the only ones who were supposed to carry guns.
I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. My friends from all over the world, including the French ones, felt secure. They said they didn’t believe they needed guns to protect themselves, even after an earlier attack in January 2015, when terrorists walked into the office of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical publication, and killed 12 people.
Conversations about the widespread presence of guns in the U.S. often came up when I mentioned I was an exchange student from the University of Texas. Many students, from France and other countries, knew about the “campus carry” debate in Texas and had questions as to why anyone would need a gun in a classroom. I tried to explain both sides of the debate. Still, they believed the police should be the only ones with guns.
Sebastien Galbrun, who is French, is one of the students I met while I was studying in Paris at Sciences Po. He believed, and still believes, Paris is a safe city, though he did acknowledge the shooting at Charlie Hebdo, followed by November attacks, shook him up.
“You feel your country, your city, your own identity was being shot at,” Galbrun said. “Your personal feeling, your identity — people want to do bad things to your identity. I was really shocked, really hurt.”
Galbrun still doesn’t believe people should possess guns in their home.
“I think weapons are a means for the state to regulate,” he said.
The attacks did change security in Paris. There were more bag checks when people entered buildings. People were more vigilant and wary of those who stepped onto the metro with bags. Police were more visible than before.
My friends didn’t change their views on the private ownership of guns after the attacks, but the conversations were different.
One friend, Everica Rivera, taught English in French schools. We knew each other from the University of Texas, where she studied the same topic I did. Following the attacks, she tried to find the meaning or possible symbolism behind the places the terrorists targeted.
“I expected them to blow up a metro station like they did later on in Brussels, or around the Eiffel Tower — you know, tourist areas,” Rivera said. “But no, they only hit local places.”
After the November attacks, I had friends tell me they were contemplating leaving France and going back home early, before the semester was over. Sciences Po and other universities arranged for students to take their finals from home if they wanted to leave. One of my friends from Ireland decided to take that option.
Most of the people around me wanted to stay, as did I. And the city came together after the attack. Paris lived up to a motto: “fluctuat nec mergitur,” or “tossed but not sunk.”
Though the city was shaken, people went on with their lives. Teachers made an effort to talk about the attacks and provide guidance. My French professor was one of them. During the class after the attacks, he told us one thing: You should not be afraid to be here and to live here. Paris is still safe.
While security increased in Paris and other parts of the country, France was still vulnerable. The French were celebrating Bastille Day in July in Nice, where an attacker drove a truck into the crowd, killing more than 80 people.
But I still believe my professor who said we shouldn’t be afraid to live in Paris. My friends reinforced this. They said they will never forget Nov. 13, 2015, but there’s still so much to live for.
“We were not going to be defined by these attacks,” Galbrun said. “We were going to stay strong and stay together.”
A year after the Paris attacks, some people are still wary about traveling to the city or to Europe in general. But that’s not me. I know I’ll be back in Paris, sooner rather than later.
Wynne Davis is an intern at NPR in Washington.