I don’t like to talk about it, which is probably why it’s taken me a little while to address it. For one, it doesn’t tend to come up in conversation. For another, it’s so absolutely strange that it opens a cavern of difference between myself and others.
I’ve mentioned before on this blog that sometimes we live in separate, parallel worlds of existence. These parallel worlds overlap in the similarities we discover between us. Other times, it is impossible to understand another person’s parallel world, as I’ve mentioned in the case of understanding poverty. There are just some events you’ve experienced which can move your parallel world somewhere far, far away from everyone else. I think soldiers who come back from war experience this, or other victims of trauma. On a more positive note, astronauts returning from space or even those who are colorblind see the world in indescribably unique ways. It’s impossible to name all of the unique experiences that make us who we are. Unfortunately, some of those experiences are more extreme than others.
Last year, myself and 8 other students, accompanied by 3 chaperones and our French teacher, traveled to France for 9 days of amazing experiences. We started in Paris, marveling at the history and the people, the food and the architecture– really, we loved every moment of it.
Next we moved to the south of France, from city to city, walking across ancient cobble stones with cones of gelato in our hands and bright smiles across our sunburned faces. Every single moment was magical.
The trip was planned perfectly. We visited Versailles at the exact moment the fountains came on (which only happens for a few hours every Saturday). We were in Paris at the same time the Euro Cup was held so that we could join in with the chanting: ALLEZ LES BLEU! Our last day of the trip, Bastille Day, would be in Nice. We would be able to watch fireworks on the Mediterranean, and if France would be struck by a terrorist attack on its independence day, surely it would be in Paris, and we’d be far away.
We were wrong.
As the fireworks ended, we formed a conga line to stay together and work our way through the crowds, back to our hotel. We passed concerts set up at intervals along the promenade and stopped to dance at one.
That’s when the crowds surged toward us in panic, and we ran. As chaos was unleashed, I was alone for a second, then two. Then I saw my friend Tiana up ahead. I ran to her, latched onto her hand, and we sprinted together down the promenade alongside every other terrified person there. Our whole group was split into smaller groups, none of us alone, which was a blessing in itself.
We were running toward a monument we’d jokingly named rusty chopsticks, a meeting place our tour guide had shown us when we first arrived in Nice. Tiana and I arrived first. People passed us, running. One man stopped and gasped, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?! Qu’est-ce que c’est?!” (“What’s happening?!”). We shouted back, “Je ne sais pas!” (“I don’t know!”).
We stayed and caught our breath as more of our group appeared, including our tour guide, Lou. She led us back through the streets, down unpopulated side roads, so we could avoid the terrified crowds. Lou assured us that everything was fine; she suggested that something small may have happened, like a car backfiring, and that crowd mentality had pushed the fear along. We hoped that was it. After all, we’d simply followed the crowds ourselves.
The terror seemed to come in waves. It took just one person, or one group, to start running, and then everyone was running. We didn’t know what we were running from, but it was better to get away than to find out.
Halfway to the hotel, a new surge of panic scattered our group again. Tiana and I still hadn’t let go of each other, and we still didn’t then. The two of us tried to stay calm. We walked down the streets and sang with each other, whatever songs we knew. I don’t remember them all, but I definitely remember our rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody. How could I forget singing opera beneath the yellow street lights of Nice as adrenaline rushed in our ears and people rushed past us even faster, sparing questioning looks at two Americans singing gibberish in the middle of a terrorist attack?
In the end, every single one of us made it back to the hotel. Everyone was unharmed; everyone was safe. The next morning, we hopped an airplane back home. And if you thought everything up until this point was an emotional roller coaster, you should have seen us sprinting into our parents’ arms the night we returned. We ran faster then than we ever did down Nice’s promenade.
I don’t like telling people all this, because even now, as you’re reading this, it’s impossible to understand what we went through together. I can’t begin to describe the chaos and panic and terror that latched onto our hearts that night, and I can’t begin to describe the ways it still clings there sometimes.
As much as I wish none of this had ever happened to us, I’m so incredibly happy to have 12 others who understand. As lonely as it can be in this parallel world of Nice attack survivors, at least we have each other there. A year ago, I got to share the wonders of France with you all. We survived a terrorist attack together. And we still keep each other strong. Thank you for being amazing.
Looking back on our trip– at the wonders we encountered before the attack and the attack itself– there’s something I need to address in addition to everything I’ve already said: the woman who stayed with us through it all. I think all 13 of us can agree that Lou was an outstanding tour guide, a wonderful friend, and the bravest person we may ever meet. Thank you, Lou, for giving us an amazing adventure through France and ensuring that every single one of us would make it home to tell about it. And thank you for inspiring us all to continue to nurture our adventurous spirits, because if we allow fear to guide us into stagnation, we allow the terrorists to win. I know we’ll all come visit again some day.
Four days and a year ago we survived the Nice terrorist attack. At this point, we can take on just about anything. And I know we will– possibly to the tune of Bohemian Rhapsody.
Until next time.