A weekend I will never forget

Paris – La Ville Lumiere, the City of Light. Also known as the City of Love. It’s the capital city of France and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. I mean, why not? It has the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Catacombs, Notre Dame, and Arc de Triomphe just to name a few of the points of interest. So of course, I decided that while I’m studying abroad, why not make a visit to this beautiful and historic city.

The University of Gloucestershire has something called an “Enhancement Week” for students in every course (major) to have a week off from modules (lectures) to enhance their CVs (resumes). As the hardworking student that I’d like to think I am, I gladly devoted half of this week to not participate in what Enhancement Week was created for but to take a trip to Paris. Carly, a fellow University of West Florida student who is also here studying abroad, and I, decided that hey, let’s just go to freaking Paris.

Around the last week of October was when Carly and I started thinking about our housing situation for when we stay in Paris. I brought up the idea of Couchsurfing, which is similar to Airbnb, with the exception of hosts offering their residence to be stayed at for free. We were a bit skeptical about it, but at some point you got to take risks in life (and we’re poor college students), so we decided we were going to try it out. We researched potential hosts that we were going to contact in hopes of being able to stay with them. We wrote down some names and agreed that at a later date, we would compare each host in relation to positive reviews and to how close they were to certain points of interests in Paris.

Time quickly went by, with a trip to Bath with Carly in between our first meeting to the week leading up to the trip to Paris. I invited another American student, Hailee, to join us and she agreed. Since we had waited so long to find accommodation, we decided that it’d be better to use Airbnb. We narrowed our choices down to 3 and ended up deciding on a flat hosted by Aly. Not too much was known about Aly besides the fact that she is working abroad in Paris and has a cat. She had a profile picture but it was near impossible to make out her face, but she had positive reviews and was hosting at a low price. I messaged her our plans and she happily agreed!

With accommodation out of the way, we had to plan out what we were going to do. To be honest, I’ll thank Carly for planning our itinerary as I had to work on an assessment that was due on the 17th. There were several points of interests noted, too many to mention. But to simply put it, on Thursday, November 12th, we were going to spend the day in London and take an overnight bus into Paris. Friday the 13th and Saturday the 14th were going to be days dedicated to exploring Paris before leaving Saturday night back to London and then later back to Cheltenham.

I’ll skip straight to our overnight bus trip to Paris. Well, there’s one thing I’d like to note about our day in London. We visited this store called Harrod’s and Carly had explained it to basically be its own mall in one building. This was hands down the most extravagant store I have ever visited. Harrod’s has EVERYTHING. For example, you can get this beautiful mirror for the low, low price of only £28,000..

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The overnight bus trip was expected to have us arrive in Paris at 6:30 a.m. I got to experience the Eurotunnel for the first time and it’s pretty cool. The bus drives into a train car and then we were taken through the Chunnel. I was asleep for most of the journey into Paris, but damn it was hot as hell in that bus. There was no air ventilation and the bus was shut off so no air conditioning was running. I could just gradually feel my body getting hotter and hotter.

Getting off of the bus, I don’t think I was really in much of a culture shock. I have travelled to Vietnam twice and of course, there’s little to no English to be seen, just heard. I was in a country where I didn’t understand what people were saying or what the signs said on the streets. However, the difference was that I had my mom there to explain everything for me. Even though I didn’t understand anything I read in Paris, it kind of put me in a state of mind that there’s so much more of this world that I have yet to discover. I was experiencing the beauty of, what was to me, a whole new world.

We made our way to the Metro, which is Paris’ subway system. I prefer the Metro in comparison to the Tube because it was much cheaper, and in Paris, Metro stations seemed to be everywhere. Navigating through the station was a bit of a struggle as all the signs were in French. We had to rely on our experience of the Tube in London to get a sense of how the Metro would get us to where we needed to go. We managed to get to the last station we needed to arrive at and made our way towards Aly’s flat. Aly was unable to meet us so early in the morning but I had communicated with her about how to find our way there and where to find the key we needed to open the door. We got to the door that led into the buildings and courtyard that contained Aly’s flat. Here we were, at 29 Rue de Gravilliers, our new Parisian home. I immediately noticed something strange when we got there, the picture of the spot that Aly said the key was going to be at didn’t seem to be where we were. We frantically searched the area and also tried to input a code that open the doors, but to no success. We walked to a café down the road and tried to get Wi-Fi to get in contact with Aly. The Wi-Fi never connected on my phone and after what seemed like an eternity of trying to connect, Carly was successful. However, when trying to call Aly through WhatsApp, the call wouldn’t go through. We decided to look up directions to a local Starbucks to mooch off the Wi-Fi to contact Aly.

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After 10-15 minutes of walking, we got to every white girl’s favorite coffee shop, Starbucks. Again for some reason, the Wi-Fi wouldn’t connect for me so I turned off my phone. Turned my phone back on and at last, I had Wi-Fi. I contacted Aly asking her how were we to get into building if there was a door code. While waiting for her response, I went back into the Airbnb app to look at her listing and our messages on there to see if I had missed something…and of course I did. I didn’t realize that when she was messaging the address to her flat and other important details, that the door code was embodied within the message. We headed back towards the building and at last, we entered the building. We made our way up to the 3rd floor, got the key, and made our way inside.

By the time we made our way into the flat, it was nearing 8 a.m. Upon arrival, we found a broken vase on the floor. We were all confused and instantly we realized it was our “host,” Chiang Mai, Aly’s cat that was responsible. I notified her of what happened and she immediately apologized. Bless her heart, it wasn’t her fault! All three of us unpacked our backpacks, only leaving necessities and just sat down and thought, “Wow, we’re really here in Paris.” What were we going to do first? We had the entire city of Paris in the palms of our hands. We agreed that the first thing that we were going to do was to visit the Notre Dame since it was closest to the flat.

On our way to the Notre Dame, we were being typical tourists, taking photos of the scenery and all the architecture. It was simply too breathtaking to not capture the beauty. We stopped at a bakery to buy some food. The girls bought baguettes and I bought one as well but with chicken, barbeque sauce, and lettuce. It was amazing. As we got closer to the Notre Dame, we saw that there were long lines on two sides of the building and hundreds more in the court area in front of the building. People from all over the world were laughing, smiling, taking photos of the Notre Dame, and of course, taking selfies. After taking our own photos, we entered into the building. Besides the movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I didn’t really have much knowledge of the Notre Dame. The building itself was beautiful. The stained glass, the ceiling designs, the statues, just everything inside was amazing. It really humbles you to think how hundreds of years ago humans were able to build such an amazing piece of architecture with the amount of technology that was there for their time.

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After the Notre Dame, Carly wanted to find the Lovelock Bridge. The Lovelock Bridge is pretty self-explanatory, a bridge with locks that were put in place to show peoples’ love for Paris and for each other. Finding this Lovelock Bridge ended up being a task within itself. Carly had told us that the locks were being removed because of the heavy weight from all the locks weighing down the bridge. The first “bridge” we saw was a square surrounding of railing with locks all across them. We were confused because it obviously was not a bridge. Long story short, we came across two more bridges that had locks on railings along the sides on land. The railings for the actual bridges were bare. We’re not sure which was one was the original bridge but we found amusement by most of the locks that were on the railings.

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The next attraction was the big daddy of them all, the Eiffel Tower. We had the intention of taking the Metro to the Tower, but we ended up having a mishap after purchasing our tickets. At this point, we decided to walk. I can’t complain about the walk, on our way we walked by several attractions. The Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, Grand Palais, Assemblée Nationale, and we saw Hotel des Invalides and Roue de Pari in the distance.

After about a 45 minute walk, here we were, standing face to face with the Eiffel Tower. I instantly took out my phone and snapped pictures, trying to add pictures and videos to my Snapchat story as well. I couldn’t believe that I was standing within the realms of the Eiffel Tower. Growing up, I had viewed the Tower in pictures and film, but now I was there. The Las Vegas Eiffel Tower had nothing on the real deal (obviously). The three of us agreed that we wanted to go up the Tower. There were two ends of the Tower that you could enter. One side had an elevator (lift) that took you up to the 1st level, and then another elevator that takes you to the top. The other side had stairs where you walked up to the 1st level, and then later an elevator that takes you to the top.

We went on the side where we had to walk up to the 1st level of the Tower. In France, they consider “youth” to be up to the age of 24, which is awesome because that means cheaper prices than adult admission! Our admission for the 1st level was only 5 euros. We went through baggage check and the ticket check and made our way up the Tower. Once again, I just couldn’t believe that I was there but now walking up the Tower. Everything was just so surreal and it felt like I was in a story or in a video game. Reality still hadn’t really hit me that I was there. However, reality soon kicked in when our legs started feeling the burn of the 500+ steps we were climbing to the first level. Soon enough we reached the end of the stairs and the middle platform was gigantic. There was a gift shop, a small eating area, a conference room (which was holding something for the WHO organization), and the middle opening where one could walk to look below the Tower.

I was in awe with the beauty of looking out into the city of Paris from all four sides of the Tower. It was a beautiful and sunny day with very little clouds in the sky. I couldn’t help but to take several pictures of the scenery and to appreciate this opportunity that I had presented to me. I’m doing something that I was lucky enough to do because of the financial and emotional support of my parents. Without them, I wouldn’t have been there in the first place. After hanging around the middle area, we made our way up the next level because we found out that there was a macaroon bar. Each of us bought four macaroons. Mine were something with jasmine in the name, coffee, vanilla, and chocolate. If I had known prior to starting to eat them with chocolate, I would’ve saved that one for last. It was so freaking amazing that I would go back to the Tower any time of the year just for that one specific macaroon.

We found a seat on a bench that overlooked the city and we chowed down on our macaroons. After finishing our macaroons, Carly and I decided that we wanted to go up to the very top of the Tower. We thought that while we were on the second level that that was where we purchased the ticket to go to the top. Quickly we found out that we were wrong and that we were supposed to buy them at the bottom when we were buying our first ticket. I thought to myself, it is okay, my cousin and her friend will be visiting next month and I’ll just tag along with them to make the trip to the top. Carly and I ended up roaming around that level and stopped and stared at the beauty of Paris. I said it before but there’s no other way to describe the view of the city besides being absolutely beautiful. We simply didn’t want to leave. The trip to the Tower was worth the entire trip to Paris. After taking several more photos and making my MTV Cribs video (which I will have attached), we met back up with Hailee and decided to part ways with the Tower. After our descent down from the Tower, we walked to Parc Du Champ De Mars, where we took pictures of the Tower in its entirety. I could check off my bucket list visiting the Eiffel Tower.

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It was around 5 p.m. when we were done with the Tower and we decided to eat an early dinner. We ate at this restaurant, with the name escaping from me that was just a few minutes away from the Eiffel Tower. I ordered the Burger Janine, a grilled chicken burger with lettuce and cheese with a basket of French fries. It was a whopping 18 euros but for the price, it was absolutely delicious. I was thinking about ordering escargot but it was only offered as a starter, so I thought that maybe it wouldn’t have filled me up well enough for the price it was. After eating, we decided that we were going to take the Metro to get to the Arc de Triomphe.

The Arc de Triomphe is an architectural masterpiece. From a distance, you instantly can see how large it is but you can also start to make out the exquisite detail of the structure. After getting off of the Metro, we saw that there were military personnel around one side of the Arc, with some playing musical instruments. We thought that we had to walk around from the Metro to find a crosswalk over to the Arc. After a few minutes of walking, I realized that there was a stairwell that people were emerging from by the Arc. We walked back towards the Metro exit and soon enough found the stairwell that led to below the road and under the Arc. We didn’t realize that the Arc is a paid attraction in which you have to buy a ticket to be able to be next to the Arc. We were disappointed that we couldn’t get right up next to it, but we were satisfied that we were able to walk beneath it. We decided that the last thing we were going to do was to possibly ride the Roue de Parie, a Ferris wheel that overlooks the city.

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On our way to the Ferris wheel, we walked down a famous street which had many shops and a Christmas market. Before arriving to the Christmas fair, the girls located their favorite coffee stop, Starbucks. We took a breather and the girls sat down to finish their drinks. After sitting for so long, my body started to feel the wear and tear of the journey from the day and the day before. I decided to lay my head back and to rest my eyes. Just a few seconds after I closed my eyes I fell asleep and my mouth opened and it shocked me back awake. I looked at Carly and I realized that she saw and I was so embarrassed. We both couldn’t stop laughing. It was around 8ish and we decided to make the 20 minute walk to the wheel. Passing through the Christmas market felt funny because it’s only November. Christmas lights were on display and Christmas music was blaring throughout the couple miles of shop stands. The sights and the sounds put a smile to my face. It made me think about how I couldn’t wait to be back home for Christmas and with my family again.

After our walk, we arrived to the Roue de Parie. Once we were beneath the wheel, I realized how much I had underestimated the height of the wheel. This bad boy was huge. We each paid 12 euros and waited patiently in line. Well, not really patiently because there were several carts on the wheel that weren’t being used and it was cold and it was windy, not a pleasant combination. After what seemed to be an eternity of waiting, we were on the wheel. The view of the city was beautiful. We all took turns waiting for our cart to reach its peak and to take a picture of Paris and all its beauty. When the ride was finished, we took the Metro back to the apartment to get some rest and prepare for the next day.

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When we arrived back to the flat, we all sprawled out on the couches and just took in the fact that we got to experience just a small bit of one of the most spectacular cities in the world. Just like everyone else in my generation, the first thing I immediately thought of was, “I gotta update my Snapchat and upload pictures to Facebook and Instagram.” Shit, I had the idea for the caption I was going to use for my picture of the Eiffel Tower saved in my Notes section of my phone. All that had to be done first was to turn on the Wi-Fi.

That’s when my night at Paris experienced a dramatic twist.

Friends back home and in Cheltenham were asking me if I was safe. I was so confused, why would I not be safe? I went on Facebook and Twitter and saw posts and headlines that there was a reported bombing in Paris. At that moment, I was just confused. I wasn’t sure if I was still in real life or if I had fallen asleep and was dreaming. I looked into BBC News and saw that there was a bombing at Stade de France, where France was playing Germany in a football game. I reassured my friends that all was well and that the Stadium was a good distance away from where I was staying. We just looked at each other and couldn’t believe that this was happening, the night we come to Paris is when the city is under attack.

I went to take a shower to just unravel my thoughts and how I was going to tell my parents. I had the notion in my head though that my parents had already found out and were frantically trying to contact me (not that that’s a bad thing of course). As soon as I stepped out of the bathroom, Carly immediately told me to call my mom. I FaceTimed my mom and I could just see it in her face. She was horrified, she was in panic. She was telling me that her and my dad were just about to eat when they turned on the news and found out. She immediately lost her appetite and she said she was shaking. I reassured her that everything was going to be okay and that we were safe. Thinking about the situation now, it pains me more now than in it did before thinking about my parents. They were helpless, what could they do to get me out, to make sure I was safe?

After talking to my parents, Carly and I were updating our social media and messaging friends to let everyone know we were safe. Hailee, surprisingly (kind of sort of), fell asleep during the whole ordeal. Next, there were reports of shootings at various restaurants. We immediately looked up where they took place, and they were much closer to us than the bombings. We were scared, we were helpless. Soon thereafter, we heard about another incident, a hostage situation at a concert hall. Again, we looked up where this was happening. Less than one mile. Less than one mile away. Was the next event going to be where we were? What’s next on the minds of these terrorists? Carly and I sat there, listening to a stream of BBC News, waiting to hear and see what was going to happen next.

For a moment, Carly left the living room and I was sitting on the couch on my own. I was confused. Everything felt so real, yet so surreal at the same time. As a child, I grew up with attack of the Twin Towers on 9/11. I remember that day vividly. I was in Jacksonville, Florida with my mom and dad at the Days Inn Motel. We were eating breakfast in the main reception area with the news playing on a small television set up on the top corner of the wall. When I was watching it, I thought it was a movie. I was a 7 year old kid, I didn’t understand what was going on, I didn’t understand war. I realized that these attacks in Paris were clear signs of terrorism. I was in the middle of what could potentially be the start of a major war against ISIS.

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Credit to Carly’s dad for creating this.

When I was sitting on the couch, I truly thought that my life could’ve possibly neared its end. I had the sense that the odds of being attacked at the house were slim to none, but who knew when these attacks would end? How many attackers were there, how long was there intent to attack Paris? One night? Two? I felt tears trying to emerge but they never flowed. My heart felt like it was a thousand pounds. I kept thinking, what if we stayed at a house near those events, what if we didn’t come back at the time we did, what if we took this route home instead of the one we did?

For several hours, all we heard were sirens. Never once did we hear any gunfire or anything of the like. New reports were constantly being generated. The French borders were closed and the country was put in a state of emergency. Until 3ish in the morning, I constantly checked the news and messaged friends back home. I tried staying up as long as I could, but the exhaustion from the adventure of the day took over, and I fell asleep.

Daylight shined through the windows, everything still felt surreal. The day was supposed to be spent doing things we didn’t do the previous day but we stayed in. Aly texted me saying that her workplace was closed because of the attacks and that she would be at the house for the day. When she got to the house, she immediately apologized for what was happening. She made us breakfast and coffee and kept us company. Words cannot explain how much of a beautiful and amazing person that Aly is. And a bonus, she digs Drake’s music as much as I do (#blessed).

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Aly, our Parisian angel.

Day was slowly turning into night when Aly told us that she would be leaving soon to stay at her friend’s house. We decided to walk as close to the Bataclan Theatre as possible before it got dark. The streets still had people on them, but the silence was louder than anything I’ve ever heard. No one was really speaking, all you could hear were the vehicles passing by and the footsteps of pedestrians. Roads leading to the theatre were blocked off and guarded by police. People and news reporters were present, all trying to see what was left of the scene. Afterwards, we went to a local shop to buy food and to purchase souvenirs. Of all the cities I have visited since I have studied abroad, the souvenirs I would get myself would be little trinkets, with the name of the city or point of interest I visited on it. My souvenir from Paris, however, is a French newspaper. This newspaper is going to be my most important one that I have, as it will mark a day I will never forget in my life.

Night time came and we had to get to the bus station for our 11:30 pm ride back to London. The Metro was dead. Usually, the stations are filled with people. When we were waiting for the next Metro, you could probably spot, at most, 2 other people waiting. The carts were sparse with people, maybe 15-20 at most on the whole Metro. At our transfer station, we had originally planned to take the streets to walk the rest of the way to the bus station. When we got outside, the road was lined up with police vans. Officers were walking up and down the sidewalks, machine guns in hand. I went to a group of officers to ask them for directions. It was hard to focus on their instructions because all I could focus on was the fact that their guns were at eye level to me and their hands were set, ready to fire at any moment. We were advised to take the Metro to a different station as it would have been a quicker, and safer route. Inside on a different level of the station were military personnel, also equipped with machine guns. It felt like I was in a movie, or a video game.

The bus ride back to London was a quick and unpainful process. I won’t describe exactly how going through border patrol was, but to simply put it, it was much simpler than expected. 36 hours after the attacks, I was back in Cheltenham, it my little dorm room.

Reflecting on these thoughts about the past weekend is still interesting to me. I am not French and I am not a Parisian. I will never be able to fully empathize with the people of France and I will never feel the same amount of pain that they did as a country. I saw and heard the pain and fear of the Parisian people firsthand, but as a foreigner, I didn’t feel that same pain and fear.

One of the things that hurt the most about the whole event was the reaction of my French brother Maxime. He was one of the first people to contact me to make sure I was okay during the attacks. When I saw him Monday night during basketball training, I could see the despair and pain on his face. We embraced each other with a big hug and he told me that he was sorry that I had to visit his home during that time. I smiled and told him that it was okay, I was just happy to be alive and with my friends again. At that moment, I realized that it didn’t matter if I was French. As people of this world, we were all affected. Amid all the chaos and fear, the people of Paris opened their doors to those who were in fear, to house them and to care for them. The amount of love the people of Paris had that night was incredible.

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My French brother Maxime. (ignore the Asian glow)

Life is such a precious thing that we all have and it’s a beautiful and twisted thing. We experience our ups, we experience our downs. 2015 has been a hell of a year for me. I had my first love, my first heartbreak, my first experience of depression, and most importantly, a big reminder of how quickly life can end. I believe that it is our job, as humans, to love compassionately. You truly never know what’s going on in someone’s life, but a simple smile can go leaps and bounds in bringing up someone’s spirit.

I know that when I leave Europe, I will be leaving amazing people that I am lucky to call my friends, but I know that I will never forget them. When I get back home to Pensacola, I will embrace my friends and family with open arms and a smile. Every day of my life will serve as a reminder that I am incredibly blessed to have not been a statistic to the attacks in Paris. My heart will forever be with those that we lost, those in Paris, and with people around the world.

November 13, 2015 – a day I will never forget.

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To the military and police of Paris, I thank you for keeping me safe.
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