An American In Paris: Living in Paris After Charlie Hebdo Attack


The author, Sara Lieberman, in front of “I love you: The Wall,” a monument dedicated to love in Paris. (Photo: Sara Lieberman)

“Where are you going?”

“Where have you been?

These are familiar questions, especially for travelers. Nobody understands the importance of place and memory quite like those who wander. Details become enmeshed in our brains — the smell of burning palm leaves on the beach in Mexico, the ache of one’s muscles after climbing Snowdon in Wales, or the sound of roosters crowing in Bali. We relate to these things with all of our senses. For this reason the traveler can almost always answer the question:

“Where were you when…?”

I had just stepped out onto Rue de Chateaudun, yoga bag on my shoulder, when I saw the news alert on my phone. Some 45 minutes earlier, as I was moving from warrior one to warrior two at Qee studio near my apartment in Paris’ 9th arrondissement, 10 journalists at the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo along with two armed guards, had been shot by terrorists. While the minutes and hours and days since have been a blur of time and space, I’ll never forget where I was.

And I’m not alone.

“I was in the Picasso Museum in the Marais when I found out,” says Leah Walker, a Houston-born writer who has visited Paris seven times in the past year.

“I was on my way back from the pool on metro line 8,” says American design consultant Anne Ditmeyer of Pret-a-Voyager, who has lived in Paris on and off since 2001.

Related: Is Paris Safe for Tourists Following Terrorist Attacks?

“I was sleeping when the sirens went off and woke me up,” says New York expat Adam Tsou, co-owner of Parisian restaurants Le Mary Celeste, Candelaria, Glass, and the forthcoming Hero.


Citizens gather to mourn the victims of the attacks. (Photo: AP)

It’s too soon to tell whether many of those outside the 20 arrondissements of Paris will remember exactly where they were when gunman charged into the satirical newspaper’s office at the start of the New Year. While opposing world leaders stood together and millions marched in solidarity all over the world, it’s the French, and those with an immediate connection to the country, who will presumably retain a vivid recollection of the day’s tragic events and those thereafter.

Related: It’s Not Just Paris—Terror Travel Warnings Around the World

Just like New Yorkers on 9/11.

I know. I was there, too. I had gotten up early to drive my best friend Amy from our hometown on Long Island to the airport when the first plane hit the North Tower. She was going on a business trip and I was not yet working, having just returned from a post-college backpacking stint through Southeast Asia. As we pulled up to JFK, we were promptly told to turn back around and go home immediately.

As travelers know, “home” can be a physical place or one we hold dear in our minds and hearts as we continue to roam about the globe.


Global citizens have sent a strong message to the terrorists that they won’t be cowed by their actions. (Photo: AP)

So many years later, I remembered those words as I stood on the street in Paris staring at my phone. Having only just recently arrived in the city, “home” physically meant my studio apartment just off Rue des Martyrs in South Pigalle. I went there to pour over the news reports and field worried text messages and phone calls from back home. But as I did, I was transported back 14 years ago to Long Island with my father, who when I arrived home from the airport was sitting on the chair in our living room, mouth agape at the television. Still in his robe, he put his untouched coffee down and grabbed the keys to the boat, which we drove from our backyard toward the inlet 15 minutes away, looking in disbelief at a hole in the skyline where the Towers once stood some 30 miles to the West.

In the days and weeks after 9/11, New York City was a different place. Flyers for the missing canvassed subway stops. Smoke and dust still billowed from lower Manhattan and its scent wafted as far as the Bronx. Neighbors and strangers reached out to one another to provide comfort. Harried commuters stopped in their tracks to hug cops and firemen. And whenever it came up in conversation, it seemed there was only ever a one- or two-degree gap between you and someone who had perished. Some tourists stayed away. Some flocked to console the city and others came for the voyeurism, to see first-hand a place that had been undone.

Related: TSA Increases Random Searching at Airports Following Paris Attacks

It’s been two weeks since the first Charlie Hebdo attack, and being an American in Paris is… strange. I’m too new to truly understand the magnitude of this insult on French “culture populaire” as it’s known, but yet the message of “liberté d’expression” is loud, clear, and universal — especially for a journalist of 14 years. Despite not speaking French fluently, this is the only topic where the language barrier is broken and I’m able, in some way, to relate and understand my new neighbors.


The author outside of the Eiffel Tower prior to the attacks. (Photo: Sara Lieberman)

With the exception of the “Je Suis Charlie” signs in every single boutique, restaurant, boulangerie, and press stand, as well as an increased presence of armed guards around newspaper offices and places of worship, Parisians are still drinking their cafés or vin while smoking their cigarettes, huddled under heat lamps in wicker chairs outside brasseries. Tourists are still trying to pronounce Montmartre up near the Sacré Coeur and standing on line for the best falafel in the Marais. While the mood is still tense — especially at the sound of a siren or any loud noise, for that matter — this a resilient, united nation. None of us will give in to living in fear.

Just as in the wake of previous tragedies, from JFK’s assassination in the ‘60s to 9/11 in New York to the marathon bombing in Boston, those on the outskirts will find common ground with those directly affected by sharing how — and where — they experienced such shocks to the system of a Parisian life they thought they knew.


Signs of support dot the city. (Photo: AP)

Which is why it’s our duty as travelers, as seekers of what’s beyond our comfortable, recognizable borders, to continue answering those two other important questions:

Where have we been? Where will we continue to go?