The last—and only—time I visited Paris was in the summer of 2005.
I was studying in England over the summer, and had taken the Eurostar to Paris to meet my wife and sister-in-law for a wonderful couple of weeks exploring Paris, Normandy, Mont Saint Michel, and the Loire Valley. We had a glorious time—a dream vacation.
On July 7, I dropped off my family at Charles de Gaulle airport, then returned to Paris and boarded the Eurostar to go back to England.
But during the train’s stop at Calais—the last town before crossing into England—the doors opened and the PA system announced an unexpected delay, followed by the strange recommendation that everyone deboard and be transported back to Paris, free of charge. The announcer gave no explanation, nor any estimation of the length of the delay.
That was odd, but I didn’t think much of it. Since I didn’t know what was happening and didn’t speak a lick of French, I decided not to return to Paris but to stay on the train and wait it out.
The delay lasted about forty-five minutes; then the doors closed and the train headed under the English Channel.
However, when we reached Ashford on the British side, again the train stopped and the doors opened. This time there was another train next to us, pointing back toward France. The PA system announced another delay, along with an even stronger recommendation that we should board the train beside us and return to Paris.
Something was happening in London.
At this point, cell phones started going off and conversations became hushed. Straining to overhear, I gathered that there was an emergency of some sort. London had suffered an explosion, or a series of explosions. Initially, it sounded like a power transformer problem or something like that. I desperately hoped it was—but I suspected it was not, because why would a power failure warrant a recommendation to return to Paris?
A silent fear crept through me. My body constricted and my throat grew dry as I researched my maps of London, trying to find the various locations I heard people mentioning. I felt some relief as I concluded that these locations did not seem to be near my intended destinations: Waterloo and then Euston Station.
But I was wrong. When the train pulled into London, crowds had gathered to watch TV broadcasts showing an unraveling situation. Three bombs had gone off in different areas of the Tube—London’s subway system—and a fourth on a double-decker bus; terrorism was suspected.
I was standing just a couple of miles from where these bombs had detonated.
At the ticket counter, I asked about rescheduling my ticket out of Euston Station since the delays had caused me to miss my connecting train. The ticket agent replied bluntly, “Euston is closed.” Euston was just three blocks from where the bus bomb had gone off.
Now I understood the effects of terrorism first hand: the unsettling fear that perhaps the attacks were not over; the determination to remain stoic on the outside while reeling on the inside; the inability to wrap one’s mind around what is happening; the growing confusion and panic over not knowing what to do next.
Everything was shut down. The only sound seemed to be the screaming sirens of emergency vehicles. I thought I would be stranded in a foreign city with no place to go. Worse, the authorities believed more attacks could be planned.
In an instant, all plans went up in flames. I could only explore my next step; it was impossible to look any further.
The ticket agent gave me a new itinerary that would take me through various locations and eventually to Birmingham—only about 90 miles away—while reminding me things could change any minute as events unraveled around the city. I was okay with that—just taking one thing at a time. That was all I could do.
Eventually I completed my twisted path back Birmingham—late, tired, and greatly relieved.
But the tension continued. The next day, I went into the city centre for supplies. When I returned to my room, an email from the U.S. was waiting for me, asking if I was okay. It turned out the city centre had just been evacuated due to a suspicious package on a bus. It turned out to be nothing, but the uncertainty was nerve-wracking and illustrated how much I, and everyone else, was on edge. Nerves were frayed.
Then, two weeks later, I was in London, staying in a hotel over the Russell Street entrance to the Tube, near where one of the bombs had gone off. The entrance was still closed due to the ongoing investigation. An impromptu memorial was set up in the square across the street. And just as things seemed to be getting back to normal, terrorists attempted to detonate more bombs. Thankfully, all of the detonators failed. But the true damage of terrorism was done: everyone believed another attack was imminent. Life had changed. This was the new normal: navigating life as best we could, while trying to keep our unsettling fears in check.
When the events unfolded in Paris last Friday, I found myself once again deeply engaged as new and scattered details emerged on the television screen. I felt the same fear I had felt in 2005—the uncertainty, the sorrow, the horror. The mostly blank expressions of Parisians, trying to hide their shock while exiting the stadium or standing on the sidewalks, seemed very familiar. Hearing the TV news anchors report sketchy details of yet another attack touched a raw, horrifying uncertainty that I had buried beneath ten years of “normal” life. I relived the feelings of those living in a city under attack – walking through train stations and wondering what to do, as sirens wailed past in the streets.
During that time I wished for normalcy, but instead I had to will myself to live each abnormal day as normally as I could.
Life is beyond our control; we must function on bits and pieces of information without knowing the whole story. And evil does exist. I don’t pretend to understand the complexities of cultures or current events, but last Friday I saw evil on my TV screen—and though I was thousands of miles away, I clung to Jesus as if I were back in London, living through old emotions from long ago.
At such times I do feel like a sheep, hearing the growls of a predator just beyond the reaches of darkness. I cannot see him but I know he sees me. I am helpless; I am frightened. I don’t know exactly who the predator is, or why I am being targeted. At this moment, I just want to run to my Shepherd and stand as close to him as possible.