A Friday in France

Sergeants tell their soldiers not to roam around Europe alone. You travel in a pack or you don’t travel at all. He had been to Nuremberg for kicks, Oktoberfest for the booze and the Alps for a soldier retreat. The only time he crossed Germany’s borders was when he flew back home to Chicago for Christmas. He had been stationed in Germany for 18 months and had left the country once during his enlistment.

A couple months ago he booked himself a room in a hostel and snuck off to Venice by himself. He walked along the water and sipped chardonnay out on patios. He made it back to the barracks in time to report for duty on Monday.

On Friday, November 13, he snuck out again without signing the right papers and filling out the right forms. He told a few of his buddies in his platoon, told them to keep an eye on his stuff, packed a bag for another room alone and got on the 12:55 train that read “Paris.”

Eight hours later he was in France. He walked past the Eiffel Tower, posted an Instagram, found a restaurant and ordered a glass of chardonnay for 10 euro. Then my brother called our mother.

“Hey Mom, what are you doing?”

“Oh nothing, just working. What about you?”

“Nothing really, just hanging out in Paris.”

“You’re there?! Now?!”

My brother laughed. He didn’t tell anyone his plans.

“Yea I’m just sitting at some restaurant drinking chardonnay. I got to see the Eiffel Tower earlier.”

“Oh my gosh I am so jealous. Well have fun and be careful.”

“Will do, love you Mom.”

He hung up the phone and made plans to check out a nightclub a friend recommended to him. It was chilly outside so he figured he’d head out soon. Thirty minutes later, two women sitting in the restaurant asked if he was American. Yes, he said. They told him that an active shooter was in the city 20 minutes away. Seven were reportedly dead. My brother sipped his white wine slowly and remained calm, blending in as much as he could. Then the text messages came.

“Hey I heard you’re in Paris, are you OK?” “Hope you’re safe man, give me a call when you can.” “28 dead in Paris, you safe?” “I heard there are 60 people dead in Paris.” “Get inside man, now there’s a hostage situation.”

An hour or two went by and the atmosphere felt eerie. There were no cabs in the streets. Police stood on every busy corner, all heavily armed. A strange excitement ran through my brother’s body. Call it soldier instinct. On his walk home, a police officer stopped him and warned that going any further north was a bad idea. A man saw the interaction and offered to give my brother a ride home. His phone was low on battery. He couldn’t communicate with anyone back home or on base without Wi-Fi. Five long hours later, he was back in his room.

He woke up the next morning and found eight soldiers blocking off the small street he stayed on. He walked down to the corner café and ordered a coffee and a crepe. One thing you inherit as a soldier is to never let someone come up behind you. He sat with his back to the wall, lit up a cigarette after breakfast and watched. The city seemed in better spirits than he expected. He took another walk towards the Tower and strolled through the Christmas market on Champs-Élysées. It was surprisingly crowded. Everywhere he walked, he found an escape route, constantly listening for the crack of an AK-47.

The day turned to night and he had one more on the town. The evening was tired and somber. He wandered around more restaurants and bars, more wine and beer. At Corcoran’s Pub, the crowd was small for a Saturday but spirits were better than expected. Rugby was on the tube. My brother sat and drank.

A man later walked in with a woman hanging on him. Another woman ran to him and embraced him. My brother knew exactly had what happened. The man went out for a smoke and my brother followed. They talked for a bit. His best friend was at the Bataclan on Friday night. His best friend was shot and killed 24 hours earlier. My brother cried with him, cried for him, apologized to him. My brother asked if there was anything he could do. What was there to do?

“No thanks,” said the man. “But that’s very nice of you.”

My brother felt so small in that moment. He texted our mother and told her he loved her. He walked around Paris again wondering what would happen next. The people of France were on his mind. Through all horror and tragedy, in that pub, it was nice to see people caring about people.

For the second time, he returned to base safely from a weekend trip away. After Friday’s events, he felt the strength of France. But what would happen next?

Originally published at patrick-charles.tumblr.com.