A trip to the City of Lights turns dark

Fred McCormick

The world watched in stunned silence on Friday, Nov. 13 as a series of coordinated attacks were carried out throughout Paris. What unfolded at several city locations, at a time when Parisians were starting their weekends at popular gathering spots, created terror on the streets and uneasiness around the globe.

A mile away from of one of the attacks, in the 19th Arrondissement, local real estate agent Dawn Wilson was still adjusting to her surroundings in this city of more than 2 million people.

Wilson, who has lived in Black Mountain since 1992, arrived in Paris in early September, moving in with daughter Annelies Fryberger and son-in-law Jens Beckert. Wilson has been caring for grandson Jasper while Fryberger earns her Ph.D. in sociomusicology.

“The main difficulty I had at first was transitioning from a small town to a big city,” Wilson said by phone recently. “Also, I don’t speak any French, and I’m on my own during the day while my daughter is at school and her husband is at work. I’ve had to learn to communicate using a dictionary and hand gestures.”

While learning to navigate the elaborate and heavily traveled public transportation system, Wilson has become accustomed to dealing with crowds when she leaves her family’s apartment in the neighborhood, home to the scenic Parc des Buttes-Chaumont.

The diverse neighborhood includes families of North African heritage, as well as practicing Muslims and those observing Orthodox Judaism. The cultures blend into a sea of people, according to Wilson.

“I’m constantly surrounded by people here, but it’s all people that are going to work, going to school, going to pick up their kids, or going to the grocery store,” Wilson said. “Just people living their lives, so I never felt unsafe.”

Her life there became unsettled turn on Nov. 13, however.

“I was watching a movie on my computer, and Skype rang in my earphones,” she said. “It was my daughter that lives in North Carolina calling to make sure I was OK. It was just after midnight here.”

Wilson listened as her shaken daughter told her of the tragedy unfolding just a few blocks away. She stepped onto the balcony where a chorus of sirens could be heard near the Centre Pompidou, where Annelies works.

“There were several restaurants that were hit, and I was in that neighborhood just hours before,” Wilson said. She had the afternoon off from childcare, so she took the bus down to the center, a tourist area, to look for a gourmet food shop.

“Many of the places were attacked were places where young people, like college students, like to hang out,” she said. “Plus, it had been a beautiful, warm day, so everybody was sitting outside. It really broke my heart to think about all of those families learning that bad news.”

Wilson would later find out that Annelies and Jens, her daughter and son-in-law, heard the sirens as they walked home from dinner, their phones off, oblivious to what was happening around them. As her family slept safely in their rooms, Wilson utilized a Facebook feature that allows people to “check in,” letting others know they are unharmed.

Many Parisians stayed indoors the next morning, following events online and on TV. Wilson and her family were occupied themselves with house chores and yoga. The normally bustling streets below were silent.

Days later, as the city sought normalcy once again in everyday life, Annelies shared news that brought the tragedy even closer to home.

“My daughter and son-in-law both had colleagues that were victims in the attacks,” Wilson said. “She (Annelies) was at work and needed to make an appointment with her doctor, and she discovered her doctor’s name on the list of the deceased. Her primary care doctor was killed in the incident.”

Wilson has been more cautious and vigilant in the days after the attacks, she said. With a couple of weeks there before coming home, she was still determined to get out and see more of what Paris has to offer, she said.

“I definitely feel like I’m watching as an outsider,” she said. “When I walk down the street, I can’t understand the conversations that people are having, but I’m sure people are talking about it.” They seem more somber than distressed.

Despite lingering concerns for her family, Wilson is thankful to be returning to her home in the Swannanoa Valley in the coming days.

“I miss the small-town feel and the quiet and the mountains,” she said. “And my friends. I have a lot of very good friends in Black Mountain.”