It was in March 2000, I was 23 years old and had just finished my chemistry studies. Before starting my first job, I went travelling with my so called 'Round The World Ticket'. All on my own! My English was ABSOLUTELY rubbish at the time. I was far too shy to speak it and hadn't been very good at school due to that, as well as never really having practiced it. I flew from Frankfurt to Sydney and after a few days with a German family, and getting over my terrible jet lag, I set off for my Australia-tour along the East Coast. My first stop was somewhere down the coast, called 'Byron Bay', with lots of lovely beaches.
I was only able to speak a few sentences in English that I had practiced and known off the top of my head. I stayed for a night in a youth hostel. One of those cheap ones with loads of people in a dormitory room. There was a big leisure area to hang around where one could also find quite a few computers that were for everybody to use. Most people probably regularly wanted to write emails home.
I had arrived in the evening. The next morning, I got up just before 8am. I was the only one in that leisure area with those computers as it was early morning. I went to the reception to ask whether I could use a computer and the staff there usually took one's first name as well as the starting time for using the internet. Once one was finished, they had to go back to the desk and pay. As a German, I always used the very common sentence 'Im Internet surfen' for browsing the internet, translated into English: 'Surf the internet'.
I wanted to check my emails and see if I had a reply from people back in Germany. No single soul was sitting at any of the computers. I stood by the reception and came out with one of my 'prepared' English sentences. "I would like to go surfing," I said. The man at the reception looked at me. "Okay, when would you like to go? Today or tomorrow?" he asked. I was puzzled. I looked over to the computers and couldn't see where the problem was. Why not straight away!!?? "Now!" I said. "Well, let me check," he said.
He picked up the phone and dialed a number. I was even more puzzled about why he needed to phone somebody to find out whether I could use a bloody computer or not. He spoke to somebody on the phone. I didn't understand a thing. I just waited, being confused. He hung up the phone and looked at me again. "Alright, you can go at 9 o'clock. Your private teacher is going to pick you up," he said. "Private teacher?" I said. I didn't need a private teacher to be taught how to use the internet and write some damned emails!
And then, finally, the penny dropped. I pointed to the computers. "No, no! Surfing the internet! Emails, please!" I said, pointing over to all those many desks available. The guy at the reception, his colleague and me, we all had a sudden and massive laugh. It was clear then what I wanted and that I didn't need a teacher for it. The nice man, still laughing, picked up his phone again as he was going to cancel my surfing lesson. Well, that way, I never learned how to ride the waves!
It was in November 2015. One early evening. Two days after the horrific terror attacks in Paris. The previous day, I had still been far too scared to go out or anywhere near the places where terrorists had killed a lot of people, but on the second day of the aftermath, I felt that it was the right thing to do to go to two of the cafés, where people had been shot dead, as they are only some walking minutes away from where my boyfriend and I live.
It felt right for two reasons: paying tribute to the victims, and to try to fully realize and cope with what had happened. - So many times before that horrible night of the attacks, I had been cycling past the two cafés ' Le Petit Cambodge' and 'Le Carillon', whenever I was on my way to the city!
My boyfriend and I decided to buy two flowers and then we were walking down the roads to lay them down, outside the cafés. It was already dark and I didn't feel comfortable at all. I was wondering whether we were actually safe. I kept looking around, and particularly behind us. Once we had reached the road of the cafés, we saw a lot of people gathering, who were doing just the same as us: paying tribute. Loads of flowers had already been laid and loads of candles were lit up. Police were everywhere. We laid our two white roses next to each other in front of 'Le Petit Cambodge'. I found it was the right choice, because I felt the most touched by that location as I had known exactly, as soon as it had been mentioned on the news, which place was meant. And, additionally, I remembered my boyfriend, some time ago, saying to me: "We should go there sometime for a meal."
I am not really a religious person (anymore), but I even found myself making a quick prayer when looking onto the sea of flowers and candles. Things felt surreal. Despite so many people being around, it was so very quiet. So very unusually quiet, as Paris is always very noisy! A short while later, I went to the other side of the road to try and have a look at the things other people had laid in front of 'Le Carillon'. My boyfriend had received a message from his son and we decided that he would stay some meters behind, to reply to him, while I was making my way through the crowd to get to the first row and get a closer look.
I had bent down to the candles and just stood up again. Everything was still so very quiet around me. And then, all of a sudden, I heard a voice from my left side calling out loud: "Just GO, GO, GO!" The silence was over. People were screaming. And everybody started running, including me. Running away, running for their lives. I don't think that I was screaming at all, but I am not 100% sure about that. I am very sure, though, that I was panicking as much as everybody else. Within the first couple of seconds after everybody had started running, and pushing, I knew: I must NOT fall. "Don't fall over!" went through my head, as it was clear to me straight away that falling over could mean not being able to get up anymore, as other running people might just be stamping over me. "Don't fall over and just run!"
Within the next few seconds, I was thinking of my boyfriend. As I had just started running with the flow, I had lost him. I didn't hesitate with running really; well, perhaps for a milli-second, as I was considering looking behind me to see where he was, but I then thought that I would most likely not see him anyway, and, most importantly, I relied on him running for his life as well. Just getting away. I kept running and then thinking that every next moment a bullet could hit my body. It was an indescribable moment. I thought "Now this is me, us, the people around me who are running." I came to another road. I crossed it without knowing whether the traffic lights for me were green or red. I just ran and crossed it. And then another road. I got tired from running and slowed down. Then I pushed myself to go faster again, telling myself: "Every meter helps!! Keep going!"
I kept running. Then, I noticed people at some windows of the buildings along the street that I was running in. The people were calling something. I didn't understand what they were saying, but what I definitely did notice was that their voices sounded so clear, so very calming. Nobody in the windows was expressing panic. I believed that they were calling people into their houses. They showed great proficiency, somehow, in their actions at that moment. I don't know what it really was, but indeed, I felt that the Parisians reacted instinctively in the right way, and as if they had had practice at calling people inside. I saw some people getting through a door. I followed them. Everybody was hectically pushing inside. Then, I found myself in a yard between houses. An inner courtyard. There were about 10 to 15 other people with me. We all seemed safe and in good shelter. The door had been closed.
I realized that I was breathing very fast. I was still holding my phone in my hand, as I had had it out to take some pictures of the flowers and candles in front of the cafés. Wax splashes from people's candles at the cafés were on the screen of my phone. I dialed my boyfriend's number. I got no connection. I dialed it again and then did get a connection. But he didn't answer the phone. Straight away I thought of the worst: That he had been shot dead. Or: he had fallen and been stamped all over. His answering machine picked up and I hung up again. I tried calling him again. While it was ringing, I said out loud: "Come on now, pick up!" And I started swearing: "Fucking pick up now!" Nothing. I was desperate. I was devastated. I had probably never ever before wanted to call somebody as desperately as then.
I held my head in my hands. There was some more wax on my forehead. I scraped it off. All the other people around me had their phones in their hands, too. But nobody seemed as worried and shaky as I was. Nobody other than me seemed to have lost somebody. I tried calling again. And eventually, THANK GOODNESS, I heard my boyfriend saying "Hello?" "Where are you?" I asked frantically. "I'm still near the crossing. Where are you?" was his answer. I got mad. And angry - well, caringly angry! "Are you crazy? Are you fucking crazy? You are still in the streets? Bloody get shelter somewhere! Hide yourself. I am safe, and that's why I'll hang up now. I'll call you again in five minutes, once you have got inside a building somewhere!" I didn't ask him but definitely commanded. He sounded as if in agreement just before I hung up.
Before calling him back after some minutes, I was unable to just wait. It was impossible. I needed to know what had happened, and I wanted some contact with people that I knew rather than just be with the, to me, foreign people inside the yard. I wrote a text message asking for information about what was going on in the streets of Paris - whether somebody could tell me something about the new attack that was taking place. My phone didn't have any connection to the internet. I quickly sent that text message to the entire contact list in my phone.
Then I called my boyfriend again. He had found shelter in another place - in a café somewhere - and was hiding and cowering with other people on the floor, behind walls and columns, and later further in a backroom. I was definitely relieved about that. Even though it had been some minutes since I was running, I was still breathing fast. I struggled keeping my phone still. My hands were shaking too much, and I got pins and needles in them. My legs were shaking. People of the flats around the inner courtyard were walking between us people, who had fled into their place. They were kindly offering water and chairs. I was asked to sit on one chair. But I couldn't keep still and stood up after a few seconds again.
I received the first replies from people who had texted back to me. They were telling me that they didn't know what had happened but had just switched on their TVs and were following the news. I sat down on the floor. Stood up again and squatted back down again. And then I started crying as I was holding my face in my hands. I tried to pull myself together again. A woman came and offered me some chocolate. I didn't want any. She walked around to ask other people if somebody felt they needed, or wanted, some chocolate. I was asked to drink some water, but I felt totally incapable. I thought I would spill it all over, due to my shaking. I spotted some more wax splashes on my jeans. I looked around at my clothes and found loads of wax on my jacket. I didn't care about it, though.
I called my boyfriend again. Just because I needed to hear what he was doing in his place of shelter. I was happy to hear his voice. He asked me where exactly I was, but I didn't know myself. He started explaining things about where he was, as I had asked him. I had asked him during the previous call already, but I must not have listened properly. Each time I had called him, I started the conversation with "Where are you?" And when he now explained it again, as well as what was happening around him, I was again not able to listen really. I wanted to know things but was incapable of listening and concentrating at the same time.
While talking to him, I heard some beeps in my phone, which indicated that there were some other people calling and texting me. I hung up again. I was still shaking a lot and my hands seemed by now almost bloodless. Pins and needles were really strong. I could hear the sound of helicopters in the air. They had gone up to fly over Paris and observe the situation from above. I talked to some of the other people around me in the yard. Some of them appeared relieved. I looked at some of the text messages that I had got, as well as listened to voice mail. And then, also I was more or less relieved: It had been a false alarm! Some unusual and disturbing noises - like loud firecrackers - had apparently been heard around the nearby ' Place de la République'. Even the police had believed it was another attack, to start with.
My boyfriend called me. He told me the same news and said that everything was fine. Despite the positive news, my - and surely everybody else's - fear had been real! Bloody real! And that's why my legs were still shaking and didn't stop. Somebody opened the door of the yard and the first people were leaving it. One of the kindly caring residents said to me that it would be good if I ate some sugar before leaving. I agreed. She went into her flat, came back and gave me two pieces of sugar. They were helping my body to stop shaking. Merci Madame! Merci beaucoup! Once again on the phone with my boyfriend, we arranged where to meet up. I walked down a couple of roads and then I already saw him from the distance. I hung up and ran towards him. It felt just too good to be in his arms and that we were both alive!!!