“There was a terrorist attack in Paris,” Danny said.
I sat straight up from my cot and blinked down into my lap, rubbing my bleary eyes. Tangerine beams of streetlamp light cut through the curtains of the room's east window. Down below, a tram car clattered past; the boulevard otherwise was silent. It was 7AM, dark and cool, in Ghent.
“Terrorist attack. There’s like 80 people dead.”
My team mates and I were staying in a second-floor apartment in the Moscou neighborhood of the city – we had arrived a few days beforehand for the upcoming International Belgian Open. This was my second visit to Ghent within the year in pursuit of UCI points. Roughly 296 kilometers (183 miles) south, just hours before we woke, a mass of murderous monsters had descended on various points of one of the most decorated and closely-patrolled cities in Europe – managing to shoot and bomb their way through innocent crowds. We wouldn’t learn the full scope and death toll until later on.
“This is a hell of a time to be an American in Europe,” I mumbled. “F*ck.” We were always aware of a certain discomfort in being an American abroad, regardless of where it was. It’s a common notion that Americans are universally disliked, and that in travel we take an extra risk that someone will do us harm. We were here for a bike race, but that took a back seat in my brain for a moment as I tried to process these events along with our proximity to Paris. We had been walking and riding around all week with "USA" stamped on our chests – in a foreign region that suddenly felt less safe.
“They’re closing the borders. France is in a state of emergency,” Danny clarified.
Indeed, France was not screwing around.
“Well, now what happens?” I looked at Danny and Maddie through the streaks of amber light and shadows.
Danny shrugged. “We race.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, we will now observe a moment of silence for the victims of Paris,” boomed a voice over the loudspeaker across the Vlaams Wielercentrum Eddy Merckx.
All conversation stopped. Roller warm-ups ground to a halt; a compressor blasted air through the mounting quiet. Those on the infield turned towards the stands with raised heads and squared shoulders.
My heart drummed against my ribcage and clanged into my throat; I felt my pulse in my ears. It seemed so loud inside my body that I speculated who else could hear. I was certain that the calamity was audible and I couldn’t determine why it was happening. Nerves were to be expected, but it had been a long time since they were this pronounced. Perhaps that happens when one is still reeling in the aftershocks of jarring news.
I gazed across the infield to the French team standing stoic in their pit – four men and a woman for the sprinters, from what I could tell; I was surprised that they had made it. I wondered what was going through their minds as they passed the silence. I wondered if their heads and hearts were pounding in the same rapid and deafening symphony – even if their reasons were different than mine. I wondered, but I could only really guess.
“Merci, madames et messieurs.”
We continued to roll for several laps after our 5th-8th final. The French rider and I had just finished our last 3-lap battle for the evening (she took 5th and I a close 6th). I reached down from up track and shook her hand as we rolled – grasped and really shook it. It was a normal congratulatory gesture, but I had wanted it to show solidarity. I wanted her to know that our team felt the same shock and fear that she might. I wanted to be there for this fellow competitor whom I didn’t actually know.
As I walked out of the infield that later evening, I saw the French girl curled up by a support beam while talking on the phone. She sat with her knees pulled to her chest and one hand clutched at her feet; her face was flushed as she babbled in rapid-fire French. I strode past and studied my sneakers in an attempt to give her privacy. On any other day she might have seemed flustered by results, all spilling out to a coach or family member on the other side of the phone. Today it was difficult to tell; it was anyone’s guess. I wanted to ask, but I couldn’t. I wanted to know if she was okay, but I didn’t.
I mourn Paris – just as I mourn Lebanon and Bangladesh and Egypt and Turkey and Tunisia and Kuwait. I mourn the worshippers whom ISIS bombed in a mosque during Friday Prayer. I mourn those lost in a peace rally which was descended upon by ISIS suicide bombers. Violence and hate have few geographic and cultural boundaries – but so do harmony and love. I mourn all of these losses in all of these places, even if I cannot reach them. If there is an opportunity to offer strength and support, however small a gesture, how could one not do so?
I can remember where I was when we learned that our nation had been attacked. I sat at the front of Mrs. Koch’s 6th grade English class as we watched the crash footage looping continuously on the news. We had believed our country to be safe – that these things couldn’t happen, not to us, or that they would be thwarted before they could become real. Perhaps that was what everyone experienced in and around Paris. I might not know exactly what the French riders were thinking and feeling on that day, but I have a ballpark idea. The notion that just a couple hours away one’s countrymen are dying, grieving, fearful, and raging in the wake of unprecedented atrocity is quite familiar. Paris is very close to us in this regard – through this we manage to empathize, not merely sympathize.
If I had spoken to the French rider, I would have told her that it would be okay. I would have told her that I knew, at least a little bit, how she felt. I would have told her that she and her team were not alone – that we were scared and uncertain too. I would have told her: we both bleed the same colors – we are red, white and blue; nous sommes bleu, blanc, et rouge.