I’m Going to Paris and I’m Not Afraid

Just weeks after finding out she’d be moving to Paris for a semester abroad, the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks happened. Milwaukee Magazine intern Mary Jo Contino shares the reasons why she’s still going to Paris.

On Nov. 13, 2015, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks killed 130 people in Paris, France. The bloodshed was orchestrated by the growing terrorist group ISIS, which indicated the attacks were in retaliation for the French air strike on Iraq and Syria, Opération Chammal.

France immediately went into a state of emergency, and the world went into a state of shock. A worldwide travel alert was issued by the U.S. State Department, warning citizens of the risk of traveling until February of 2016. On Dec. 7, Milwaukee Public Schools canceled all foreign travel for its students amid these terror threats.

An appropriate recommendation, sure. With recent attacks from China to Chattanooga, the general reluctance to traveling is understandable. Except in my case. I’m still planning to move to Paris in January for a semester abroad through UW-Milwaukee.

My journey with the French language began in the seventh grade, when I learned how to count to 10. It was quite different than the little Spanish that Dora the Explorer taught me, but I liked the way it sounded. I’ve been learning the language every semester of every year of schooling since. That’s nine years running into my third year at UWM.

As my fluency and appreciation for the language has grown, so has my desire to visit France. Hearing stories of family and friends studying abroad, I knew it was something I wanted – no, needed – to do before the reality of adulthood truly set in.

So in September, I began the lengthy and stressful application process for the exchange program at Sciences Po, a prestigious political science school in Paris. I was accepted to the program in October, and immediately began booking flights, shopping for electricity adapters, and finalizing the tedious visa process for my first trip to France.

The day after I sent my initial documents to Washington, D.C., for a long-stay visa, I awoke from a nap to 10 or so missed calls from my father, as well as a single text: “Turn on the T.V.”

I flipped between channels to see reported death toll numbers quickly rise. Panic set in. Paris was under attack. My roommates and I sat in silence, teary-eyed for hours as we thought of our close friend who lives in the city, and the millions of others under immense threat.

We sat through everything from the Stade de France explosions to the massacre at the Bataclan theater, until the seven alleged perps had claimed more than 100 lives. And though insignificant in comparison to what the people of France suffered that night, I would eventually have to face my own reality of going to Paris, and the possible dangers that I would face.

Mark Eckman, UW-Milwaukee’s director of study abroad, quickly sent out an alert to the half-dozen or so students with plans to head for France in the upcoming months. The email said UWM would not be cancelling any study abroad programs, including those in Paris.

“Unfortunately, the unpredictability and uncertainty of the world we live in means that we can’t always predict what will happen in the places where we operate our programs,” Eckman explained.

The next day, my mother asked what I wanted to do. Nothing, I told her. I was still going.

The reality of today’s world is that attacks and bombings like the ones in Paris could happen anywhere at any time. I explained to my parents that Paris will likely be safer, and certainly on higher alert.

The same weekend of the attacks, I Skyped with the very kind woman who’ll host me in her Paris home. I voiced my concerns about the likelihood of France allowing me into the country and granting me a visa. She assured me that the French government would never turn people away, especially students, because of fear.

If the French government is willing to get past its fear and let me in, why should I be afraid? I probably have more of a chance of being assaulted or attacked in Milwaukee, where 25.3 out of every 100,000 people were murdered in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

There’s fear accompanying everything these days: fear of not being accepted, fear of failing, fear of commitment and, yes, fear of violence. But it’s the fear itself that holds us back from doing what we truly love.

So I will not let fear keep me away from Paris.