Locked in a Paris Basement, Waiting for the Bullets to Stop
After spending a night in a basement of a locked down restaurant across the street from the Bataclan theatre, Tenzin Paldon tells the story of a group of strangers who came together amidst terror in Paris.
Tenzin Paldon was out to dinner with friends when she was rushed to the basement and corridor of a restaurant one street over from the Bataclan, where over 85 concertgoers were shot and killed on Friday. This is her story.
It was my friend’s 26th birthday. We decided to go out for dinner. We all got there around 9.
One of the places we almost went for dinner was Le Petit Cambodge. [Eighteen people died in the shooting at that restaurant Friday night.] But we decided not to, since we were supposed to be around 10, 12 people.
Instead we went to La Cave de l'Insolite. The restaurant is on Rue Folie Mericourt, which is about five minutes away from Bataclan, parallel to it on the street over.
We had just sat down at 9:15. We had a little bit of wine. We had already ordered. One of the guys that was with us, he got a text at 9:20 about the bombs at Stade de France.
Right about then, I remember turning around and looking at the waitress. I had seen how she looked the whole night, how she looked stressed out because there were a lot of people. But she really looked stressed out. Her face had gone completely white. She came and she started speaking to us. I thought it was going to be about the food. But she said that people had been shot at Le Petit Cambodge, which is close by.
One of the guys, he ran to the door. He locked it. He put down the shutters. But it was not very useful because the whole restaurant, it’s all glass. So they put down the blinds. They shut the lights.
There were 50 to 60 people in the restaurant that night. Half of us went down to the front of the restaurant. There were stairs that would lead you to the wine cellar and the bathroom. More than half the people went down there. Then they led us, the people in the back, through the kitchen. There’s a little corridor in the space between two buildings, by the bins.
We all stood there, about twenty of us there, in complete dark.
It was our group of nine people. There were three big groups, then groups of four, five. There were tourists who couldn’t speak French. They didn’t know what was going on. So I had to translate for them.
In the beginning, people didn’t realize how serious it was. Bataclan hadn’t happened yet. I think people thought there were bomb blasts in the outskirts.
I clearly remember there was a group of French people. They were smoking, they were kind of loud, and they were taking selfies. I think they thought it was a routine evacuation, which is funny because it’s never really happened.
I remember being panicked, but at the same time, I remember thinking, “Oh my God, it’s just like the French to seem so cool, and they just want to take selfies!”
I’m really pretty morbid, myself. On a general, day-to-day basis, I suffer from depression and anxiety, but I think it helped me. Because I was quite calm on the exterior.
I was numb. I guessed that things might get worse, so I thought, I need to keep pretending it’s better. A few of the people in our group knew how close Bataclan was. The rest did not. They knew it was in the 11th (Arrondissement), but not really. I knew.
I looked for Paris news on my phone and I saw a news report from BBC, then I saw one from Liberation. I was updated on what’s happening. I wasn’t really telling people around me everything. I would tell them things that I thought wouldn’t panic them too much.
Every 20 minutes, one of the guys in the restaurant, either the waitress or the host, the serveur, he kept coming back and giving us updates. I kept translating.
Everyday life panics me and stresses me out. I’m generally a ball of anxiety. But last night, when I needed to be strong, I was strong.
I saw one of the waitresses holding somebody’s hand. It was this American family that was there. There was an elderly mother and their three children. One of them was a young mother. She was from San Francisco. She had two kids, a two-year-old and four-year-old. I think it was the first time she must have left them.
I was drawn to them. I saw them and she was muttering to herself, “I’ll never leave San Francisco.” And I said, Okay, I need to hold this woman’s hand. I need to tell her it’s going to be okay. They were flying out to the U.S. this morning. I hope they made it back home.
There were people who left throughout the night. Not everybody stayed around until 2. People left in batches, starting around midnight.
Everybody was really nervous. We were all really scared. We didn’t know what was going on. And we couldn’t understand it.
It was a harrowing night and all I wanted to do was be in my bed and cry a bit in private.
We were stuck in the corridor after. We were all very cold. The restaurant said, You can now move to the cafe, to the wine cellar. They kept bringing wine. They kept bringing cheese. No one had eaten, so they brought us food. They brought us ham and bread. We were surrounded by wine bottles.
I remember thinking, They didn’t need to do this. But they were there. And everybody was there for everybody else.
That’s what I found amazing: We initially had people taking selfies, but when people realized it was very serious, everybody just came together. I felt that everybody was trying to be there for each other, even if it was just strangers who I didn’t know at all.
There was this idea of solidarity. It wasn’t a kneejerk reaction. Everybody might have been worried, but everybody was filled with love. They wanted to help each other. They wanted to hold each others’ hands and tell them it was going to be okay, even if they didn’t believe it.
That’s what stuck with me.
I was in touch with my brother, and he knew what had happened, but he didn’t know how close I was, in a crisis zone. My parents didn’t know.
Then my heart broke when I found something on the livestream on Reddit, waiting. I found the tweet from the guy who was stuck in Bataclan, on the first floor. “Help us. We’re hiding on the first floor. They’re killing us one by one.” It’s horrific.
Later, the guy who kept coming and giving updates, he said that now it was safe for us to leave and that they were closing down the restaurant.
We all left at 2. It took me half an hour to walk out of that area. We got an Uber back. My friend talked to the Uber driver for 15 minutes and convinced him to come pick us up. He, himself, was around Bataclan when things went down.
My friend was honest: “Look, we are five girls. We’ve been hiding in this restaurant since 9:30. We’re scared. There’s nobody on the street. We just want to get home.”
In the restaurant, I was scared, but I wasn’t that scared. But when we left, I was panicking. I have never seen Paris that empty. Even in July, when Parisians leave Paris. We were walking down Boulevard Voltaire. There were police. I could hear all these sirens.
Everybody had this look of utter devastation on their faces.
We couldn’t find any cabs. We were trying to call cab companies, Uber, whoever picked up our call. Thankfully, I think the man took pity on us and came and picked us up.
I got home around 3, 3:30, and that’s the first time I sat down and cried. I felt I had a responsibility to hold it together until then. And then I could let go.
I knew that I needed to get back to my bed. I needed to get under covers and hide for a little bit. I also had to tell my parents what happened, because I didn’t tell them.
I know a lot of people had regrets about things. I think my biggest regret was that I didn’t write a message to my family. I don’t think anybody there was thinking about themselves. I think everybody around me was thinking about others, thinking about their families.
I’ve been trying to understand it all today. The Charlie Hebdo attacks were symbols of the country, of France, or something that denotes being French. I feel like this was an attack on French people, especially Parisians. Bataclan and Le Petit Cambodge, it’s something that Parisians know. It’s something that the young crowd of Paris goes to. It’s something that you’re sort of drawn into. It’s where everybody goes.
If you’re young and it’s the weekend, you go to the 11th because they have everything. There are dive bars, where you can get beers for 4 euro, but there are also fancy places. The 11th is always for me. Right from my first year in Paris, I’ve been here. It’s the closest to my heart.
I moved to Paris in 2011 to get a Masters in Human Rights. I’m a Tibetan, from India. Paris kind of just happened. My dream was to move to New York. Everybody has a Parisian dream. I kind of fell into it.
Paris is a tough city. Everybody feels like they don’t belong. I like that about it. It strips you of your comfort zone. I may sit here and feel lonely, looking at the Eiffel Tower, but somebody was probably here feeling the same way in 1910. Paris has a way of making you feel like an outsider, but making you feel welcome at the same time.
I learned a lot last night. I was panicking. I think it was the same for everybody else. But your life is more than that. You need to help others.
I have friends I haven’t talked to—you know your Facebook friends that you’re not really friends with anymore? It’s amazing. These are the people who are writing to me. They’re texting. They’re like, “If you need me to come over, I can come over and stay a few. Or you can come and stay with me.”
I think Paris’ heart is broken and people just want to help.
My friends from last night and I, we’ve been in constant touch. Everybody is kind of out of it. We keep reminding each other, “Hey guys, eat! Don’t forget to eat!”
I’m telling them not to watch any videos. I’m not watching any videos. I was on Reddit, I just saw a post by somebody about their sister dying. One of the responses on it, it was beautiful. It was by this guy whose friend and girlfriend survived by lying with the dead, pretending to be dead. It said, “your sister was surrounded by love.” That’s exactly how I felt.
All you felt was love. That’s how everybody felt around that area. All I felt was this regret that I can’t tell people who I love that I love them.
Before I go anywhere, tonight, when I’m free, I’m writing my letter. I’m writing my letter to my brother and I’m writing my final letter to my parents. I’m going to make sure that it’s there in my room.
That’s what I learned from my last night: the only regret I had wasn’t that I might have died, but it was that I didn’t get to write my family a final goodbye so that they could move on.