Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road.
BOOM! That, I thought, sounds like a bomb.
A man has just detonated himself in the tourist area we are to visit that morning, killing 13, mostly Germans and Scandinavians, and injuring another 14.
For a Canadian-born civilian, I have an unusual familiarity with bombs and the extremist violence that goes with them. Working with the UN, I investigated bombings in Bosnia during the war; I worked with Rwandan refugees flooding into Tanzania during the genocide; I've talked my way into hospitals, looking for colleagues wounded or killed during massacres in Chad. So I know a little about bombs and the violence of their perpetrators.
But this time is different. We're in Istanbul, our last stop before returning to Canada after six epic months living in Europe. Our children are with us: the irrepressibly happy nine-year-old Morgane, and the quietly observant 15-year-old Gabrielle. And now, unmistakably, a bomb has gone off. Loudly. Close enough to stop all of us in midsentence.
It's one thing for me to take calculated risks, and put myself in harm's way as part of my work. It's a whole different story when the most precious people in my world are there with me. So what do we do now?
A recurrent piece of travel advice is "do as the locals do." By happenstance, two months earlier, little Morgane and I had arrived in Paris just a few hours after the murderous November, 2015, attacks. Travelling by night train, we'd arrived at dawn to discover a city angry, frightened and completely deserted. But for a few selfie-taking Japanese tourists, no one was in the street. All the iconic landmarks – Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower – were completely empty, not a trace of the usually inescapable crush of people. So, in the face of this violence, we heeded the recurrent advice and did as the locals do: We too went back to our rental apartment and holed up.
This feeling of being under siege lasted in the days and weeks to come. A feeling that forces you to be extra watchful on your daily commute on the metro. To avoid going to popular New Year's Eve celebrations. To suddenly make fashionable "le cocooning at home," preferred over the usual Gallic bistro-café culture. Even a year later, Parisian friends say this is still the pervading feeling: anger, but also deep fear, fuelling the rise of the extreme right, which, tellingly, is the preferred option for young French voters in the upcoming 2017 presidential elections.
So, when this bomb went off a couple of months later in Istanbul, we again did as the locals do. We waited a couple of hours, finishing our breakfast, putting in a load of laundry. We noticed the Internet was down: no news available that way, and in our hipster-filled neighbourhood, there wasn't any non-digital media, so no TV or radio. But looking out our apartment's window, the streets were busy, full of throngs of Istanbuliots going about the business of their lives – school girls in fashionable full-length Islamic dress chattering their way down the street, hawkers selling their trinkets to passersby.
We left our apartment and walked. Past the fishermen on Galata Bridge: They still have families to feed and need to stand the long hours waiting for fish to bite. Through the 500-year-old Spice Bazaar, filled to the brim with mounds of colourful, odorant spices and salesmen calling out their sales pitch: "My friend, how can I get your money!" Stopping in a glittering Turkish patisserie, all white marble, sparkling mirrors, to have tea and sugared pastries. Women, bedecked in gold and heavy mascara beneath their long veils, checked their iPhones, resting their high-heeled feet after a long day of shopping the much-anticipated January sales.
There was no anger, and certainly no fear. But not resignation, either. Maybe acceptance? Somehow, not quite. Yet this was the second suicide bombing in the city just that first month of 2016, with a third one targeting the Prime Minister's palace narrowly aborted. Who was to know that as 2016 unravelled, the pace of such assaults would only increase? That day in early 2016, the feeling in Istanbul didn't look like the Parisian nervously defiant "we'll not be cowered into submission." Rather, it felt much like a pragmatic shrug. Other more pressing things of daily life need to be attended to – schoolgirls' midterms need to be aced, the fish need to fished and lives need to be lived.
Soon, we left to return home to Ottawa. And to do, again, as the locals do: Shovel the snow, gripe about the cold and go about our daily, peaceful lives. Without bombs.
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