Empty, silent, the city steps backwards. Haggard and lost in their thoughts, only a few people cross paths in the street. Their heads are bowed, as if they're ashamed to be seen walking. By the time I arrive at the embassy the rain is falling hard. A small crowd is already forming at the entrance of the building, before a mass of flowers, candles, flags and words of support. They stare admiringly, fixatedly. Tears stream down a few faces, mix with the rain. They offer cards of condolence and children's drawings. There is no room to linger on the Nevsky Prospect, the main thoroughfare of Saint Petersburg. When my turn comes I leave flowers, red carnations, at the embassy entrance. I leave the solemn memorial with the impression of having done too little, of being too far away.
This memory comes from 14 November, 2015. I'm originally from the Parisian banlieue, but I had left to do a year-long foreign exchange in Russia. The day before, Paris - my home - was the victim of one of the deadliest attacks in French history. Last Monday, after a bomb exploded on the Saint Petersburg metro and killed more than a dozen people, I felt the same unpleasant sensation: I was in the wrong place, at the wrong time. I felt frustrated and guilty: how could I help and show my support if I was a continent away?
I went through the same motions, almost like a ritual. Contact friends and loved ones, to make sure they're OK. Post messages on social media. Follow the news, looking for the tiniest crumb of information. Then, finally, talk to friends about why and how, and what comes next. Today we can do all of that at a distance. Yet it doesn't feel enough. We want to be there, with them. Would it change anything? Probably not. Here or there, what's the difference?
I watch the news and see images of Sennaya Square, and the metro station where the attacks took place. Memories of it come flooding back. What does the square mean to me? It was a messy place, where vendors of chaverma (Russian kebabs), shoe shops and cheap SIM card vendors were squashed against the premises for huge international brands. I can so easily picture myself in that metro. The massive doors opening to me. The message announcing the departure of each train. Next stop: Technological Institute. Then I come back to reality, back to the attacks.
Living an attack from abroad is heartbreaking. Leaving a flower at an embassy, or changing a Facebook profile picture: these actions seem so small and insignificant. They pale in the face of such horrific events. The only thing that seems fitting is to actually be there. To physically show compassions. Share in the collective weight and fear of the moment. Failing that we keep ourselves plugged in, listening to breaking news reports for each new revelation. In doing so we plug ourselves into a reality that feels both distant and familiar. We search for anything to keep connected. We feel helpless, able to offer only anonymous support.