Of all the places Josh Loden has traveled to, Paris has always been his favorite.
“The city has always had a special place in my heart.”
Those were the first words of a long story he told from London on Saturday, just hours after fleeing Paris, after learning that his canceled dinner plans there saved him from possible death, after walking back to his hotel as chaos gripped the city, wondering if each stranger he passed was loaded with explosives.
The 23-year-old will be back home in Schoharie Sunday, safe but shaken. In the quiet hours of travel, he had plenty of time to reflect, though he said Saturday evening his thoughts still felt scattered.
His sister said she thinks he’s in shock.
“I heard it on the news first,” Jessica Loden Kirby said Saturday of the coordinated terror attacks that left 129 people dead and hundreds wounded in Paris. “I didn’t hear from him until about an hour after trying to reach him. He wasn’t responding to text, messenger or calls. I instantly thought, ‘Oh my God, Josh is there.’ And as more and more info came out, I became more and more worried when I didn’t hear back from him.”
The Lodens may be familiar to Schoharie residents as the owners of the Apple Barrel. Josh studied abroad in England, made many friends from Paris and had traveled there several times. He arrived in the city on Friday for a reunion with friends.
Both Josh and Jessica communicated on Saturday via Facebook, as they are currently traveling abroad — Josh now in London and Jessica in Iceland, after her own brush with terror when a threat shut down part of London’s Gatwick airport on Friday, forcing her to switch to Heathrow.
“We have both had many messages from family and friends telling us to get home,” Jessica said. “It’s been a tough 24 hours.”
Josh was looking forward to a weekend of browsing antique markets and history museums while catching up with friends. On Friday night, they planned to go to a popular restaurant in the city’s 10th arrondissement, an area Jessica compared to Brooklyn: “Cool restaurants, bars, clubs. Almost all the victims would’ve been around his age.”
Josh and his friends called ahead. The place was booked solid. They settled on someplace near the hotel, then got drinks.
At some point, everyone started getting text messages and phone calls. People were asking if they were all right. Of course they were all right. The news of the attacks, apparently, had made it around the world before it made it across Paris.
“Soon the mood of the bar started to deepen and more reports and tweets came in and we realized that Paris was actually under attack,” Josh said.
They looked around at the popular, crowded bar, and decided to make an exit. They took a side door out of the bar and went their separate ways, he and a friend heading back to their hotel via less-traveled side streets, avoiding crowds and main boulevards.
“The moment we walked outside you could feel the mood of the city,” he said. “It was silent but so tense. All you heard were sirens in the distance. Everyone you walked by would make this forced awkward eye contact. Everyone wondering if you are the [next] gunman or suicide bomber.”
In the hotel lobby, people huddled and whispered about what was happening. He and his friend went to their room and watched the news on TV for hours. That’s when they learned that the restaurant they had planned to attend was a site of one of the attacks.
“The feeling that comes over you when you realize it could have been you is indescribable,” he said.
The next morning was even worse. The city was transformed. Cafes, shops, museums were all darkened and silent. The streets were silent. The people were silent. Soldiers patrolled the plazas.
“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed,” he said. “It wasn’t Paris.”
He decided to leave the city. The train station was packed and patrolled by soldiers and police. The train to Londong was “just as silent as Paris.”
“No one spoke,” he said. “Everyone just seemed to be in this deep self-reflection. It was haunting. Unlike anything I’ve experienced or want to ever experience again.”
Jessica, who is visiting her husband’s family in England on a separate trip, said she plans to continue her travels, though uneasily now. The incident at Gatwick delayed her for 10 hours, but didn’t deter her.
She said she’s “thankful to the police, army, and first responders” who helped keep them both safe. “Our hearts go out to the victims in Paris,” she said.
They’re both avid travelers, they said. That’s how they were raised — “to travel and explore,” in Josh’s words. But they’ll be happy to see the Schoharie Valley again after Friday.
As he was leaving the train station in Paris, Josh said a customs agent asked him if he would ever return to the city.
“I would,” he said. “Paris is a very special place and I look forward to returning one day, but for right now I’m looking forward to being home.”
Reach Gazette reporter Kyle Adams at 723-0811, firstname.lastname@example.org or @KyleRAdams on Twitter.