All we wanted was an escape. A desperate respite from our nation’s political poo storm, and our own incessant NPR-quaffing. Okay, an escape and a little culture: A soupçon of French art, some bits ’n’ bobs of English history, and a sampling of flavors from our Italian ancestors’ bella nazione. We’ll take the kids to Europe for a couple of weeks: C’est amusant! Che divertimento! Jolly good fun!
But we boarded the plane just as the latest string of terrorist episodes erupted across the pond. At all the chic tourist spots, no less: London Bridge. Borough Market. Notre-Dame Cathedral. The Champs-Elysées. Quelle horreur. I was admittedly spooked. How can you fully, rapaciously stuff your wide-agape gelato hole with croissants, crepes, fish ’n’ chips, lasagna, and molto vino when you’re worried about being blown to Bristol by a backpack bomb on the Chunnel?
Mais non! Mes amis, it turned out to be the ideal time to visit Europe — for these reasons:
You get to see the residents of the attacked cities going about their daily lives, undeterred by fear. ( … At least, it looks that way when you can’t see the folks who choose to stay home, deterred by fear.) Nothing is interrupted; the terrorists haven’t won. Sure, there’s a ginormous man in head-to-toe camo guarding Notre-Dame with an assault weapon, which is weird. But hey, inside the cathedral there’s a sculpture of a grinning dude slaughtering infants with a sword, so really, who’s to say what’s weird?
Learning about the savage political history of other nations makes you feel better about our own current snarl. At the Tower of London, Beefeaters told us of the barbaric beheadings of innocent teens and royals falsely accused of treason and incest, their severed heads displayed on spikes for all to see. In Paris, we heard how fearless military leader Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for dressing like a man, and of Marie Antoinette’s guillotine execution before jeering crowds. In Rome, we learned that emperors dragged conquered leaders through the streets to have their throats slit at the Temple of Saturn and buried vestal virgins alive. I’m just saying, ill-tempered Tweets may not be the very archetype of atrocity.
With all the Muslim banning, gay-wedding-cake non-baking, and Black Lives Mattering being debated in the U.S. just now, it’s invaluable for nonreligious, straight white folks to get a tiny taste of life as “the other.” To not speak the language. To be at the mercy of strangers’ kindness, or utter indifference, when you’re lost. To be nearly killed by a damned-adorable hackney carriage while looking left instead of right as you step off the curb. To be repeatedly snubbed when you ask for ice in your water (my kingdom for a cube!). To discover firsthand that everything is harder for outsiders — and “inside” isn’t quite as wide as we always assumed.
In the midst of that same finger-pointing and name-calling in the States, it’s bracing to see a mix of cultures, classes, and religions mingling peacefully, cooperating casually, sharing public squares, and tolerantly pressing up against one another on the metros. One hot, sticky afternoon, I was full-body spooned by a nun on a rush-hour bus in Rome, and it wasn’t entirely unpleasant.
When you wear a T-shirt in Europe that says “Sorry about our president” in 14 different languages, delightful things happen. Old ladies nod at you on the subway with an unmistakable “Psshyeah, you should be” on their faces. And cackling Americans stop you on the street to high-five you and take your picture. Not Trump-supporting Americans, though; you don’t hear a single “snowflake” muttered or catch even one disapproving look from a Prima Donald devotee. And since you know from their, ahem, guest appearances at Shakespeare in the Park that they’re a vociferous bunch, you have to assume that they just don’t travel much.
Which may be the best reason of all to travel.