My first trip outside North America was in 1989. It was a choir tour to Germany, Austria, and Hungary, but we flew through Paris, where we had an eight-hour layover, so we arranged for a quick tour around the city. There was maybe just enough time for a quick photo stop in front of Notre Dame, but otherwise we spent most of the time seeing the Eiffel Tower and the Arch de Triomphe through the bus window while stuck in traffic.
So the first place in Europe where I set my feet was Paris.
In 1997 I made it back to Paris for three days. I always thought it would be fun to say, when asked about my weekend plans, “Oh, I’m jetting off to Paris.” So I made it happen, and I actually got to see more of Paris in three days than I might have hoped, and had the bonus of getting bumped from my flight, so I got one extra day.
With all the other places in the world I want to see, I don’t know if I’ll ever make it back to Paris. And now that I’m planning my ninth trip to Europe, having seen a good amount of that continent, I can say with some confidence that Paris is every bit the star city of Europe. Its boulevards are grand, its lanes are charming, its monuments are impressive, its churches inspiring. Walking through its parks, you experience a perfect refuge from the urban hustle and bustle; strolling along its sidewalks, you are in the midst of hustle and bustle that define the best of urban life anywhere. And then there are the museums, which contain some of the greatest works of art to be found anywhere.
Two days ago, cowardly actions by terrorists were perpetrated against this great city, it’s people, and by extension, all of us who love freedom. It will take a long time for the city to heal, and it will require a lot from each of us to take away the right lessons.
Surely the wrong lesson is that we are safer at home. So when I read the following post on Facebook, it made me angry, frustrated, and despondent:
France, I was getting so excited to meet you again! June/July of 2016 [we] were going to stay in a beautiful Chateau, 20 mins outside of Paris and create incredible memories! After yesterday’s tragic events we decided that safety comes first, and we will not be traveling overseas.… Sending positive, peaceful, and hopeful vibes to everyone overseas.
This was not posted by a friend; I only saw it because a friend was tagged in some accompanying photos. So I did not respond directly, but I did write the following indirect response in my own post:
In the wake of yesterday’s terrorist attacks, Americans should cancel upcoming European vacations in the name of safety. We should stay in the USA, where 100 people are killed every day as a result of gun violence.
Despite the irony, I’m not really satisfied with my response, because what upsets me about the original post isn’t just the absurdity of thinking we’re safer in the United States. Here’s what I think is so wrongheaded about that poster’s decision:
- It is rash. One day after the attack, they decided it will not safe to go to Paris in six months. It’s an impulse reaction that took no more thought than recoiling after touching a hot stove.
- It is cowardly. It acquiesces to fear. It hands a victory to the terrorists, which makes it just as cowardly as the act of terrorism itself. (Note that I am not saying it is equally heinous or evil, but it is craven.)
- It represents a lack of solidarity with our friends around the world. Sending hopeful vibes to everyone overseas from the comfort of our living room is anything but hopeful. It’s like saying, “Gee, I’m sorry this happened to you, but mostly I glad it didn’t happen to me.” Which is completely wrong, because it has happened to us. And when it did, should our overseas friends have canceled their plans to visit us?
- It lacks common sense. If you were planning to go to Paris last week, how worried would you have been? When was Paris safer, the day before the attacks or the day after? Six months ago or six months from now? The danger isn’t greater because the attacks happened. If anything, it will be safer for a while, because there will be heightened vigilance. If a family from Paris or Madrid or London had a trip to New York planned for the summer of 2002, should they have canceled it after 9/11 in the name of safety?
- It is sad. Travel is one of life’s great thrills. It is an opportunity to learn, to grow, to see wonderful things and create memories to last a lifetime. How tragic to lose out on that.
This Facebook post was not the most upsetting thing I read in the wake of the Paris attacks. I followed a thread that was started in the Travel Forum on the Rick Steves web site. It started with someone posting about it just after it happened and expressing hope that “everyone is ok from Rick Steves,” but it quickly devolved into religious and political posturing.
I think it is probably inevitable, and it is in my thinking the most tragic aspect of this, that there will be a backlash against Islam and against Muslims. Yes, more tragic than 129 dead in Paris is the likely outcome of this backlash. I predict there will be acts of violence against innocent Muslims in Europe and in the United States. These acts will diminish all of us. Even if the backlash is more subtle, it will result in increased xenophobia across Europe and the United States, and that will make it more likely that the outcome of upcoming elections will be influenced by fear and hatred rather than hope and optimism. Violence begets violence.
Here is a post on that Rick Steves thread from Gene in College Station, Texas:
We are next. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has taken over U.S. immigration policy and is shoving tens of thousands of mohammedans down our throats. Americans always had the choice to decide not to risk travel to the Middle East or Eurabia. Now our treasonous leaders are have sold us out and taken even that option away from us. We spent a week in Paris this summer as we have many times over the years and concluded that it has gone to hell due to having been overrun by mohammedans.
And this was posted not on a political forum or a news forum, but a travel forum.
I’d like to hope cooler heads will prevail in the long run. Here is a scene from the 2006 film Paris je t’aime that provides a more optimistic picture of life in the City of Lights.
I hope the young people of the future can still live lives of mutual understanding, and not of fear. I hope we can be enriched by our diversity. I hope for peace.