Sunday, July 15, 2018

Terrorism Makes Foreign Travel an Imperative not a Luxury

Paris - 2015.

While more and more Americans are traveling abroad and per a relatively recent BBC article indicates that roughly 50% of Americans now have passports, the percentage is far lower than for many Europeans.  In the UK, for example, only 17% of British citizens do not have passports. The consequence, in my view, is that far too many Americans have less empathy for others than their European counterparts.  Indeed, in the age of Trump, his base doesn't even have empathy for broad segments of other Americans, which poisons both the social and political reality in America.  A piece in Salon  argues that today it is more important than ever for Americans and others to travel abroad.  It lessens the "us v. them" mindset so favored by the far right and, in my view, makes one understand that there are equally legitimate other perspectives.  In September, the husband and I will be in Paris - perhaps my favorite city in the world - for a week, followed by a week in London traveling with friends. Both are cities that have suffered terrorist attacks. We will be staying in apartments rather than hotels and will immerse ourselves in experiencing the people as well as the sights. Here are excerpts from Salon: 

As attacks destroy lives around the world in an endless loop it's easy to grow numb. Watching the aftermath of yet another bombing unfold on a little screen, maybe we'll change our Facebook profile photo or join a hashtag movement. But do we feel anything? Maybe sympathy, or, if it's particularly awful by the new and ever steeper scale of such things, we feel a little horror. It's surreal, far away, not related to us. Unless, that is, we've been there.
This probably isn't unusual, but I've been to multiple places that were later attacked by terrorists. First was a restaurant overlooking Marrakech's Djemaa El Fna square. . . . Two years later I saw the news: A bomb attack destroyed the restaurant and killed 15 people, most of them tourists.
Bookending that trip we strolled Las Ramblas in Barcelona. Three years later, men with guns and bombs killed dozens and injured hundreds at the airport. Four years later (nearly to the day), terrorists plowed through crowds in the busy Barcelona promenade, killing more than a dozen people and injuring at least a hundred.
And in the fall of 2015 I sat down to a solo dinner at Le Petit Cambodge in Paris. Paris is the home of my heart, and days after my meal there the news broke: as part of their concerted attacks across the city, terrorists had transformed the bright and happy place into a bloodbath.
Unlike when I hear a news report of a faraway tragedy, these instances — but most especially the one in Paris — struck hard. . . . I could imagine — in vivid color — the men with assault rifles, and the people laughing and eating and loving life one moment and in a waking nightmare the next. Not only because it could have  been me, but because these were people I knew, no matter how fleetingly.
What did I learn? In short: Absolutely, those connections matter. And maybe far less interaction is needed  than we'd ever think. “About all you need is that minute where you're waiting for a bus,” Professor Goodman said.
He offered a brief primer. The foundations of a successful relationship according to social science, he explained, boil down to honesty, acceptance and empathy. And in some situations, those things can happen in moments.
When we travel, Goodman noted, the usual process of forming relationships is often sped up. (Think of the things you may have overshared with a stranger on a plane!) And when you're a “foreigner,” he pointed out, you give yourself permission to ask questions. So at a bus stop or in a restaurant far from home you can form what we could call a micro-relationship.
Why would that little bit of connection that has some of the elements of a long important relationship, why did that stick in your mind? Because it begins to touch on these basic human elements that we need to survive,” Goodman said. Where we don't have answers, he said, is why. “Science doesn't quite know why it's so important to us to have the experience to be understood.”
But the fact remains that it is crucial to us as humans. And while some may urge that we stay home where we're safe (as if that were true), I want to travel more than ever. For every micro-relationship two people from different parts of the globe can form, that's an added dimension to the bond holding all of us together. Maybe a bond as ephemeral as a spiderweb, but maybe as strong, as well. And the more that hate tears us apart, the more of those bonds we need if we're to keep surviving.
As for my horror-overlaid memories of Le Petit Cambodge, I had to rewrite them. In the aftermath of the attacks I vowed I wouldn't travel anywhere else until I could revisit the restaurant. And I didn't. A year and a half later an assignment took me to France, beginning with a night in Paris. . . . . I arrived at  Le Petit Cambodge first. Now, this trip, it was spring and daylight, not fall and dark. Every seat along the sidewalk was taken, every diner as unattainably chic as ever.
The horror didn't disappear, exactly. But it faded to something like the ghost of an imprint left on tracing paper as Agn├Ęs and I ate and talked of normal things — well, as normal as buying a castle, as she'd just done, can be. She asked for a to-go container, something I'd never have the nerve to do in Paris, but she wanted leftovers for the chickens at her new place in the country. Her exchange with the waitress was in French, and I don't remember it. I hope she doesn't have to.
It saddens me that so many Americans lack a shred of empathy for others and cannot see beyond the color of one's skin, one's country of origin, one's native language or one's sexual orientation.  In the age of Trump and his pandering to Christofascists, all of us must strive to oppose this toxicity. 

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