Tuesday, November 17, 2015

….And Getting Smaller

I took this photo in the spring of 2002, at Disneyland Paris. I was there on a press trip. It wasn’t the first time I had been on a plane since September 11, 2001, but it was my first trans-Atlantic trip since that day, and I remember feeling uncharacteristically uneasy preparing for the flight. My father called me on my new cell phone at the airport to assure me that everything would be all right. I hadn’t told him I was nervous; he just knew. It was a nervous time.


The Paris I arrived in that March wasn’t the fabled Paris-in-the Springtime, and it certainly wasn’t the Paris I remembered. I had last been in the city during the summer of 1987. That was the break between my junior and senior years in high school, and I was staying for the month of August with a French family that had a daughter my age. They didn’t live in Paris, but had friends who did and the mother and daughter and I spent nearly a week exploring the City of Light based out of the friends’ apartment.

It was a tremendously exciting time for me. Coming from a college town two hours by car (not that I had one) from the nearest major city, just walking urban boulevards felt like an adventure. Riding on the metro (just like the song!), speaking a foreign language, stepping on cobblestones older than my own country, sniffing Peugeot exhaust, eating in cafes…it all seemed too good to be true, like I’d been offered a glimpse into an impossibly exciting larger world that awaited me as soon as I was old enough to get out of my hometown. (It also helped that in the late ’80s, French teenagers thought there was nothing more hyper-chouette than America. These were kids who could drink beer any time they wanted, and somehow they still thought I was cool.)

Every day was a different arrondissement. Montmartre one day, the Picasso Museum another, and, on one particularly memorable day, Paris’ Arab Quarter. Bustling, spicy-smelling, and punctuated by the staccato sounds of languages I didn’t understand a word of, this part of the city struck me as the most exotic place I’d ever been. We went to a Moroccan restaurant for lunch, and I had couscous for the first time in my life. Like any teenager, I worried this new dish would taste strange to me, but it was delicious—nothing odder than grain, vegetables, and sausage. Afterwards, I walked the streets of the neighborhood with a little more confidence. Sure, the swirl of music and chatter coming out of the shops was incomprehensible to me, and yes, the smells wafting around were unfamiliar, but these people liked couscous. I liked couscous. Common ground already. The yawning gulf between my preppie life and the Arab world got a tiny bit smaller.


France, six months after 9/11 (and with me now in my 30s), was cool, gray, and glum. I spent all but about a furtive hour of my trip on or near the grounds of Disneyland Paris, which was not even trying to live up to its Happiest Place on Earth reputation. The park was populated—barely—by sparse crowds of ruddy English tourists, cast members dressed as the most nihilistic Disney characters you’ll ever see (I swear I saw Mickey Mouse smoking, but that must be my memory playing tricks on me), and, inexplicably, David Hasselhoff, strutting around with his entourage, wearing a duster and sunglasses at night.

The atmosphere was unsettled in a very literal way—it rained on and off the whole time I was there. There was never a purging downpour; nothing that gave you a sense that and end was in sight. It just drizzled sporadically out of a heavy sky that hung low over a close horizon.

The mood was unsettled, too. America was reeling from attack, but we hadn’t yet made the decision to go to war and stop eating French fries. Six months removed from the day, I still sensed a little bit of the sentiment that nous sommes tous Américains. But teenagers didn’t exactly light up when they heard my accent, either. It seemed none of us knew what to make of each other anymore.

Personally, I struggled in a very literal way to know what to do with myself. I was a childless adult trudging around a wet theme park. What was the story here? Four days in France had seemed like an impossibly short trip before I left, but standing in the rain surrounded by depressed Disney characters and D-list celebrities, it was starting to seem like at least three days too many.

During one break in the weather, I found myself standing in front of a familiar ride, one which I’d first ridden at the age of three in Florida, and which seems to exist in more or less the same form in every Disney park around the world. A series of banners flew out front against a threatening sky, proclaiming bravely in several languages—including French and Arabic—that, “It’s a Small World.” Childhood felt very far away at that moment, but strangely, my teen years, the times when Gallic Parisians and north African immigrants coexisted peacefully and at least one American found the Arab world beguiling, seemed even further out of reach.


And now I feel that way again. When I look at this picture, I can remember exactly what I was thinking when I took it, because I’m thinking exactly the same thing now. I remember that I was struck by the achingly idealistic slogan silhouetted against the eerie clouds. I liked seeing the flags with lots of different languages waving together, and wondered if this uneasy alliance of nationalities would ever be possible again. Mostly I felt—and still feel, acutely, that the world really is small. And not because we’ve built bridges across our differences. It just seems that whenever something explodes on one part of the planet, we all feel jostled. (And in the time-honored tradition of people everywhere who feel their space nearing capacity, we start putting up velvet ropes and making up rules about who can and can’t come in.)

How is it that people who trace their roots to Charlemagne and followers of Islam once shared Parisian streets peacefully? And that observing this neighborhood made me think the world was full of possibility, not calamity? How do we get back to this place? I don’t know. I’m pretty sure the answer is more complex than couscous, less violent than airstrikes, more compassionate than turning away refugees, and more laborious than putting a French flag filter on our profile pictures. But beyond that, I don’t really know, either.

(Couscous, though…that couldn’t hurt, right? Never underestimate the power of kitchen diplomacy.)

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