Family Travel in a Time of Fear
My 7-year-old daughter scampered over the cobblestones of a narrow Paris street, proudly holding a bag of fresh cherries. She had asked for them herself: “Des cerises, s’il vous plaît!” Meanwhile, a few steps away, my 4-year-old was offering her finest “Merci” to the carousel attendant collecting tokens for the next ride. She squealed every time she caught sight of the Eiffel Tower in the distance, convinced she had stepped into the pages of a “Madeline” story. At that moment, my husband and I felt fortunate and happy to be in France as a family, to be able to share with our girls a place that has been formative to us.
Before we left for the trip this past summer, however, some friends and family were apprehensive. “Aren’t you worried about what could happen over there?” The implication was that travel, especially to France, was not a risk worth taking.
One year ago I wept in horror at the attacks in the Bataclan theater in Paris, recalling how my husband and I attended our first concert there together over a decade earlier. My cherished memories of that intimate, warm venue, our hands clasped as we listened to buoyant flamenco music, will forever be tempered by the knowledge that that same space became a tomb for so many. Woven into the fabric of daily life is now an awareness of “what if” that oscillates between the reasonable and the irrational, with the line of distinction between the two at times difficult to discern.
In the end, we had plane tickets in hand and lodgings booked. And so we went, finding a place that was at once the same – the cobblestone streets with wafting smells of patisserie, the urban nooks and crannies that make Paris feel new each day – and wholly changed. Security was visible and omnipresent, a constant reminder of what was and what could be, of worst-case scenarios all too familiar from Paris to Istanbul, from Dhaka to London and beyond. Yet the bustle of Paris continues, just as the yellow cabs of New York weave endlessly, day and night, around Ground Zero. The quotidian has a way of reclaiming itself, of imposing resilience over trepidation.
We delighted in watching our older daughter ask questions on visits to medieval castles. Her little sister giggled with joy at finding “du chocolat” nearly everywhere and at discovering Tunisian chorba soup. We watched our children chase other kids in the park, eschewing language barriers and timidity. Their ease with new places was enviable, and we marveled at how open they were to seeing the world through a different window, if only for a few days.
Truth be told, my husband and I did feel moments of vulnerability, of questioning our decision to leave the familiarity of home. We would catch each other’s glance, sharing a fleeting moment of worry as clusters of heavily armed gendarmes walked earnestly past at the airport, or as an armed officer strolled by with a muzzled dog at the outdoor shopping center. Yet every holiday season we walk for hours through the streets of Manhattan, showing our children the twinkling lights of Fifth Avenue, smelling cart-roasted chestnuts and buying pretzels with extra salt. You aim for vigilance, but also choose to experience life.
While we were safely tucked away in our room in Paris, the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando occurred, a reminder of troubles closer to home. I was suddenly glad to be so far away from the horror of another list of names to eulogize, of frozen, piercing gazes beaming back from the television screen. So many victims were Puerto Rican – just like me. It was startling to hear the familiar cadence of their names announced by French news anchors. Paris felt both so far and so near.
When our trip ended 12 days later and we landed safely at Kennedy International Airport, we were awash in glad memories, plentiful souvenirs and a bit of relief.
I felt my breath catch again in the weeks following our return, however, as our domestic news was dominated by the summer’s shootings and protests. It is violence that is at once unimaginable and familiar, normalized, perhaps more so by the rage underpinning our volatile political rhetoric. I think of how “safety” is relative and never assured.
We spend so much time concerned about what dangers may befall us “over there” – the unknowable somewhere – when in truth they can find us anywhere, even at home. Travel is, if anything, a mirror we place upon ourselves, an opportunity to experience the world, and our view of it, with both a critical and empathetic lens. Our children also must learn that no tragedy is ever truly distant or foreign and that both hope and pain are woven together.
The last city we visited on our trip was Nice, where we walked along the Promenade des Anglais and dipped our feet in the cold ocean on the city’s rock covered beaches. Two weeks later, on Bastille Day, a truck careened into a crowd watching fireworks, ultimately claiming the lives of 86 people. The images of the Promenade where the bodies were strewn share the same background as the photos of my own children counting pebbles on the beach, ponytails glimmering in the sunlight.
This trip reaffirmed that we, as parents, are always confronting fear. Sometimes I wish I could close a drawbridge behind me and hide, to find some cocoon of safety to carry our little family through the madness of the world. But fear alone cannot draw the contours of how life is lived; it cannot shape the scope of the world our children inherit.
Days after the events in Nice, my youngest daughter, eating the last of her French chocolate while completing a puzzle of the Eiffel Tower on our living room floor, asked, “Mama, can we go back to France one day?” Yes, one day, I assured her. Nous reviendrons.