…how you see the world and how you will teach your children to see it, too.
About a month or so ago, Milky said to me “(classmate) says Paris is a dangerous place. There are bad people there.” I did some digging and discovered that she must have heard this after Charlie Hebdo. Her father is an art director for a magazine. It makes sense that her six year-old perspective would be such.
Paris is a special place for me. If you spend 10 years of your life studying a language and a culture of a particular place, the epicenter of said language and culture means something. When Dock and I took our first taxi ride into The City of Lights, I openly wept. Sweden owns my heart. France owns my brain. Knowing that I would soon have a chance to walk around this magical city, the core of it all, was simply too much to process. It was 10 years of studying, six years of using my knowledge at work (albeit intermittently), two weeks of slogging my way through trenches, forts and bunkers in the making. I was excited but overwhelmed. The teachers who never knew they inspired me would likely never know the dream would be realized. And all of those hours spent making a stained glass window in high school would pay off the minute I stood in La Sainte-Chapelle (which also made me cry).
I turned to Milky and said “Paris, like any big city, can be dangerous. It can also be safe. Big cities require big city posture. You and I call that Philly Style, right?” Then, I explained Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher. To a six year-old. To a six year-old Jewish kid. It was arduous work, thinking of how to minimize the fear, especially since Milky will be taken to Paris, at some point. The city is too important to Dock and me for us to keep Milky away.
Towards the end of the conversation, I shared my story of one time when I was in Paris, when in the hunt for cheap lodging, away from tourists, I decided we would stay near La Marais. Being the history fiends that we are, I wanted to inject a little Jewish history into our adventure. I admit, I’m not quite ready to experience anything Holocaust oriented, at this point. My stepfather’s family died in the Holocaust. It’s too painful.
We ended up in a predominately Arabic district in Paris six months after 09.11. The general mood was quite peculiar. The French, as a whole, were thrilled to see Americans returning. One bar owner said “You have been gone too long. We miss you.” which is something I expect from smaller towns and rural areas. It is not something I expect in Paris proper. It’s not something anyone with a lick of sense should expect to hear in any large city (so, kindly refrain from saying Parisians are snotty. They’re not. They’re urbane, just like every denizen of every large metropolis.). We courteously thanked him. He was also gracious enough to speak English to us which is also sort of an anomaly because very few people in France speak English to me. Dock, yes. Me, no. I learned too well and no matter how exhausted I am from a day of translating, no one gives me mercy.
As we wandered around our little temporary neighborhood, it was evident there was an American in one’s midst. Dock felt slightly uncomfortable. I shrugged it off. I shrugged it off to the point where I left Dock and our traveling companion behind one afternoon and took off for a walk by myself. “That’s how dangerous Paris is,” I tell Milky. Mommy, all 63 inches of her, all 130 pounds of her, can go for a walk by herself in a big city and feel just as comfortable as she would in Philly. Or anywhere else. And, being me, I bought souvenirs for friends and candy (it was near Easter and chocolate eggs are ubiquitous) for my colleagues. I also scouted for kebab stands because Dock and I love authentic kebab.
This tangent is important: Dock looks very WASPy and American. He doesn’t dress typically American when he travels but his general appearance is very much American or Scots-Irish. I, on the other hand, am ethnically ambiguous. Thanks to my paternal DNA and the ability to speak more than one language (well enough to survive), it’s hard for the locals to determine where I’m from. Most natives know I’m not from their country but thanks to my table manners, my appearance and a few other factors, they just cannot figure out where I’m from. My father reports the same thing only everyone assumes he’s Middle Eastern (he looks eerily similar to Yasser Arafat).
We arrive at the kebab shop I found earlier and the shop keeper stops us at the door. He looks at me, looks at Dock and then says, in French “No. You can’t come in here. You’re American.” I respond, in French, “Why not? We’re hungry. I speak French quite well. We don’t have proper kebab at home.” He twists his face, pauses and relents “Fine. Come in.” As I’m eyeballing the menu he says “No. Go sit down and I’ll make you something. You’ll like it.” Now, it’s challenge time. Do I accept food that could have expired or do I trust the man? I trust him, grab Dock’s sleeve and sit down. We look around and we’re the only non-Arabic folks in the restaurant. I whisper “Imagine what would happen if he finds out he’s feeding Jews.” in a joking way. For all I know, the shop keeper could love Jews but really hate Americans after 09.11. He had no way of knowing that Dock and I fundamentally disagreed with the Bush Administration. The meal was the best kebab I have ever eaten and neither one of us became sick. We thanked the shop keeper, left a standard, small gratuity as appreciation and went on with our evening.
Another night in Paris. Another night in a beautiful place, brimming with culture and brimming with diversity. Another opportunity to show that not all American tourists are hideous, chest thumping beasts.
I shared that bit with Milky, as well. We all have our implicit biases. Sometimes, it’s up to us to knock down someone else’s wall. Most important, in a post-09.11 world, it was imperative for Americans to not treat all people of Arabic descent like garbage for then we’re the problem.
Paris is not dangerous. Paris is not a scary place. Paris is not rife with evil. Paris is hurting. This year started horrifically for Paris. It appears that it will end horrifically, as well. When Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher happened, I said that Paris shouldn’t be defined by this, that Paris has survived much worse (you think it hasn’t?) and that Paris will recover. 2015 is a very small period of time in a city with a history dating back to the 3rd century…BC.
Today, I ache for Paris. I ache for the world. I ache for my child and children everywhere. Yet, I remain determined and committed to keep moving forward, keep pressing on – for this world can be better. Even if it’s only one kebab at a time.