Friday, October 15, 2010

I am alive and here to tell the tale

In my last blog post, I had hinted at a city I wanted to visit this week while I was in Europe. Given that I was going to be to be in London, for Britain’s first and largest South Asian Literary Festival, I thought I would make a day trip to my artist haven—Paris.

But in the past few weeks (or has it been years?), news everywhere has been scary and bloody negative. France and Germany have issued severe terror alerts and the US has warned its citizens in Europe. Net result: my husband and friends, all with just the sweetest and caring intention, urged me to cancel my visit to Paris.

I think some of their suggestions were based on my experience from nine years ago: My husband and I were in Paris when 9/11 happened. We were sitting in a café on Champs-Elysées when I saw three Arab men flaunting a newspaper. It had the image of a plane going into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. I knew something wasn’t right with NYC. Around this time, my husband had walked inside the café to bring us a few napkins. Since the newspaper was in French, I turned to these men and enquired about the story. They all blatantly laughed at me and chuckled at the horrific picture in the newspaper. It wasn’t a friendly giggle; it was pure sinister. One of them said, “You have a Christian accent. We can’t help you.” Before I knew it, tears flooded my face. When my husband returned, I told him what had happened. He read the headlines and told me that America was under attack. I can’t even tell you how helpless we’d felt at that moment.

We rushed back to our hotel. The manager, a wonderful man, comforted us with hot chocolate. He asked us to maintain a low profile, as the danger on America and Americans wasn’t over. When I told him that I was Indian, he said I didn’t sound or look like one, so it was imperative I exercised caution.

I am a very cautious person normally. But I refused to let fear win, again. Or any terrorist threats ruin my plans. I said to my husband and friends that I would make the decision, of whether or not to travel to Paris, only upon reaching London. American media has a tendency to exaggerate the situation. But in all honesty, I had decided to go to Paris come what may. Maybe it was this note from a dear friend right before I boarded my flight for his city: “You don't remind anyone of the typical American (as far as I remember, you're not loud, white, Caucasian or male) :) - so don't worry, just be aware and alert as usual - as you would on the streets of Mumbai or NYC.” Or the fact that at JFK, while waiting to board my flight to London, this woman with a headscarf asked me something in Arabic and looked baffled when I didn’t respond in her language. Or at London Heathrow, two Arab officials asked if I was an Arab. They had a look of disappointment when I said a no. And almost every time I fly a European airline, somehow my name shows up in the “random” checklist. I was convinced I would be safe in Paris.

The first thing I saw when I reached Paris was a strike. Mobs of youngsters and cops crowded the Opera area. There were banners and loud words. But instead of running away, I walked towards the crowd and took pictures of the craziness. I broke my own rule, and it felt good. Later, I met up with a friend for lunch and indulged in French goodness. He told me that these strikes were a part of the French day-to-day, and they weren’t violent. I walked all over the city and went to “that” café on Champs Elysees. I asked an Arab man for directions, and he was rather generous. It brought me closure.

Parisians, overall, were just amazing. And they smiled every time I mispronounced French words but appreciated my effort. I felt no unrest or threat while there.

It was liberating living that one day on my own terms and smelling moments without any biases blinding me. Media has done enough damage. Sadly, it has the power to heavily influence how we perceive people, countries, cultures, and religious faiths in today’s world. You'd think education would show us the right path. But as a dear friend over dinner said today, "Education only teaches us to pretend better."

Often times, we base our opinion on just a singular experience. I wonder how much of this fear psychosis is manifested by governments of different countries. Is it an insidious effort to misdirect attention from their own mistakes?

More until next time,


Copyright © 10.15.2010

“When I am abroad, I always make it a rule to never criticize or attack the government of my own country. I make up for lost time when I come home.” Winston Churchill

1 comment:

SA said...

very nice sweta
u really have a way with words