Yesterday, after almost a full day in Göteburg experiencing radio silence (I didn’t read the news, look at social media, or listen to the radio), my aunt back in the States told me about the attacks in Belgium. This isn’t the first terrorist attack in Europe since we moved here. The first attacks that truly got my attention were those in Paris last year. When I think of Paris and Belgium, I picture bustling cities with busy people rushing to work. I hear “Le Vie En Rose” in my ears and taste rich chocolate in my mouth. Ancient churches, cobblestone streets, and an eclectic mixture of people are all impressions I have of these places.
My first visit to Brussels and my first visit to Paris were on a trip with my aunt when I was 17. If I saved up my airfare and souvenir money, my aunt agreed to fly transport me from country to country and provide food and lodging. The trip was long planned and and anticipated with excitement, but came at a time of massive transition. Two nieces had been born and my grandpa had just passed. I was sad and angsty and overwhelmed. Thankfully, my aunt is very pragmatic and independent. She understood that I might need space to do my own thing, and trusted me to let her know when I wanted to be alone (I think she appreciated being free of the angsty teen as well). Brussels was overwhelming for me. So much traffic! Such crazy drivers! Do they speak French? Wait, is that German?? Eek! I was so lost… Then the glory of Neuhaus chocolate and finally, the grandeur of seeing the ruins of an old church amongst all that was modern. Those are my impressions of Brussels. An amazing multicultural city, filled with history and life.
Arriving in Paris was equally overwhelming. I remember a small hotel, was it Hotel des Artistes? I think so, but can’t be sure. It had an ancient dog and the tiniest elevator I had ever seen. The beds were singles and very springy (as in springs in your back…). Nonetheless, the fresh bread and apricot jam with hot chocolate in the morning were a revelation. In Paris I experienced some level of independence. I found a post office and mailed packages and wandered about until I found a chocolate shop. It took some time, but I finally remembered enough French to buy a chocolate egg wrapped in a box to bring back to my French teacher back home. The box part stumped me. To this day I do not know the word box in French… It was also in Paris that a slightly off man with very few teeth in a black trench coat chased me down the street shouting in French. The first of many slightly odd people that have since chased me down streets. It is where I had my first sip of red wine with a meal and where I first spoke with a waiter who earned a proper living and considered his job to be a career. He had worked in gradually better and better restaurants, constantly improving his skills and taking pride in his work. He wasn’t looked down on for his work, he was appreciated for his contribution to the atmosphere of the restaurant. I found this to be a key takeaway from that trip. The idea that all humans should be appreciated for their dedication to work and to do their best.
During that first visit to Europe, I never expected to one day live here. I also never expected to hear about terror attacks in restaurants and theaters or buses and airports. At home, we still talked about Columbine, because it was still fresh. I didn’t expect that school shootings would become so frequent that I wouldn’t remember each of the schools. The fact is that terrorists are terrorists. They come in all colors, all religions, all nationalities. They see the vibrancy of life in schools, restaurants, theaters, on the street, and want to damage that. Fear is their weapon; causing neighbors to look distrustfully at neighbors and strangers to avoid speaking on the street.
I had a moment recently where I almost gave into that. It was almost time for my Svenska class. I was hungry and needed a quick snack. Around me, there were many options, but they were all exposed seating in the middle of a shopping mall. There were no walls to sit against. I almost walked out without eating. The Paris attacks went through my mind and I questioned sitting to eat where there was no wall at my back, where I couldn’t see all the exits. Finally, I reminded myself that fear should not control my actions and I sat down and ate a sandwich surrounded by strangers of many colors, speaking many languages. No one bothered me. No one was harassed or hurt. Everyone was just enjoying their meals with friends, family, or solo like myself.
Don’t let fear stop you from welcoming people who are different. Don’t let it stop you from being where you want to be or doing what you want to do. When we give into that fear, the terrorists win. Life is for living.
Until next time…