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Commentary: The Politics Of Travel

(February 20, 2003)

I truly believe travel cures ignorance; there's nothing like experiencing another culture that allows for more understanding. Sadly, on my last trip to Paris, understanding isn't something I encountered. It's widely known Parisians aren't the most outgoing to foreigners; though on this particular visit they weren't shy in expressing their disapproval of America.

I have visited Paris numerous times and on this visit I brought along my two daughters. I wanted them to experience and understand the beauty, culture, ambiance, and people of Paris. It wasn't long after my plane landed that I had my first inkling things were very different this time around.

During the taxi ride into the city, my conversation with the driver turned from amiable small talk to politics. My driver Gilles came right out and said he didn't approve of America going to war with Iraq. He thought President Bush was a "cowboy" and "evil". I listened politely, as enduring an eight-hour flight left me in no mood for political debate.

Over the course of the four-day visit, the repeated America bashing was becoming stressful. Whether we were in a café or turning on the television it was everywhere. Even my eight year old picked up on it and began asking why are they so angry at us. Of course, I had to explain it wasn't us but our country they were angry at. By the third day it became so annoying that when people asked if I was American, I'd lie and say I was Canadian. I wish I had lied sooner; it instantly defused an otherwise unpleasant situation.

The final straw for me came the last morning in Paris. I noticed the hotel clerk placing new magazines all around the lobby. He was jovial as he made a prominent display of one magazine in particular. I walked over and was very angry by what I saw. The January 20 edition of TIME Europe was wallpapering every table in the lobby. On the cover was a burning American flag with the caption "Blaming America." I grimaced and my girls wondered why our flag was on fire. The hotel clerk saw my angry expression and felt compelled to tell me: "You Americans should be more open-minded. September 11 should have taught you all a lesson." I told him I don't know how open-minded we are expected to be after thousands of innocent people were murdered! The clerk seemed a little irritated with my remark, c'est la vie!

I have never felt this way. For the first time in all my travels, I experienced a nervous pang at being an American. Post September 11 travel just feels… well, weird. Paranoia is everywhere. Still, most Americans will continue to travel because we love it. Just seeing my daughters' faces when they first glimpsed the Eiffel Tower made enduring all the rudeness worth it. The fact that we are free and confident enough to set off to a foreign land (whether or not we know the language) is perhaps intimidating to our foreign hosts. On the flipside, our foreign hosts can help us better understand their point-of-view. Just as in politics, travel can sometimes expose conflicting relationships between societies. In the end, travel is the only way to truly understand and ultimately respect differences.

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