Fear of Flying

On Vacation

Honey I'm not really sure I want you going to Europe this summer...It just doesn't seem to be a good idea.

As I recall my mother's words of caution and care, I realize that she is paraphrasing Time magazine--unless she authored one of their many articles on this subject.

Funny, it doesn't matter whether she read Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, etc., because each one individually and collectively has contributed to her belief that I could experience, maybe not a year, but a summer of living dangerously.

Tanks, rocket launchers, and troops could indeed be seen in Paris, but only on Bastille Day as they paraded down the Champs Elysee into the Place de la Concorde. Moreover, the bombing of a Paris police station, or of a random VW, was no more extraordinary today than it was two to five years ago.

What's different is the American response. The media screams "terrorism" in bold letters and bright colors everywhere. Time magazine runs a cover story titled "Tourism is a Bust"...well, it certainly was. But the main contributing factor to this economic and vacation disaster is not necessarily specific terrorist acts, but rather what seems to be "fear."

Terrorist acts are hardly frequent, and one has a greater chance of being struck by a bolt of lightning. So the fear, I must conclude, is manifested falsely by our press. Couple this with a weakening dollar overseas, and you get a rather American-less Europe.

The American reaction at home is either one of unity against the so-called terrorist threat or just "so big deal, they're not here yet, let's go to the Grand Canyon instead". But we fewer-than-usual Americans in Europe have a different perspective. It comes from trying to adapt not only to a European lifestyle, but to their mindset as well.

My one compromise with with my mother was that I would fly into Switzerland, the so-called neutral area of the big war zone. That was really my first and last attempt to be safe and avoid the imagined Libyan villains. From there I rode a train to Paris and stayed, forgetting my mother's antiterrorist lessons.

Five weeks of living there, absorbing the culture, the language, and oh yes, the food, was quite fulfilling and fun. But observing my European friends' reactions to Americans also pointed to an ocean of miscommunication and misunderstanding between us.

Parisians were not hostile to Americans and did not berate us, although most of the waiters were still as snobby as ever. But, instead, if I can properly grasp the feelings of this group of people, I sensed their response to be one of incredulity.

This was their home and the chaos we perceived was normalcy to them. I was frequently asked "why are there so few Americans here this summer?" My reply usually was "Have you read the International Herald Tribune lately?" Most looked back at me with incredulous faces until I gave them a rundown on past headlines... Terrorism in Paris, Khaddafy Making Secret Alliances, Be on Your Guard in Paris, etc.

They nodded, as if to say "we understand." But they didn't, because what followed was another battery of questions. "Are Americans that naive? And if so, why aren't you so naive?"

I felt like I was in a courtroom being interrogated all summer long. I responded, "Perhaps our country is naive. Its response is like a crowd, where individual views are transformed into a single decisive posture or character. When one person declares he/she is afraid to travel, many more suddenly jump on the bandwagon."

As for my presence in Europe, it was an attempt to escape the crowd or just the American normalcy, maybe even to search for an "adventure".

I used this word in one conversation and I quickly found myself embroiled in an argument over Reagan's "adventure" into Libya. And it was at this point that I realised how weak an understanding there was between us.

My European friend had refused to admit that there was a pattern of terrorism until Reagan's incident came up. But when our discussion led to the question "Should the U.S. have acted?" I lost my newly gained European posture. I realized I was on the fence. Yes, they should have. No, they shouldn't have. Just as Reagan appeared to be frustrated into acting, I was frustrated because I was looking only towards the end of terrorism, while my friend was interested only in finding a means for achieving this end.

The rift in our communication made it clearer to me why it was so difficult to understand the situation in Europe. None of us really knew the facts. My friend argued that our jets were allowed to fly over France. But I believed the opposite.

Where do we get these facts but the press? Who's right: our press, their press? Who knows? Yet I took a flight out of Geneva because, although I thought I understood the normalcy behind what we called terrorism, I had not completely rationalized the fear away.