Perhaps I was more naive than most, but at age 20, I was impervious to the news. It flowed off of me. Back then, I was young and indestructible and everything in the news happened to "other" people. I had come from a protected midwest city and gone to a protected college town and finally to London, a place, notwithstanding its peppered history, that was a safe haven among the plethora of other places to study abroad as a college student.
And maybe it's because I had been living for a few months in a place where guns were actually illegal, but Columbine scared me. I actually had nightmares about returning to the United States and being gunned down. It wasn't the first of my irrational fears, and it certainly wouldn't be the last, but it left a mark on me. These innocent suburban American high school students weren't immune to harm, and neither was I.
Two years later I was living in London again on 9/11. I was at the LSE library, searching for jobs, when I came across a curious news story on the internet. The World Trade Centers were on fire. I turned to the person sitting at the computer next to me, a stranger, and told him that planes were crashing into buildings in New York. He thought I was crazy and changed seats. That night, scared as to what was going on in the world and at my mother's recommendation, I avoided the tube and took the bus home, adding 45 minutes to my journey.
That night I was harassed by friends and family urging me to come home. Come home to what? I thought. How do you know home is safe? How do you know London is not safe? Where is safe? The whole world seemed like a scary place that day.
I made the decision that night that I was going to stay in London. And in doing so, I would have to set my fear aside and just come what may. It was a release of control uncharacteristic of me at the time, but one of emotional survival. I needed to live my life, and so I did. I rode the tube, I frequented tourist destinations, and when I went to Egypt that spring, against the urging of loved ones, I did so with the same attitude. It's not that I was oblivious to risk, it's just that I weighed it and then moved on. That old adage of the most dangerous part of your travels is your drive to the airport? It became my mantra. I felt fear, but did it anyway, and it paid out in spades. My years in London were some of the best of my life, and my trip to Egypt was fantastic. I went home to live in Manhattan, work in Times Square, and ultimately move to Washington, DC. Not exactly a path of the terrorist risk-averse, but it's where life has taken me. When I hear of a terrorist attack, I take a minute to feel the fear go through me, to reason with myself, to mourn, and to move on. Life is scary, the world is scary, and we can either live our life constantly aware of that fact, or we can just live. I try my hardest to do the latter.
But my resolve was put to the test on March 22 - the day of the Brussels bombings.
My husband, myself, and my three sons were packing up our bags in our London rental flat. We had spent five fabulous days there, and were headed to Paris, via Eurostar. As we were headed out, I got a news alert on my phone that there had been an explosion at the Brussels airport - there were no further details. We headed to Kings Cross, went through security, and as we were waiting to board our train, I noticed a larger police presence than normal. It was then that my husband whispered to me, so the children could not hear: Did you see what happened in Brussels? I conspicuously opened my phone and read the headlines, which confirmed a terrorist bomb both in the Brussels airport, and at a metro station. As I put the phone back in my purse, the announcement over the loud speaker came: Due to the recent events in Brussels, all trains to Brussels have been suspended indefinitely.
We boarded our train five minutes later. Like I often do on a plane during turbulence, I scanned the faces of my fellow passengers. No one else seemed to be nervous. Everyone went on as if nothing was wrong, as if it was just an ordinary day. And so would I, I decided.
When we were half an hour outside of Paris, the train came to an abrupt stop. The conductor made an announcement in French, after which there was a uniform chorus of "Ugh." As the conductor started speaking in English Braden, my 7 year old, asked me what was going on. I shushed him emphatically so I could hear the announcement, which I think alarmed him a little. I managed to hear the crux of the conductor's announcement: Our train is being held due to a security situation at Gare du Nord.
At that moment I started to doubt myself. What was I doing, on a train headed to France with three children 7 and under when Europe was in the midst of a terrorist attack? What was the security situation? How long would we be held here? What if we couldn't get to France? Where would we go? What was going on? And who was on this train? I am ashamed to say that I glanced around, profiling my fellow passengers. Does anyone look nervous? Does anyone have a suspicious looking backpack?
Braden noticed me getting nervous. What's wrong, Mommy?
I took a deep breath. It dawned on me immediately that for him, the world was not yet scary. We were just on vacation, on a train to Paris, where he would climb the Eiffel Tower and eat baguettes. No way should he know what was going on. No way is he ready to learn how terrifying the world can be.
These trains are always running late, I told him through a smile. Construction, I think. We should be in Paris in no time.
I'm not a religious person at all. But in that moment, I prayed to anyone who would listen that I was right. Just get us off this train, I prayed. Get us to our hotel.
Two minutes later, the train started moving. We showed up to Gare du Nord, overrun with police, and got a taxi to our hotel. Numerous security guards stood at our hotel's entrance.
I had a moment with myself when we got settled. I thought back to Columbine. To 9/11. To other world events that, as an adult, can paralyze you if you let it. I had a choice. Did I want to enjoy my vacation in Paris? Or did I want to be fearful - at every landmark, every crowded area, every tourist destination? And if I had that fear, what would it accomplish?
The way I saw it, we either should leave, or we should enjoy every moment we had there. We did the latter. And we had an amazing time.
We went to the Eiffel Tower.
To the Louvre.
To Notre Dame.
And of course, to Disneyland.
We ate, we drank, we played, we rode ponies. (Well, one of us did).
We made memories.
At each destination, there was a small piece of me that thought about that. About men strapped with bombs willing to take out themselves and everyone around them. But when I looked at my kids, and the delight and excitement on their faces as their world expanded right before their eyes, I squashed those fears. Because for them, the world is not yet scary. The world is all about fun and warmth and adventure. How dare I deny them that?
Of course, as a mother it's my job to protect my children. But I can only do so to an extent. We still drive, we still eat junk food, we still take public transportation. And we will still travel the world, to the extent we can.
I have to think they will thank me for it eventually.
I'm not sure when, but eventually, they will find out that the world is a very scary place. It will be a shock, and they will come to terms with it in their own way. But by that time, I hope they will have really lived enough to know that it's worth it to continue to do so.
Because while scary, the world is also pretty awesome. It's worth exploring.
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