Monday, October 24, 2011
Travel, for all of its pleasures, has its disconnects as well. Which, of course, can be a certain kind of pleasure as well, but of a different breed. Travel puts us face to face with certain realities we might never encounter and at times, such as the other day in Paris, these realities can be diametrically opposed.
We'd been walking for a long time and were ready for lunch so we sat down at Cafe Panis for a meal. It's right across from Notre Dame and we knew we were taking a chance. Tourists would be everywhere and, as fate would have it, we sat down beside a nice couple from Athens, Ohio who asked us to take their picture which we did. Then we asked them to take ours and pretty soon we were having a conversation.
We hadn't gotten very far when they asked us where we were from and when we said New York, they asked where we were on 9/11. Larry and I both tensed. Here we were in Paris, a glorious October afternoon, having a glass of Chardonnay and onion soup, and two strangers are asking us about the worst day in our lives.
"I was there," Larry said.
The man sat back a little as did his wife, a triage nurse, it turned out, "You mean there?" They'd never expected this response.
"I worked downtown," Larry replied. He didn't go into the rest of it, nor did I. How for five hours I had no idea where my husband was. How he did worked right across the street and was in fact standing beside the Winter Garden as the towers came down. Neither he nor I explained that he was very very lucky to be alive.
I expected the conversation to go on from there and was relieved when they seemed to respectfully skirt it. I could tell they wanted to know more. But I could also tell that they realized we were on vacation and we didn't want to "go" there.
Our lunch was finished. They were nice and, as often happens on the road, we said our good-byes and wandered on. I bought a hat. We stopped at Shakespeare & Co. where Larry picked up a novel he'd been wanting to read. Larry was cold and getting sick so we took some steps down to the lower level walk along the banks of the Seine to the end of the Ile de la Cite.
Here it was sunny and there was no wind. We ambled. We talked about our lives, our plans. Then right at the tip of the island we sat down, just resting for a moment in the sun.
It wasn't long before a very cute pit bull puppy came sniffing around behind us. He was curious, going around a tree, checking out a man's backpack, and we were amused. Then its owner came by and struck it on its back with its leash. We heard the slap. I turned away but soon I heard another and another. The young man was perhaps trying to discipline his young dog, but in the wrong way.
I know this because we've been trying to train our hound puppy for weeks now. Cheese treats work. My French which had been coming back more and more was almost fluent. And I couldn't bear the thought of another slap on that poor puppy's back.
"I'm going to tell him about cheese treats," I told Larry who nodded because at times I can be a little crazy and I was at this moment.
"Sure, go ahead."
I got up and found the young man at a tree behind me, once more about to slap his dog. He was with a group of three or four friends and, there is no other way to say this, but because it is part of the story I must, they were clearly from North Africa. I said what a cute puppy. Can I pet him? Do you give him cheese treats?
The guy laughed. Fromage. Pourquois pas. After a moment I asked the young man his dog's name. The man gave me a blank stare. "Atta," he said.
"Oh," I replied, momentarily stunned, "that's a nice name."
Atta, of course, as most of the world, but surely any New Yorker, especially survivors of 9/11 knows was the leader of 9/11 contingent that flew into the World Trade Towers. He has also been elevated to a martyr but much of the anti-American elements of the Arab world.
Atta, I thought. I hadn't really figured that the dog would be named Atta. I was suddenly a long way from cheese treats and some discomfort over a man, beating his dog.
Walking home, Larry reminded me of the couple from Athens, Ohio who wanted to know about 9/11, then respectfully declined to ask. And how just an hour later we were speaking with an angry man with a dog named Atta.
Two experiences of the same momemt, diametrically opposed. We walked over the small bridges on the Ile St. Louis, thinking how we were living in a bipolar world. A world whose polarity would not have been made clear were we not in another country, away, raw and exposed. It was certainly not something that would happen at home.