Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Have a safe trip!

Most of our family and friends expressed joy and perhaps a little jealousy when we told them we were traveling to France on sabbatical. The location of Marseille met with a broader range of reactions.

Where's that?

Is it anywhere near Paris?

Is it safe?

Travel by Google bears a strong resemblance to doctor by Google: you'll get true information, but often it is so far out of context that you won't know what to do with it...other than get scared once you've been convinced that you're going to die.

And so...Marseille has acquired a reputation for being one of the more dangerous cities in Western Europe. It boasts a major European port, and there's a fairly active drug trade, which brings with it gangs and mob activity (or maybe I have cause and effect a little twisted around there). Tourism sites like TripAdvisor host message boards filled with cautions about someone and their friends getting their pockets picked or their cameras stolen. These are valid concerns.

Marseille is also the second largest city in France, and its location makes it a prime gateway for an economic migration that has been ongoing for decades. Donald Trump would recommend some walls here, but the fear that this inspires is founded on ignorance bordering on racism.

We did our due Google diligence, and at least one of us was a little afraid. (I won't point fingers, but let's just say that it's the person who can tell you all the ways you could die in a chem lab.) But, just for fun, we took a look at Grand Rapids with Google, and its crime numbers aren't that far off from Marseille, even with about a quarter of the population. I'm still not sure if we should be less afraid here or terrified when we return home. We were convinced, though--Marseille would be a fine place to spend six months.

Then came Paris, and the heartbreak and fear, and having to sit down with our daughter after she turned on her Saturday morning cartoons, only to walk into our bedroom to tell us that "something bad happened in we can't go to France."

From then on it seemed that all I heard was "Have a safe trip!" I admit that I don't know if people were more apt to say it now, or if I was just more aware of it, but that admonition followed me everywhere. (Let me be clear that this was a caring and appreciated sentiment. But I couldn't help but ponder what might be inspiring its frequency.)

This was about the time we were wondering if our visas were ever going to go through, and the delays put our flight plans and apartment hunt on hold as well. While dealing with the stress building in in knots in my stomach, I ran into a colleague who quickly figured out that I was at wit's end with our arrangements and the possibility of a few weeks or even months of delay for my research. "It's all in God's plan," she said. "Maybe there will be another terrorist attack, and you'll be safe from it here!"

That struck me as odd. It was not her intention, but it came across as, "If something bad happens in the time before you arrive, it will be OK, because you and your family will be fine." I did not share her sentiment, and I will not share my inner monologue, though I'm quite confident I've made my share of equally awkward comments that I've wanted to take back the moment they left my mouth. I have to give her the benefit of the doubt. But this did not change my desire to get everything fixed now so that we could fly out by our planned date.

If I'm honest, I have to admit that moving here did push the fear of terrorism from the abstract to reality for me. It's not a realistic fear, but how many fears actually are? But when night comes, logic doesn't always prevail. And I found that I worried far more about my daughter than anyone or anything else. it safe here?

We've noticed high security from the moment our trip began. Teams of heavily armed soldiers patrolled Charles De Gaulle in Paris, and we were a little shocked to run into more soldiers in the subways here. Nearly every day we see a group of four or six or even eight armed soldiers walking patrol in the city streets, part of Plan Vigipirate. We pass through metal detectors at museums and even the library, though I'm not entirely convinced they're any good, since my hip hasn't set one off yet. A colleague of mine who is an expert in French culture has helped me understand what we're seeing--there is a little security theater in this, but it seems to reassure the citizens that action is being taken. It has taken some getting used to, but I think we're getting there.

The reality, though, is that we face a much bigger risk here with the traffic. We walk almost everywhere, and we have to cross busy streets. The mopeds are insane--the only rule they seem to mostly obey is stopping at red lights, though they pass all of the cars to get to the front of the line first. One has to be constantly on guard to stay safe.

Our young traveler is unafraid of deux baguettes and le fromage that will soon rest upon their slices.

As for the crime, we've been told to expect pick pockets when in crowds, especially in the touristy areas. Don't carry a wallet in the back pocket. Don't carry wads of cash, and don't flash the cash that you do have. But we've been assured that there is little violent crime here, and the vast majority of it revolves around the drug trade. I'm not worried.

We discuss risk assessment in some of our intro chemistry courses, and it doesn't take much effort to demonstrate that the things we fear most (plane crash, terrorist attack, etc.) have about the same odds as those for winning the Powerball jackpot (and I note that I have yet to purchase a Powerball ticket). We become numb or accustomed to the more ordinary, like gun violence back home. In our first few weeks here we learned that a Calvin colleague had been shot while walking near his home in a quiet neighborhood (he was back at work in a couple of days!). Around the same time another man went on a shooting spree in Kalamazoo, which is less than an hour from our home in the States. This time our new acquaintances here were very concerned for us and our life in Michigan. it safe at home?

It's easy to let fear rule. But fear is also a choice, and I'd rather focus on what travel opens for us. I'm grateful for the opportunity to travel in my work. I'm grateful that I can interact with a wide variety of people in the lab and in my commute, reinforcing that our humanity makes us far more alike than different. I'm grateful for lessons from friends like Jolene and Otto in Calvin's French department, who emphasized that learning a language should be a much deeper experience than simply navigating transactions for food and shelter; we need to aim to get to know our hosts and their culture, which requires work on our part (I'm still plugging away at it). I'm grateful for friends and family who want the best for us and want us to remain safe.

Our delay did in fact save me, but not in the way that anyone had anticipated. I can now say quite confidently that I was saved from my own French language ineptitude, and I'm not sure how I would have managed living on my own here for a few weeks before Anne and Bea arrived. We're sticking together as we slowly get to know this dazzling city and this amazing culture. We're not completely safe, but adventures never are.

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