Our coach driver. Our second coach driver. The weird dude I met in the youth hostel who told me the story of how he “ruined his life” (I murmured something about Oscar Wilde’s *De Profundis* being a comforting read when we feel that way). Our engaging and fabulously knowledgeable tour guide in the Bodleian Library (okay, not just London then, Oxford too)…I’ve lost track of how many Hungarians I’ve met in the past few weeks abroad.
They didn’t seem to be immigrants, per se. More like, they were making the best of the closing Brexit window. Making bank before returning to their home country.
“Dr. Moore! London is SO like Zadie Smith described it!”
This is my students.
“I know! It’s a glorious cosmopolitan post-colonial mish-mash, isn’t it?”
What I don’t tell them is that I’m currently reading Zadie’s newest collection of essays, in which she is markedly less optimistic about cosmopolitan London than her 21yo authorial self was in *White Teeth.*
And not because pluralism, in its own right, has failed. But because pluralism—as all else—is fragile.
Pluralism relies upon the premise that everyone already belongs—no questions.
And yet. We are human.
And humanity likes to divide itself into infinite variations of “us/them.” It takes so little to provoke an exclusionary distinction. Let it be political. Let it be sociological or economical or geographical or gendered or religious or educational. Whatever. We like to feel superior to those Others whose existence is the world is so much more contingent than our own.
*He’s* not sure I know where I’m going. And his high school French class has not prepared him for *this* Paris.
The Paris where we eat our first meal in a Five Guys because the 9 Euro burger is our cheapest option.
The Paris where we walk past a homeless man polishing the face of a new iPhone—“Mom! I think that guy just stole that phone!”
The Paris where—when I return from a trip to the bathroom—I find a drunk, homeless young Frenchman with his face millimeters from my son’s face, shouting at him. There are other people around as this is happening, and no one is registering anything. I go full mama-bear and position myself between the two of them—YOU NEED TO LEAVE. NOW. I momentarily don’t care what sad story has prompted this explosion. I only know that my son is scared, and trying mightily not to show it in public. Later, I pray for him—the drunk, homeless kid—but in the moment I can only think to protect my own kid. Mine. My kid. The line is drawn between who belongs to me, and who doesn’t.
When we finally reach La Chapelle—it feels like an age, but in reality it is only a nine minute walk—I am immediately approached by a tall, curly-headed boy my son’s age. He asks if I want to buy a Metro ticket, and he proffers one. It’s clearly a scam. But I am in command of myself again, so I smile and make eye contact and say politely, “Non, merci.”
A few moments later, I am struggling to work the automated ticket machine and the boy approaches to help. He is kind, and I am grateful.
Through the gates to the Metro platform, we pass a man holding a piece of cardboard—SYRIAN FAMILY is clumsily printed on it. I have no cash. I promise myself to return with ready change tomorrow.
The next day I make the same trek from Gare du Nord to La Chapelle with the second, late-arriving half of the family.
The homeless man with the iPhone is gone. The gang of teenage boys selling fake Metro tickets is gone. So too the Syrian father.
Back in the hotel my teenage son has been awaiting us and watching French television. “Mom, the French authorities raided La Chapelle last night. There were hundreds of illegal immigrants. They rounded them up.”
He looks simultaneously relieved and horrified.
That night I do some grocery shopping in the fancy arrondisement in which we are staying. I used to live in a ritzy neighborhood like this—several lifetimes ago now, in Chicago—and I am familiar with the many ways of belonging that are visually communicated through dress, bodily confidence, and monetary ease. “I can buy these things. I am dressed appropriately. I belong here, just like you do.”
But what I do not have command of is language. I have forgotten how powerful access to words is. And not just any words. Words in the “right” accent.
At the meringue shop—a whole shop! just for meringues!—the shop girl and I go back and forth between French and English.
I am pleased with my purchase, pleased with the utter Parisienne-ness of the whole thing, but as I turn to leave the shop—I am not even out of the door—I hear her behind me, imitating my American accent.
“Aww Ree-Vor!” she quacks, like a duck.
My face burns. I feel humiliated, small. I don’t even contemplate turning back to look at her, to let her know I heard her. I feel so shamed and stupid that I just act as though I haven’t heard.
Later, I recount the episode to the family, and it becomes a recurring family joke. The 8yo, in particular, takes great delight in recounting it—publicly and loudly. (“Mom!” he will say, steadily eyeing the shopkeeper in front of him, “do you think *this* person will mock your French?”) But it takes quite a bit of laughter to take the sting out of that mockery. And what is more, I have only been made to feel as though I don’t belong in one respect. What if my not-belonging had been brought home to me in many respects? How easily could I have laughed that off?
Travel makes me feel more American, not less—I am highly conscious of the cultural eccentricities that seem “illogical” to me—but it also highlights my commonalities with the Syrian refugee, the Hungarian bus driver, the drunk homeless French kid, and the snotty shopkeeper.
Because each of us already belongs. And everyone, after all, is Hungarian.
Lord, give us the courage to actually live this truth.