Friday, July 6, 2012

The Peace Train

I love to travel, although I have neither the time nor the financial resources to do it as much as I'd like. I've always believed that all you have to do is open yourself to new places and people and experiences, and wondrous things will happen.

My daughter — whether she realizes it or not — is very fortunate. Last week marked her second trip to the U.K. (I didn't make it there until I was 28, the same year I learned to drive. Oh, but that's a different story.) She's been to Mexico, Canada, St. Croix, Bermuda, the Bahamas, England and now France. Paris to be specific.

On this trip, we happened upon several bigger than life (or, at least, bigger than us) moments. We were simply in the right place at the right time.

For example, on our first day in London, a bit bleary-eyed, we went to Waterloo to meet an old friend for lunch. It was a typical train station: fast food carts, ticket kiosks, mechanical arrival and departure boards. All of a sudden, we looked around and thought "Toto, we're not in the U.S. anymore." Amongst the business commuters and average citizens waiting for trains, there were dozens and eventually hundreds of men in morning coats and top hats, accompanied by women in fancy dresses and matching fascinators (those frilly, floral little headbands that drew so much attention at Kate and William's wedding last year). We passed more than one gentlemen with an elaborate rosette on his lapel, reading "Royal Enclosure." 

Turns out, they were catching the train to Ascot. How cool is that? As Americans, all we could say was, "Whoa."

A few days later, we were walking along Whitehall, having toured Parliament with our friends, and arrived just as they were starting the ceremonial Changing of the Horse Guards. We hadn't planned it that way (in fact, we were running an hour or so late on our self-guided walking tour). My daughter was, needless to say, in horse heaven. 

And, after much bat mitzvah celebration and a whirlwind of touristy sites, we caught the Eurostar to Paris. It's incredible how quick and convenient it is. In half the time it takes to travel to New York from Boston, we went from London's St. Pancras Station to Paris' Gare du Nord. With comfortable seats, great scenery (except, of course, when you're actually under the channel), and delicious snacks.

When we arrived, there was a media frenzy waiting for our train. (Of course, we were disappointed that the paparazzi were following us. Um, just kidding.) It turned out, as we read the "Welcome ..." banners that were lined up side by side with the TV crews, we weren't the only ones who had taken the Eurostar that morning. We had been traveling with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, former long-time prisoner and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Although we were eager to get to our hotel, we stopped to watch as the diminutive political powerhouse was greeted by the crowd.

Later, we stumbled into Cathedrals just as choirs of nuns began to sing, walked by Shakespeare & Co. on the left bank during a standing-room-only book reading, enjoyed countless buskers on the metro and in cafes. Even watched a model being primped for a photo shoot at Place de la Concord.

While all of these added to the Parisian ambience, I think that traveling with Madame Suu Kyi made the greatest impression. It gave me an opportunity to explain some pretty important concepts to my daughter. Like prisoners of conscience, house arrest, human rights and non-violent demonstration. Quite the bonus on top of our exceedingly pleasant train ride, n'est-ce pas?

And, for me, the incident and our subsequent conversations underscored what is perhaps the most important benefit of travel with children. If more people had the chance to visit other places and absorb other cultures, I really believe there would be greater understanding and a greater motivation for peaceful coexistence. 

It's a pretty powerful way to help our kids realize that the world isn't "us and them," it's just "us."

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