S. Lee Manning: We’d planned a European trip for years. Somehow we never got around to it. What can I say? We’d always put it off – for many reasons that seemed good at the time.
But last fall, with Trojan Horse, my first novel, under contract, and money and time at our disposal, we planned a month-long trip. After all, I was now a writer of international espionage. I wanted to research possible locations for future novels. And my husband could finally satisfy his travel lust.
So we planned it. London. Paris. South of France. Ireland.And we bought the tickets, in mid-November 2015. Our adult daughter, who lives in LA, would join us for the trip. Then on the night of November 13, gunmen and suicide bombers in Paris hit restaurants, bars, a major stadium, and a concert hall, leaving 130 dead. On March 22, 2016, terrorists killed 32 people at bombings at an airport and a metro station in Brussels.
“Don’t go,” said numerous friends and cousins.
“Don’t go, but if you go, don’t wear a Jewish star.”
We thought about cancelling. I went on the State Department travel alert website. Risk of terror attacks was rated high in every place we intended to visit, except Ireland.
“We can just go to Ireland,” my daughter suggested. She loves Celtic music, and she’d visited Paris on her honeymoon. She’d had to skip Ireland to fly home for my father’s last illness, so Ireland was the top of her must visit list.
We already had tickets for the train from London to Paris, for the plane from Nice to Dublin, and had prepaid for a rental car to tour Provence, all non-refundable. We would have lost a lot of money. I’m risk adverse, but I’m also cheap. Did I mention I’m Jewish?
Then there’s the fact that we really wanted to see France. We belong to a French conversation group in Burlington, Vermont, where I regularly embarrass myself with my lack of vocabulary and inability to conjugate verbs except in present and present perfect. For years, we’ve watched French movies and made pathetic efforts to speak French in visits to towns in Quebec. We wanted to see Paris, and we wanted to see the South of France.
|Rue Montmartre Paris
Statistically speaking, we knew we were more likely to get killed driving to New Jersey from Vermont. Statistics are cold comfort, but still they offer a rationale to do what you really want to do anyway.
Then there’s my writing. Not that I needed this trip for research on the sequel to Trojan Horse, that I’m currently writing. I wanted to use the trip as a springboard for my imagination for future books, as yet unplanned. Moreover, I could almost feel the scorn from my characters, especially my protagonist, Kolya Petrov, at the idea of my abandoning my trip.
All the terrible things that you’ve done to me. All the dangerous places you’ve sent me, all the risks you’ve had me take, and you’re too terrified of the random chance of a terrorism attack to even tour London and France? He’d add something rude in Russian, which in deference to readers of this blog, I won’t repeat. But, okay, Kolya. I got it.
We decided to go. I showed my 23-year-old son, who stayed behind to finish college, where we kept the wills, and I exacted promises from cousins to help him if we didn’t make it back. We took off for London.
I expected to have the trip marred by excessive security or by constant fear of attack, but once we
|Piccadilly Square in London
landed, the anxiety disappeared.
Londoners were going their normal affairs. In fact, I was more troubled by acrophobia than by anxiety over terrorism. And I spent much of the trip envisioning how I could use different scenarios in future novels. I left the London Eye to my husband and daughter.
During our visit to the House of Lords in Westminster, I had to beg off visiting the gallery to listen to the Lords debate because of the tiny winding stairs and a resulting panic attack – think Vertigo. I sat on a bench downstairs, near a kind but not too attentive security guard, while I jotted notes for a story in which a middle-aged spy faked for devious purposes what I was experiencing.
Paris, which I’d expected to be overflowing with security, was, well, not. An underground shopping mall close to our hotel had installed security guards at every entrance, but all they did was glance into my purse. I had an umbrella stuffed into a coat pocket; it could have been a gun, but no metal detectors, no body searches.
There was a lot of security around a parade of horseback soldiers on the Champs Elysees, but it drifted away after the parade. Nothing around the Tour Eiffel. I would note that when we visited the Tour Eiffel, it was so cold, we were almost totally alone. Just us – and about a hundred Parisians selling overpriced souvenirs.
No visible security. Nothing that would have reminded the unaware traveler of the terror attacks six months earlier.
Then we rented our car and headed south. In Beaune, we wandered through narrow streets to a market where I purchased a small sharp pocket knife that I forgot I had and that was missed during subsequent searches at tourist sites. In Arles, we stayed in a thousand-year-old cottage in the French countryside, the only danger being the mold and an overfriendly dog who almost bowled me over in his eagerness to play.
|Palace des Papes, Avignon, France
In Avignon, we rented a gorgeous two-bedroom apartment, two winding flights up that I could only master by clinging to the wall and counting. At the Palace des Papes and at the Pont d’Avignon, I waited on the bottom floor while my husband and daughter climbed the heights. I imagined thrilling adventures by a knife-wielding woman, abandoned by her family.
In Nice, I gazed out my window at a blue-green Mediterranean sea. Only in Cannes, which we toured one day before the opening of the film festival, did I feel the presence of security, when bicycle riding police descended on a package that appeared to be deserted and a military ship lingered in the harbor.
|Leenane – Letterbrickaun, Ireland
The only true terror I felt on the trip was when we wound on curved roads through Monaco, with the sheer drop off ledges towering over the sea, and when my husband drove on the left side on tiny Irish roads, the side mirror closely encountering the bordering stone walls and hedges, while tour buses barreled down in the opposite direction at 100 kilometers per hour.
I do not intend in any way to downplay the true horror of the attacks in Europe this past year. Nor am I trying to tell anyone to ignore warnings not to go into a truly dangerous situation. But terrorism alerts are high everywhere, including the United States. It is a cliché, but if we barricade ourselves in our homes, afraid to experience the world, we are giving terrorism the victory.
I am now back in Vermont, with sights, sounds, and plots in my mind, and wonderful memories of places that I’d long wanted to see. I know that I’m lucky that all went well, but I’m also lucky that I had the chance to take this trip.