traveling with terror

Abroad with terror: my experience in Germany after the 2015 Paris attacks

On November 13th, 2015, when nine men used bombs and guns to terrorize Paris, bringing humanity to attention. I was staying in the small town of Oberammergau, quaintly situated in the German Alps.

Oberammergau is known for three things: its wood carvings, its NATO school and its production of a Passion Play that they’ve hosted every ten years since 1634. In many ways, it reminded me of the small, Kentucky town in which I grew up. The people are simple and kind with modest houses and a large congregation at the local church. The owner of the bed and breakfast quickly learned how I liked my morning coffee and even entertained the breakfast room one day by singing “Molly Malone” to me in his stunted English. It was a rural, cozy place and I felt comfortable there. So, even though my social circle of family and friends—Facebook and otherwise—worried for my safety that day, I initially experienced the attacks of terror while in a place very much like my home.

the day of tragedy in oberammergau

The events in Paris resonated with Oberammergau as it did the rest of the world. The bells of the Catholic Church rang throughout the day as extra services were held. The military personnel from neighboring Garmisch lingered in town longer; they leaned towards one another over steins of beer in serious conversation. And on that unfortunate afternoon, the stoner son of my next-door-neighbor managed to catch me in conversation.

“Those fuckers,” he started.

“I know.”

“How do people like that even exist in this world? Huh? And of course it was France. They don’t have the balls to do anything. Just let anybody in. Not checking people out. Not stopping anyone from doing anything.”

“These people only have to get it right once, you know.” I attempted to placate his rage enough so I could slip away.

“I knew someone.”

“Someone who was in Paris?”

He nodded. “Knew someone who died.”

He then fumbled around with blurry pictures on his phone and vague details of how he knew the person who had died; they had grown up together and were only few years apart in school. “He was such a good guy,” the neighbor said. “He didn’t deserve to die. This is what happens when you let refugees in. And we have to bomb them. This can’t go unanswered.”

As he rattled on, I contemplated the most eloquent way to reply, eloquent yet elementary enough to argue with a sad and angry stoner. But I wondered,Who is them?

them on a train

Later that week, on the train back to Munich, I saw the them.

We were stopped at a small, station much longer than the others, the first snow of the season still coming down like a silent jingle. I strained my head down the long aisles of the train to discover what was going on as people with tattered bags and collections of overstuffed plastic bags moved through the train cars towards the back.

The pit of my stomach sank, and my first impulse was fear. The train was being searched, but for what? Or for whom?

And officer stopped at my row. “Reisepass,” he demanded. Passport.

I handed mine over and asked is the officer spoke English. He did.

“Is everything okay?”

“Yes, everything is fine. Just checking papers.”

The officer barely looked at my passport—crisp, navy blue and obviously American—before he handed it back me. It was then that I caught the stare of a young man standing in the frame of the train doors. Someone in his group was in passionate conversation with another officer, but the young man just looked at me with sad interest, his eyes floating between my passport and what-must-have-been my concerned face.

Fear left me; that kid was more afraid than I have ever been.

The young boy and his party of six disembarked; the train left with them and a few others staring after the train from a small station-stop in the middle of the Alps.

the airbnb guest from syria

I was in Munich to catch my flight back to the U.S., but I had a free evening and met my friend Jana for sinner. When she first sat down, with a little melodrama about an additional AirBNB guest he would be meeting at the end of dinner.  At first she was aggravated with a couple from Italy who begged to stay longer and were moving into the upstairs loft so the next guest could occupy the bedroom listed on AirBNB.  But as the sushi-dinner progressed, Jana revealed more and more how concerned about the additional guest, a solo-traveler from Syria with a vague profile.

She verbally explored all the bad things that could happen and attempted to rationalize how AirBNB would properly screened its users.

“He could be dangerous,” she said” “How did he even get a passport if he’s Syrian? I think I would put another country on my profile if I were from Syria, right? But maybe, since he’s being honest, that a good sign?

I found the conversation exhausting. I didn’t want to disregard her anxiety because, yes, we live in a crazy world full of hateful people, but I also believe in expecting the best of someone. He messaged Jana that he was waiting at the restaurant bar, and I volunteered to go find him and bring him to our table.

Sitting the corner of the bar with a fresh pink cocktail was Aimar. He was medium height, medium build, and extremely kind. Meeting him seemed to ease Jana, but she was a rather new friend to me at the time, so perhaps she wasn’t. I, however, was charmed. After we paid our bill, Jana left to deal with her current AirBNB guests and Aimar and I embarked to Marianplatz for another drink.

we were having a nice time when…

We went to a great out-door bar near the Frauenkirch and found easy conversation there. Aimar told me how he reconciled his love of beer and his Islamic upbringing; I told him about my new life as a digital nomad; and he told me about his six-month-long solo trip through Europe. His suitcase was filled with books, and for those know me, this endeared him to me even more.

Our lighthearted existence was broken by a message from Jana: My other guests are uncomfortable with Aimar staying with us. I’ve booked him a hotel and will come pick him up when you’re finished with your beer.

What was worse than Jana’s message of fear and distrust was the fact that she sent it to me, expecting me to relay–and what? rationalize–the message to Aimar. I did the best I could, and, if nothing else, I think Aimar appreciate how uncomfortable this made me.

“It’s okay,” he reassured me. “This isn’t anything new for me.”

And from there are conversation turned to more serious topics. He did his best to say what is was like to be in Syria during the Arab Spring, how his family quickly left everything in Syria and moved to Libya. He went to school in Libya and then starting working for his father’s business. But a few months ago, he confessed that he didn’t want work in his father’s business, so he quit and embarked on his current trip, looking to the great novels of humanity for guidance and inspiration.

I marveled at Aimar’s bravery. He and his family faced this awful adversity and were force from their home. But he was also brave himself, stating what he wanted unapologetically.

We were nearly finished with our beers, waiting for Jana to arrive, when a rather broad (and rather drunk) German started hitting to me. I told him I didn’t speak German, but he continued, touching my arm and pulling me towards him. Aimar defended me, speaking in practiced German to the man.

Aimar later translated the what the man said, blaming Aimar for the attacks in Paris and for invading Europe. Even without knowing what was said, I could tell the man was insulting Aimar, spewing word of intolerance while Aimar remained composed.  At one point, he man began to pat down the Syrian’s chest as if he was looking for a bomb or a weapon. This finally shook Aimar iron-clad composure. He knocked the man’s hands down and another man in the bar stepped in, pushing the German back and apologizing to us.

We left and waited for Jana outside.

alone in marienplatz

Jana collected Aimar, and I excused myself the ride choosing, instead, to take the subway.

People worry about me traveling alone, but they don’t understand how safe I feel. Despite the attacks in Paris and the recent confrontation with this man at the bar, I stood in the middle of Munich’s historic area that night, alone, and I felt safe. I am protected by my whiteness, my Christianity and my nationality. When people meet me, their first assumptions–whether they are true or not–are good. And it is easy for me see goodness in turn.

But travel is teaching me an advanced course in empathy. Terrorist attacks and the large influx of Syrian refugees are no longer headlines to me, they are part of the world I know intimately.

I choose to bring Aimar to Marienplatz because I feel something in this German plaza, and I want to revisit that feeling before leaving Munich. I looked up at the Gothic Neues Rathaus, and I remembered the first time I saw it, appearing above me like a promise as I ascended from the subway. But I also remember the pictures I’ve seen of the Neues Rathaus with red, Nazi banners descending down its full height.

That night was a cold, rainy one in November; I remember it well, and I remember wondering if we haven’t really learned as much as we think we have.

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