Anytime you travel to another country, you’re not only excited about the trip but also a little wary. As I’ve mentioned in a couple recent blogs, Alex, Jane and I went on a 10-day excursion to Tourcoing, France for the 20 & under World basketball tournament. Alex was part of a 10 man squad that was to compete against teams from Turkey, Germany, Montenegro, Israel, Great Britain, Croatia and, of course, France. Each team (that needed one) was assigned an interpreter. In addition, our club had a basketball coach from France who was heavily involved at the grass routes level of basketball there, had several contacts in the U.S. (including our head coach) and, most importantly, was an overall gracious and caring person. His name was Jean-Pierre (I imagine it still is) and the fact he understood the landscape (political and otherwise) and was nearly as fluent in English as the rest of our party was - in English - was extremely helpful. I had taken six years of French, counting junior high, high school and college and tried to get by, but his presence turned out to be quite reassuring.
Tourcoing is a small city. Over here I’ve heard similar areas referred to as “burgs,” to give you a visual of our surroundings. Our plan to go to Paris at least once during our stay got squelched when we learned of a train strike. Jane and I managed to take the tram to Lille one evening which, while it wasn’t home to the Eiffel Tower and Louvre, would definitely be considered a city here.
We leaned on Jean-Pierre quite a bit as he was always with us. In fact, his room was directly across the hall from Jane’s and mine. We became fast friends. One reason was he was interested in “stories from the U.S.” and “stories” are something I have in abundance.
Four of the other teams were staying in the same hotel we were, including Israel. Since the United States is a big draw in France (kind of like the Yankees, the team people love to hate), our first three “pool” games were played at 6:30, right before the home team would play. On the night France played Israel, Jean-Pierre told me he wanted to give me a heads up. After our game, outside the arena, there was going to be an anti-Israeli demonstration by Palestinians living in the area. The fact that I’m Jewish lent a little more intrigue to the story, although the demonstrators had no idea I was anything but a part of the U.S. contingent. When I asked him what he thought we should do (Jane and I always went to dinner after each one of our games), he told me there shouldn’t be a problem, he just wanted to make me aware. He reiterated that we had no real reason to worry.
We lost the game but Alex had played pretty well. As with every game he plays, afterward my mind is usually thinking of what he’d done right, what he’d done wrong and the feedback I planned on giving him. As we got near the exit, I could hear a guy on a microphone. One reason the situation wasn’t as frightening as it might have been was that, at this time of year (or maybe all the time, I didn’t ask), it doesn’t get dark until after midnight (Jane and I marveled at this - and that it got light again about 4:30 am). Once we got outside, the guy with the mic could be heard yelling, “Boycott,” while the crowd would respond with “Israel!” Crowd might be overstating the situation. There were five people in the adjacent parking lot (where the guy with the mic was) and two people on the concourse level of the building. That was the attendance for the demonstration- eight participants. Not to minimize the content of their message, but I’d seen more people at a juicer demonstration at Costco. There were five times as many people there, congregating on the concourse and down below just to chat - or have a cigarette (apparently, our Surgeon General’s report didn’t make it to the other side of the Atlantic).
When I saw Jean-Pierre later that night I said to him, “Jean-Pierre, you told me there was going to be a demonstration tonight. There were eight people there! That’s the best they could do? Eight people?” We shared a laugh and he said he just wanted to warn me. I told him I sincerely appreciated his letting me know but what a (pleasant) shock it was finding the situation as it existed.
All along, I should have thinking about Will Smith’s quote (undoubtedly, from one of his movies):
“Danger is very real, but fear is just a train of thought.”