Better be safe than sorry – that’s the best headline I can give to my latest trip. In fact, more a motto. Though this was never intended the trip brought me to some of my limits. And while I certainly don’t need that kind of experience again I’m grateful I had it as it told me something about myself I didn’t know. It added some colors to my emotional palette. But first things first.
My childhood memories are filled with tales my father told of when he was young and played the piano during jam sessions in Berlin jazz clubs. The highlight was how he met Louis Armstrong there and jammed with him, communicating only via music as my father spoke no English. Somewhere along the way listening to the lively recounted stories I must have developed the intense wish to visit New Orleans.
This March I went. I flew in watching swamps and water glistening in the sun. In my head a strange parallelism of two strings of thoughts: one built around the question how my father would feel now coming to the town of his musical dreams, the other swaying in and out of the strange premonition I had felt planning this trip, as if something was waiting for me I something uncomfortable or even worse.
The first hint that things might turn out differently than planned was when the taxi driver who took me from the airport to the place where I stayed couldn’t stop wondering how a nice lady like I could come to New Orleans all by herself. He forced me to take down his phone number, told me to call him anytime, even in the middle of the night and then waited patiently until my hostess closed the door behind me.
I thought this guy had tried a clever business pitch with me until my hostess told me not to go out alone in the dark, not to venture any place except river side, always to listen to my guts, in doubt to cross the street or walk into a shop or a restaurant, not to trust anyone…
I’m not easily scared. But during the days spent in New Orleans I found myself in eerie situations several times. I mastered the art of crossing streets based on a simple stirring in my guts. I discovered a new set of antennas linked directly to an alarm system within me I never knew existed.
I didn’t go out at night. I spent a fortune on my kind taxi driver (who was a gem). I dismissed my plans to dance in jazz clubs. I survived unharmed – even after walking into an unexpected and dangerous situation in daylight in the French Quarter.
I learned what it does to you when you can never be sure who the next person appearing around the corner is. What he might have in mind. How fast life can go from safe to threatening. What it really means to be afraid. To fear for my life.
When I was finally sitting safely behind the security check gates at Louis Armstrong International waiting for my flight to Miami contemplating what impact all the events of the last three days had on me I couldn’t help but think about the many times Germans, especially Berliners laughed about celebrities having bodyguards and felt shame washing over me.
Bodyguards – something completely out of the ordinary for Germans (except when it comes to politicians), especially Berliners who are used to running into celebrities in grocery stores. We rarely even see bodyguards when international rock or movie stars appear for big events. Being flanked by bodyguards to us seems somewhat too much and makes us wonder if this is a very American way to put up a show.
And now, years later, on a bright and sunny day at the New Orleans airport all of a sudden I felt ashamed. What did we Germans know? We had no clue from our protected point of view. Living in a country where the law prohibits people from owning guns, in a city where every single woman can dance at night on streets, where violent crime is taking place amongst small groups in hidden places you have a real hard time having even the chance to walk into once in your life… we know nothing.
I probably still don’t understand some people’s need for security to the full extent. But I may have a feeling for it now that I know what it’s like to feel unsafe up to a limit that it robs you of your sleep at night. I now know what it does to you if you ever spent days never being sure who turns up in the next second.
So, the next time I somehow land in the high-security zone of someone I’ll be grateful to be allowed into it for a few minutes.