Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

For as long as I have been covering tourism, France has been the most visited country on Earth. In 2017, the most recent year for which numbers are available, 86.9 million people traveled there.

Which in part explains why the fire at Notre Dame felt like a personal tragedy to so many people around the world. Who could visit France and not visit Notre Dame? Who could visit Notre Dame and not feel overwhelmed by its beauty, both in structure and detail? Who could not be awed by the audacious, inspired vision of its builders?

Layered over that is its spiritual importance, crucial to one faith yet transcendent and accessible to all.

I first saw Notre Dame when I was 19. I had dropped out of college for a year, with the hope of working half the year to save money and then spending it in the second half traveling through Central Africa. I had enlisted a friend to join me, but during those first six months, he acquired a girlfriend who wanted to come along on our travels -- but not to Africa.

Europe was the compromise, and I arrived there with a lingering sense of disappointment, feeling it wasn't going to be foreign and adventurous enough.

We landed in Luxembourg and headed straight for Paris. Inflation had forced a title change on Arthur Frommer's "Europe on $5 a Day" to "Europe on $5-$10 a Day," and it guided us to a Left Bank guesthouse. My room was a third-story garret in which I couldn't quite stand fully upright.

But through its tiny window, I had a partial view of Notre Dame. I don't know how many times I visited the cathedral on that trip, but it played an important role in removing any residue of remorse I had about "settling" for Europe. My notion that Western Europe lacked enough foreignness and adventure quickly became beside the point. I was excited to be there, excited by French food, art, culture, history, architecture. And the image that still lingers is what I could see of Notre Dame from my window.

In part because of my experiences on that trip, I've always advocated traveling abroad during one's formative years. (I'd put the age range from 15 to 22.)

At the World Travel & Tourism Council's Global Summit in Seville, Spain, earlier this month, former president Barack Obama addressed the importance of young people traveling abroad and put it succinctly: Young people who travel are not only exploring someplace new, they are trying to discover their place in the world. And they begin to see themselves in others whom they meet.

Whether or not one has traveled to France or seen Notre Dame, if we have traveled abroad and learned the lessons of our travels well, we understand the profound sadness of the French and identify with those shedding tears for damage to a building. And, perhaps, are also inspired to hear French president Emmanuel Macron speak of his ambition to repair the damage in five years, saying, "The fire at Notre Dame reminds us that our history doesn't end."

The fierce political wars and polarization that have come to define Macron's France are temporarily suspended. The cease-fire is expected to be short-lived, but given the intensity of those political feelings, anything that can press the pause button on that acrimony is revealing. It speaks to the importance of national symbols and our deep attachment to what they represent, something that rises far above aesthetic appeal. It touches that part of us, often buried in the heat of political battle, that binds rather than separates us.

One of the great benefits of travel is that it physically removes you from the parochial clashes that are inescapable at home. The person with whom I most enjoy discussing politics lives in London, and is, politically speaking, my polar opposite. But when we talk about U.S. politics, he doesn't have a preformed and predictable response; we can reasonably explore issues together. Similarly, when we talk about U.K. politics, my responses aren't knee-jerk, because I'm new to the debate.

To take this aspect of travel to its current extreme, those who have gone farthest from their homes -- astronauts and cosmonauts -- wax poetic about how foolish humankind's quarrels are, how fragile the Earth seems from space and the importance of coming together as a species to put aside differences and focus on commonalities. There is even a name for this: The Overview Effect.

Watching news reports and speaking with friends who had visited Notre Dame, I was reminded of the Overview Effect, but in reverse. Perhaps it could be called the Microcosm Effect. Millions who have visited just one building on an islet in a foreign land have become connected by a single thread. Seen at any age, it has enabled countless individuals to discover, in one important regard, their place in the world.


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