Matthew’s third birthday was to be spent at Disneyland, frolicking with Mickey and Pinocchio. We didn’t have a big budget available, so we traveled on a small one. We rode in the second class train to Paris and stayed in a youth hostel. We ate picnics under the Eiffel Tower and walked between the museums to avoid paying for the Metro.
We watched our money carefully so that at the end of the week we would not turn up short of cash, because it is written of old; “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a poor man to enter into the Magic Kingdom.”
With budget enough for just one proper French dinner in the week, we went in search of the perfect bistro in the Latin Quarter, where student discounts are not only for students. Once decided, we realized that Matthew would not like a typically French menu, and if the boy’s stomach was not first appeased, the parents’ much anticipated dinner would end quickly, with all of us in tears. Having spotted the golden arches earlier, we backtracked up the narrow pedestrian alleys, pushing the boy in his umbrella stroller over the cobblestones, passing hastily by the barkers who aggressively broadcast their menus and prices at every passerby. We emerged again on the corner of Rue St. Germaine, just in sight of Matthew’s favorite Parisian café. His little, pink finger sprang up to point the way. He could already taste the chicken nuggets.
As we made our way through the crowds to the entrance of the restaurant, we were stopped by a group of young adults who handed us a leaflet, who spoke to us angrily and who would not move out of our way so we could enter. Printed posters were taped over the windows and others carrying signs, paced back and forth on the sidewalk, dissuading others from approaching.
We asked kindly if we could please get inside with the baby stroller, pointing to our hungry toddler. The more we explained our intent, the more we became afraid to go inside.
“Sorry, Matthew, but McDonald’s is closed,” his mother was forced to tell him.
The three year old, ignorant of the term ‘industrial action’, cried in bitter disappointment for five minutes, before falling asleep slumped over in his stroller, tired and hungry, his tears still wet on his flushed cheeks.
The next day, we assured Matthew that McDonald’s being closed was a fluke and that “today was going to be perfect!” The anticipation of Disneyland helped to mute his fears and ease the guilt of his parents. The train to the park on the outskirts of Paris that morning was not completely full, but was far from empty. Tens of excited children pressed their runny noses against the windows, unable to sit still, bouncing and turning in small circles out of painful joy.
We parents, usually reasonable, considerate people, now eyed each other up like boxers waiting in our corners. In any other situation we would have helped those pushing young children in strollers off trains or up stairways, but not now. It was every family for themselves. Once the carriage doors slid open, the race to the ticket booth was on. This wasn’t about the children any more!
From the train station, the towers and flags of Disneyland are immediately visible, but not immediately obtainable. To reach the entrance gates, the valiant must ascend numerous ramps, dodge countless fountains and press on past the vending carts selling plush puppets, hats, candy, glittering princess dresses and plastic pirate swords; false memories for sale. The children all pointed and begged with hopeful eyes. Parents pressed on, walking at an unnatural, frenzied pace, hoping to avoid the consumer quicksand which lined the straight and narrow path. With one misstep, a family could sink here, heavy laden by figurines, mugs, backpacks and random trinkets. The price of admission is not for the faint of heart, able to be quickly spent on t-shirts and whirly-glitter pens.
Once successfully past the snares of merchandising, we prepared ourselves for the last test of long suffering. Those not focused on the prize, searching for a bypass or the shortest line, wandered about as lost sheep, standing here, darting there. They seemed panicked. In the dark cavern underneath the Disneyland hotel, where one passes through a dark tunnel into the light of the open park, there was commotion and fear. Grown-ups began rushing about quickly, pulling their children behind them. They looked fearful as they rushed about, as if they were desperately searching for cover from unheard gunshots. The children were frightened and began to cry.
A thoughtless man, standing on a stool, just visible above the heads of the pressing crowd began shouting and waving,
“Disneyland is closed today! Go home! You have come for nothing!”
Confusion and chaos followed as if the pearly gates to heaven had been closed and bolted. Panic among some of the faithful broke out. Worried, but undeterred, we pushed on.
The deeper we pushed into the tunnel, avoiding those fleeing the mayhem, the louder and more pressed the crowd became, chanting and bobbing up and down. Gone were the children in strollers and smiling, young parents. We were surrounded now by olive skinned, dark haired men from Northern Africa, dressed in gray overalls with their names embroidered on bright colored patches; Ali, Mohammed, Fikret. The commotion became unnerving.
Pressing through to the ticket window, we were surrounded by young men who continued to chant and yell with their closed fists held high in the air. We asked to pass. We wanted to buy tickets. We wanted to visit the park.
“Disneyland is on strike! Go home!” was shouted to the further celebrations of the mutinous crowd.
Several years earlier, when I had traveled through Europe as a student of art, I remember seeing a wall sized painting, which I disliked, which depicted a scene of confusion, pain and suffering at the pearly gates. Jesus stood guard. His arms were folded. He looked on with a grim, stern expression, blocking the proper way into heaven. His mother, the Virgin Mary, dressed in a long blue robe, was letting the sinners in the back door. They scurried in with gleeful faces, half-ducking as they ran, hoping to avoid the eyes of the Master as he refused the less than penitent entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven. I found it a useless waste of canvas and wall space, until this fateful day when in stood in front of the closed gates, with Sleeping Beauty’s castle in sight, praying for a window into this childhood heaven to be opened, as the front door was closed tight.
Then, in the far corner of the entrance hall, just like in that nameless painting in the Louvre, as if it was an apparition of the Virgin Mary herself, a beautiful young woman, dressed in a light blue hooded cloak held an emergency exit gate open. With a happy smile on her face she waved us, the faithful but weary sheep, into the Magic Kingdom. We were welcomed with a smile and wave of her white gloved hands. All who passed through the gate from the dark confusion into the light, paused to thank her, some with tears. We offered to pay for our entrance into the park. but with a smile and a wave, and a sweet French accent she proclaimed, “Disneyland is free today!”
Our pilgrimage was completed. Our faithfulness and endurance had been rewarded. We were granted entrance into a land of milk and honey, the Happiest Place on Earth, without cost. From the money saved on entrance tickets, (which was not a small amount) we ate and drank and were merry for the day, and made memories for a lifetime.
And we lived happily ever after.