On a day when the courageous Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai addressed the United Nations as an advocate for women’s education rights, I am once again reminded of the potential of the United Nations, despite all it’s quirks, to unite the world.
I have a long relationship with the UN and graduated from the General Assembly, an honor I hold dear. On a recent trip to New York for my high school reunion I finally took my younger son on a private tour of the United Nations, thanks to an old friend who works there. It was a walk down memory lane for me, and an educational experience for my son who had just completed a Global Village unit in his 3rd grade class.
A quick hot dog out front staved off impending hunger from my nine-year-old hobbit, and we made our way through the intense security system. The building is going through a much-needed retrofit. The passé style played into my fond memories of UN conferences and multiple visits as a student at a school connected to the organization. Once inside, you do feel as though you are no longer in NYC and really in an international zone as the lobby buzzes with international languages and national dress.
More than one million visitors take the public tours annually during weekdays and tickets can be purchased in advance online. Tickets are less than $20 and well worth it! There are also weekly children’s tours @ 4:15 every Thursday, this is a relatively new offering and tailored to the 5-12 set.
We were lucky, a private tour with my old friend and a 30-year veteran guard who had had a cameo part in the in the 2005, Sidney Pollack/Nicole Kidman thriller The Interpreter. Rocky, as he was called, was a great guy and my friend made a huge effort to take us behind the scenes. We happened to be in the General Assembly along with some top brass from the Israeli Military, which made finding the Palestinian nameplate more poignant.
I had forgotten all the UN quirks, such as leveling the playing field, by rotating the country that has the front row seat and then going alphabetically from there so that the Zimbabwe is not always in the back. At my school, teachers would always read attendance lists in the same manner, so that if your name began with Z you were not always last. I remember accepting my diploma in my white flouncy drop waist dress, in awe of the golden UN plaque hanging high above the podium.
We were shown the myriad gifts from countries, some gaudy, some mysterious, all full of meaning. This tapestry given by China’s Mao has a fantastic back-story. Apparently it was created and Mao felt it was too backward looking and insisted it be redone to include two small cars to signify China as a modern country.
A flag recovered from the 2003 Baghdad Embassy bombing where so many were killed and wounded is on display, as are many thought provoking pieces of art and information. This sculpture of a knotted gun felt particularly meaningful in the wake of the Newtown shootings and the gun debate raging in this country.
My son’s eyes were giant saucers, just lapping up the information about the 193 member countries. He was quizzed on the official languages of the United Nations: English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and Russian and was thrilled to sit at the Togo nameplate in a discussion room because that was one of the countries he had studied.
We scoured the gift shop area, purchased a number of items to bring back home and to remember and honor the work of the United Nations, not always productive, not always appreciated but with mostly wonderful intentions.
The newly renovated Security Council and the meeting rooms were fascinating. One room had been decorated by the Russians with such distinct color and design choices. It was a bit gaudy for my taste, but that’s the magic of the UN. You cannot assume your tastes are like everyone else’s in the world, something I am determined to convey to my children.