Disneyland Paris - that bracing handshake of a theme park, that bright and brash foreigner who looks Europe straight in the eye and bellows a cheery hello. The quintessential stranger in a strange land. And this makes me curiously open to it. For I too am a stranger in a strange land, and I know the glittering loneliness of that existence. I'm also moved by this intruder's eagerness, and ignorance, in thinking it can so boldly do things its way, as opposed to theirs. The innocence of that! Excuse me, Disneyland, but this is Europe.
It wasn't always like this. Once, smug and knowing in my homeland on the other side of the world, I'd dismissed the idea of a Disneyland in France as an abomination never to be consumed; like put-put golf or World Series Cricket or K-tel records.
Fifteen years ago, I'd sympathised with an appalled French intelligentsia who'd shouted "cultural Chernobyl" when the Disney company first announced its intentions for some muddy farmland east of Paris. Ah yes, I nodded, a travesty indeed (and I do believe I was wearing a black turtleneck). That most exquisite of nations - reduced to this. Quelle Horreur! It was as unthinkable as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis being snapped at a supermarket in a velour tracksuit with her hair in rollers.
But that was then. This is now.
Children have changed me.
The theme park opened in 1992. The Disney Company originally planned to set up its European showcase in warmer Spain, but the French Government stepped in with a lucrative deal on some farmland near Paris. It offered an area onefifth the size of Paris, keen for the tourist revenue and the 14,000 jobs the venture would create.
But the French populace was not so keen - Parisian communists threw eggs at Disney chairman, Michael Eisner, several years before his grand European baby opened.
When the gates first swung wide you couldn't get a glass of wine in the park or smoke in the restaurants. That has changed.
This, after all, is Europe, and there are some things you cannot budge. But the park's still heavily in debt and at the moment it's threatened with closure. A European recession is blamed - and French snobbery.
The French intelligentsia still feels threatened by this interloper in its midst (and it's human nature, of course, to belittle what threatens you). But the park's been caught up in a much larger battle - the fight by the French chattering classes to keep their country unique. The American domination of world culture is seen as an appalling error, a virus run rampant. Not long ago it was French, not English, that the elite of so many cultures seemed the requisite language. Just recently the highly influential Le Monde newspaper lamented the decline of the French language. The Government's taken strong measures: it has introduced laws making it an offence to use Anglicisms such as "le weekend".
Mr Eisner was hoping to emulate the wild success of Tokyo Disneyland with his shining new park. But an adviser to the Parisian mayor in the early `90s cautioned against foreign arrogance: "The Japanese are sponges of foreign culture," Pierre Lellouche warned. "It will be harder here." Indeed.
It's only as we glide into Disneyland's soaring, extremely smart glass and steel terminal that I realise the train journey's revealed absolutely nothing of Paris - we've merely stopped at its edge. All we've seen are the fields and freeways of northern France. Not a glimpse, as anticipated, of a honey-coloured building, the spires of Sacre Coeur, a blue and white street sign, a Mercedes cab (in fact, where are the cars? Ingeniously hidden, of course, in this uberworld.
Such dirty, noisy things that they are.) Disney music greets us as we step onto the platform, followed by Elton John's Your Song.
Welcome to France.
Le Monde would be appalled.
Disneyland is smiley. It lowers itself, tries too hard, gives you the gift of enthusiasm. Everything Paris, and Europe does not; and that irritates me about this continent of patronage and privilege.
Disneyland is anti-Europe, anti-history, anti-literary. How on earth can I write about this, I wonder, as I enter the park. It just ... exists. How can I find inspiration, in all honesty, in a swirling teacup ride?
I'm a stranger in a strange land here but my boys are instantly at home. Andy (my husband) too - as he chases after his sons and scoops one then the other into his arms; holds their little bodies flat as ironing boards in front of him and sings, "We can fly, we can fly!" while whooshing them around in the bright air. My three Peter Pans.
There's no black in Disneyland; no darkness, no poetry. And Europe is all about darkness and poetry. So much blood seeped into its soil: Flanders fields so close, Normandy, Auschwitz. Kosovo, Dresden, St Petersburg. The burdened continent.
Yet in this gleaming park Europe is scrubbed. So many of Disneyland's stories are based on European stories - Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, beauty and the beast - but they, too, are scrubbed. Everything in Disneyland is bright, ordered, unthreatening; the America of the imagination, the image America wants to present to the world. Look at Main Street, USA - how lovely and pure and innocent it is! The park is optimistic.
Nothing looks worn or cracked or grubbied, like so much else in Europe, especially its tourist attractions. It is scarily clean.
Disneyland erases reality and that's strangely comforting if you surrender to it; for humans instinctively shrink from too much reality. There's no point in Disneyland where you can glimpse the outside world. The park's ringed by an artificial rise upon which grow trees that obscure what's beyond them.
Where is France in all of this?
Disney has modified Sleeping Beauty's castle at the park's centre to look more like a French chateau, in deference to the host country (every other Disneyland has a Bavarian-looking one). But I can't tell the difference; it just looks like a fairy-tale Disney castle to me for that is what I expect castles to look like, ignorant child of the New World that I am. (And I had the audacity to be disappointed, several years ago, by my first glimpse of a real French chateau - because it didn't look just like a Disney one).
It's a shock to catch sight of a pair of red Doc Martens under a ticket collector's replica-Victorian coat, a walkman's earplugs under a train driver's puffing-billy hat.
Aha, reality intrudes! These slippages would definitely not have been included in the designer's vision. But I love them for the subversive thrill of them - they're signs of messy, leaky, complicated real life.
It's an architecture of candypink pretence - Walt Disney's idealised re-creation of where he grew up (the American Midwest of the late 19th century). Our hotel's built directly onto the park entrance. It's a vast edifice of fake Victoriana, painted a gooey pink and cream and topped with goldtipped turrets. It's so ugly, fake, bizarre it's compelling. As buildings go, it's the antithesis of the black turtleneck.
I head straight for the known: the shops. They all have the same merchandise (Minnie Mouse dolls, Mickey backpacks, Buzz Lightyear costumes, Nemo pencils).
In Disneyland, I'm not an Australian or a Londoner, I'm that most universal of species: parent.
There's a commonality of experience all around me - European, Arabic and Asian mothers and fathers rush children off to toilets, pull them from shops, hold weary bodies in queues, wipe noses, adjust hats.
Disneyland itself is a stranger in a strange land. Like a woman in London in a head-to-toe burka, it reveals little of its adopted home. Intriguingly little.
The park's busy. Of course. I always underestimate the sheer density of Europe. And it looks like the company has had no trouble attracting visitors in winter. Worse luck.
Our first queue is for the steam train that encircles the park. We board after a 20-minute wait (not bad going, I'm told).
We're greeted by a loudspeaker: "McDonald's welcomes you."
How strange - there's no outside branding anywhere else (how much did they pay for that?). The rattly, open carriages shunt forward in a puff of smoke that shrouds the platform.
The food! We succumb because we have to - we're all starving. There's no alternative to an unremitting offering of hotdogs, hamburgers, nuggets and chips, at every cafe and kiosk. We're in France, God help us, and not a pain-au-chocolat in sight.
Everything here is almost - almost a burger, almost a hotdog.
We eat an approximation of American fast food and because of that nothing is completely satisfying (except for the French fries, the only item cooked to perfection. Of course).
Almost a burger, almost a Disneyland. The park is like French rock and roll - a fair approximation that doesn't quite possess the heart and soul of the original, doesn't quite do it right.
No matter, because the kids couldn't care less. They love it, and their soaring happiness means their parents love it too.
The chapter is an excerpt of Nikki Gemmell's contribution to Come Away with Me edited by Sarah Macdonald (Bantom Australia) $22.95. Her most recent book is The Bride Stripped Bare, published by Harper Collins.
Buying tickets: A one-day/one park pass is 40 ($A67) for an adult and $50 for children from three to 11 years. A two-day Hopper pass, which allows multiple entry, is $149 for adults and $69 for children.
From Australia you can book tickets on www.disneylandparis.com In
France, tickets are available at the entrance to the Disney Parks,
the Disney Store on the Champs Elysees in Paris, the Paris Tourist
Offices at Orly and Roissy/Charles de Gaulle airports and and at
the RATP (railway ticket offices) in Paris.