Real world collides with vacation world on streets of Paris
"When you come to one of these things, you really need to bring a helmet," advised the man standing beside me at the Place de la Republique.
My eyes, still stinging from a tear gassing earlier in the day, got as wide as they could get.
Wait. Just how often does this guy, a British expat and photographer living in Paris, attend "one of these things?"
Me? I was on vacation in Paris. And being in attendance at dangerous political and social demonstrations — especially involving debilitating chemicals launched by armor-clad riot police — are not on my list of things to do on vacation.
But you never know what you may stumble into — literally, sometimes — when you're out there in the world.
Danger can be anywhere
I'm not talking about having a wallet stolen or getting food poisoning or even being attacked by killer bees. As recent events in Paris, in Belgium, in Turkey and in Thailand (to name just a few) remind us, dangerous situations can erupt absolutely anywhere. They may have been building slowly over longstanding issues of political unrest, economic instability and ethnic clashes. Then again, some tragic situations — terrorism, for example — simply seem to combust.
And if you just happen to be out shopping for straw hats and refrigerator magnets when things go bad, who are you going to call and what are you going to do?
These are no longer idle questions. We may still secretly believe that when we assume the role of travelers, we also assume some cloak of invincibility. But the U.S. State Department's recent announcement of a global travel alert with potential travel risks around the world, especially during the holidays, has given travelers pause, and the tourism industry a case of nerves, too.
"Safety is not (just) important; it's a prerequisite for tourism's existence," Tom Jenkins, president of the European Tour Operators Association, observed in a recent interview with the trade publication Travel Weekly.
More travelers are seeking information about possible safety issues before they book trips, according to some travel professionals. InsureMyTrip, a major site for travel insurance plans, has seen a 20 percent increase in inquiries since the Paris attacks. Insurance coverage for non-medical evacuations — caused by natural and man-made disasters — is being offered through more policies these days because more travelers are at least willing to invest some of their travel budget for risk management.
Not that anything would ever really happen … to them. Personally.
State of alert
I knew Paris was still in a state of shock as well as on high alert after the terrorist attacks of Nov. 13. And yes, I was a bit nervous when I decided to go ahead with my vacation and arrived in the city four days later. I was naturally wary on the streets and in the subways and especially at a concert venue not unlike the Bataclan, the theater where 89 people were killed in the attacks.
I went to the Place de la Republique, where footwear was being offered up by protesters as stand-ins, representing everyone who was not allowed to march that day after demonstrations coinciding with the global climate conference were canceled. All large gatherings were banned after the attacks.
Peace had left the area by the time I arrived at the Republique station at midday. In fact, even as we were going up the steps to exit, a woman came running down, stopped before a woman with a child, and started shouting at her in French. I made out the word "gaz" and gathered that tear gas was in play.
So when I emerged into a hazy daylight and saw the clouds of billowing vapor, I knew they were from tear gas. Then I saw a canister whiz by, landing and continuing to skitter along the ground, leaving a white noxious line of what at first looked rather like whipped cream in its wake. Eventually, the gas rose and turned as wispy as steam from the vent of a volcano about to blow.
I have no idea how the current scene had started, and I still don't know why. (The Associated Press reported protesters clashed with police.)
Now, I saw people running away from the slowly moving mist. Faces swathed in scarves and whatever else could be pulled over noses and eyes. Loud bangs and thwumps came from different directions, intermittent exclamations that translated, in my mind, to words like "duck" or "run away."
I'll admit I was at first in my invincibility-cloak mind-set. I'll admit I was thinking photo ops, my cellphone in one hand, my Nikon in the other. Everywhere were surreal, disjointed, discordant images.
Passersby — some looked like tourists who'd just arrived, their luggage in tow — ventured into the scene to take photos, as well. A gray-haired couple smiled at the phone attached to their selfie stick: What would the grandkids think when they got that one?
In the clouds
It was all just surprising and interesting until I noticed something moving in my peripheral vision and turned just as the cloud of tear gas rolled right into and over and around and through me.
Instantly my eyes were on fire, and gushing tears. My face felt scorched. My eyelashes were under water, my eyes scrunched shut as I tried to rub away this nightmare concoction.
I was at the mercy of this gas I had only known from TV news footage. Tear gas didn't sound bad. Tears? Big deal. Somehow, it was a big deal. When it came at you especially when you didn't know what would happen. Never thought you'd be in such a situation. Never thought your vacation could include this kind of "new experience" to broaden your horizons.
I was paralyzed and crying like I would never stop.
Then I felt hands gripping my shoulders. A French woman, saying "vite" and "non, non" as she pulled my hands away from eye-rubbing. Then she turned me efficiently in some other direction, and we began to run. We ran and, though breathless, I managed to pant "Merci, merci." Often.
We finally stopped running. I felt a wet washcloth on my face, a cold liquid poured over it and pressed gently into my closed eyes.
And as people whose faces I couldn't see tended to my stricken, puffy face, I felt not only the cool water washing over me but something even more powerful — unmitigated human kindness.
I got popped again by tear gas a few minutes later. So once again I was nearly tear-blind when I saw a woman walk by with a white paper eye mask like those you get at parties. "Bonne idee" I commented, nodding at the mask. She took it off at once and handed it to me.
I handed it back. She said she had found it. I promised I would look for one.
My eyes, my face, buzzed all day with the memory of chemical affront. The reminder that cloaks of invincibility are made of imagination and wishful thinking. I still can feel the big hand of the riot policeman who after telling me to get back took my arm and pushed me back himself.
I don't think I will ever forget that moment, once night had fallen, when I started off for some sustenance, a shower and bed. I was headed to the Metro station and quickly realized I was going to hit a barricade first — made of men and women of the security force. I explained I was on my way to the subway; they explained that no, I wasn't.
I turned, not sure about how to detour, but there was always more than one way to enter a Metro stop, and I quickly caught sight of the familiar logo not all that far away. Once again, though, a barricade of officers prevented access to the entrance, not 10 yards away. Its illuminated stairway looked so inviting I thought about just making a break for it. I didn't, of course.
I behaved, even after encountering wall No. 3, though fear had now crept right up into my throat. Trapped. The safety and freedom I took for granted were slowly being peeled away. The cloak of invincibility was history.
I did, obviously, get out. I saw an unguarded gap and fast-walked through it, expecting someone to stop me. No one did, though more than 200 protesters went to jail that day.
I wasn't sure where I'd been shunted or which way to go. Just that I was out, and never had out felt so good.