The closest I've ever come to being involved in any kind of insurrection was when I was in Paris a few years ago, and the Yellow Vest protest escalated into tear gas and bottle throwing. I was on my way to an exhibition and forced to leave a subway station. As I emerged from the Paris underground, I was immediately aware of police cars and plumes of smoke. Even surrounded by danger, I concluded that I was having the complete Parisian experience - revolution and all.
Since the protest looked like it had at least another few hours of life, I retreated to a nearby bistro and had a crepe. This may not have been the wisest decision, but I figured there was nothing a little Nutella couldn't make better. Paris is full of delicious things to eat that put you into a calorie coma, numbing you to the realities of life. Beside me sat two middle-aged British tourists who were hyperventilating into their soup. "We were at the Louvre," they said, "when suddenly mobs of people descended upon us. The next thing we knew, a fight broke out, and we barely escaped."
I asked if they visited Paris often, and they told me that this was their first time.
"Well," I said, "you'll have lots to talk about back home."
I gathered from the way they harrumphed that what they'd really be talking about was how all their notions of the French were correct. And even though it's only a 2-hour and 16-minute train ride on Eurostar, I didn't think they would return to Paris anytime soon.
Earlier in the week, at brunch, I'd sat beside two art students who told me that it was dangerous to ride the subway and, whenever possible, opt instead for a bike.
"Are you really travelling on your own?" they asked. This being the most unheard-of thing ever. Like, how could I be so stupid? "Is that safe?" they continued.
This struck me as ironic. Based on the driving habits of the average Parisian, I didn't think a bike gave me much more of an unassailable advantage.
"Define dangerous," I asked them, and they proceeded to give me a litany of examples, each more terrifying than the one before.
From what I could see, the Paris transit system was pristine, monitored, and orderly. It was a well-oiled machine compared to the London Tube, which starts at places that sounds like Pancreatitis and goes down so far it comes out in China. And while the French have a reputation for being rude, the British appeared the most hostile. In my experience, they simply hate tourists. To some extent, I understand this, having spent almost my whole life in tourist towns. It's convenient to group all travellers into one large obnoxious ball, but I've come to realize there are two types of globe trotters. The ones who stop the flow of foot traffic to read every sign, ponder every map, convert in their mind every shilling and pound. They bottleneck entrances, stop at the bottom of escalators, and take fifteen minutes at cash registers to consult their French phrase books while ordering pain au chocolat. And then there are the ones who just go with the flow. The kind who says, "Don't read me the rule book; I'll just figure it all out as I go along." I tend to be part of the second category, doing my best to fit in and escape native ire. So, in London, I missed the memo that explained I'd need to keep my entrance ticket on the Tube to exit. Having recycled it en route, it took me twenty minutes (no exaggeration) to persuade a disgruntled attendant to let me out. It was as though I was being incarcerated on the Underground. "Bloody foreigner," I could hear the attendant mutter under his breath as he finally allowed me to pass.
A few blocks away, while purchasing a water in a Mcdonalds', I saw a genuinely terrifying altercation between an employee and a patron over the pronunciation of "Quarter Pounder."
"Speak English." The employee kept saying as I stood there shocked. The tensions escalated so quickly it created a pall inside the restaurant and sent me out into the safety of the street.
I realize there has hardly been a time in my life when I didn't feel like danger was at least hovering on the periphery of my reality. This is saying something because North America is pretty shielded with respect to the rest of the world. Nevertheless, growing up in Niagara Falls, people would contribute to my prepubescent angst by saying things like, "In the case of nuclear war, we'll be the first ones blown up on account of all the hydro."
"Mom," I'd ask, "Is it true that if there is a war, we'll be inebriated?"
"Annihilated," she'd laugh, correcting me, "Probably. But there's no point in worrying about it."
I knew that the Falls was a tourist trap, and now it was a danger zone as well. Still, a small part of me felt proud that we were that important.
At Holy Family Catholic elementary school, we'd pray that God, who loved us so much he gave His only Son, would spare the little children any pain and suffering. I wasn't Catholic, but this was sound reasoning to me. God seemed like a sort of Willy Wonka who'd give us what we prayed for just as long as we obeyed our parents and adhered to the wisdom of our elders. In catechism, I interpreted God's will as the safe protection of children who were granted ecclesiastical immunity just by virtue of being young. Since there was no internet and my parents watched the news after I went to bed, I was blissfully ignorant of the atrocities around me, and the thousands of children killed every day. I'd roam the streets of Niagara completely free of adult supervision like a superhero with hidden powers. Then one Saturday, as I was coming out of the library, happily heading home with an armful of books, I saw a girl in my grade three class get hit by a car and killed. I was paralyzed with the sudden knowledge that I was not impervious to death. I couldn't move. My Mother had to come and collect me on the library's front lawn, where I had buckled in shock. I couldn't cross a street for nearly two months, and to make matter worse, I became known as the "crybaby" of my class which only added to my already deteriorating mental health.
"Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names can never hurt you." My Mother would say by way of sage advice.
"But they do hurt me," I'd say
"Only if you let it."
I soon adopted the "I know you are, but what am I?" comeback, which is highly effective when you are seven, if for no other reason than your taunter simply grows weary of the circular argument and gives up. The pitfall, however, is that you have now learned how to taunt, and it feels better than you expected.
We didn't have 'safe spaces' when I was a child. I imagine they evolved as the bi-product of a society that once believed in 'tough love,' which, like many things, went out of fashion with the strap and spanking. I wouldn't say that I learned how to be tough, but I certainly discovered my ability to be resilient, which is an under-estimated superpower if you ask me because, no matter how well-intentioned, at some point in your life, you are going to have to deal with assholes.
Studying theatre in New York at 19, I constantly met people who tried to sell me heroine in laundry mats or quaaludes on the subway. Aids was everywhere, and the Cold War was just ending. I knew where every fallout shelter was from West 85th to East 54th. Not that it would have actually helped in the case of nuclear war. As I passed the yellow and black triple triangle signs, I couldn't help wondering what was actually down there. I imagined something damp and dingy filled with obnoxious people I'd be stuck with for the rest of my life. I am at my most uncomfortable in the presence of a mob.
"There's safety in numbers," my grandmother would say.
"Tell that to Jesus Christ," I'd reply.
Back in Paris, I had just spent the day at Versailles, which no one tells you until you get there, is the size of a small village. In fact, there is a small village at the northeast corner that I found myself wandering aimlessly around just as it was getting dark. Enthralled with the beauty of it all, I didn't notice that the sun was setting until it disappeared over the farthest ridge. To put this into perspective, Versailles is 2014 acres. I was at the farthest point of the estate. As I attempted to make my way back, I soon discovered I was utterly lost. Every now and then, I'd pass a few other souls groping their way around shrubbery or fountains.
"Excuse me," I'd ask, "do you know the way back to the Palace?"
"No idea," they'd say and then disappear into the night.
Just as I was starting to panic, I spied a shuttle bus. Salvation, I thought to myself as I climbed aboard.
“Un billet s’il vous plait?” I asked.
“Non. Tu dois partir. Vous devez acheter un billet a l’entrée.” Which in so many words means, if you didn’t get a ticket when you entered you are merde out of luck. And just like that, I was kicked off the shuttle.
It was close to 10:30 PM when I finally saw the lights from the Palace and knew I would be saved. Having made my way from Marie Antoinette's estate, this irony was not lost on me.
As I walked back to the Metro de Paris, I passed the shuttle driver, who was now sitting at an outdoor patio laughing with a friend over a cold beer.
'You know," I started in, "it wouldn't have killed you to let me pay for a shuttle ride back to the Palace instead of making me walk… alone… in the dark."
"Les touristes," he said to his companion, and the two of them rolled their eyes as if to say, "Let them eat crepes. Let them eat crepes."