How to Travel and Tell No One What Happened
I’m on the streets of Paris. It’s July 14th, Bastille Day. It has been 230 years since the unsettled French populace murdered a bunch of bootlickers and displayed their blood-stained heads on metal spikes. Where the Bastille once stood is now a despondent construction site. Replacing the jeers of angry peasantry is the mechanical beeping of a steamroller reversing.
I had planned this so perfectly. I was halfway through a three-month escapade around Europe and, being a French Revolution fanatic, I had to visit the capital of France on the anniversary of its first and arguably best revolution. What I didn’t realise is that Parisians have definitely not lost their revolutionary flair, and use the national holiday to reignite their penchant for action.
I learned this very quickly as I made my way past the still singed Notre Dame towards the centre of town. What I didn’t realise either was that the Champs-Elysee, under the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, is a battleground for protesting on this particular day. Before I know it, I am surrounded by French revolutionaries, but they aren’t donning the Tricolore. These modern-day protesters are wearing Nikes, Adidas tracksuit pants and gas masks instead. In almost an instant, the entirety of the fields of Elysium, before my very eyes, is now rallying together to sing revolutionary tunes, setting garbage bins alight and are knocking over metal bollards.
The town is erupting and in the pit of the volcano are the police and they are armed to the teeth. As things get more and more out of hand, they release a flurry of tear gas, with one particular canister exploding near me. Protected by a pair of sunglasses, my eyes, throat and lungs are toast. To describe the panic and pain that comes with inhaling tear gas is fairly impossible. It feels like a cinnamon challenge, but the cinnamon is on fire and the spoon is on fire — everything is on fire. Like a true revolutionary, I cower in a cafe to recover and then make my escape. I don’t think my eyes will really ever recover from this.
This is a story worth sharing, right? It’s a story I should have shared, with a long Instagram story and a verbose twitter thread to boot. But I did something that shocked me. As an oversharer, I usually text everyone I know everything I’m thinking, but this time, I didn’t. I walked away, albeit sobbing, but speechless. My phone remained in my backpack, untouched. I didn’t tell a soul, until now.
There were a lot of things I kept to myself about that trip. I didn’t tell people I went to a karaoke bar alone in Berlin and booked a room just for myself for several hours and sung my heart out. I didn’t tell my family I lost my wallet three times in the space of a month. I didn’t tell anyone I got into a cage in a club in Madrid. I didn’t tell people I was accosted by police in Warsaw and Valencia. There are a lot of things that happened that I didn’t share with others. I kept them all to myself and to be well and truly honest with you, my holiday greatly improved because of it.
These are secrets I held to not worry my friends and family. Imagine receiving a text message explaining that your son has been tear-gassed by the Parisian police, or finding out via Instagram story that your close friend is a pathetic alcoholic (okay, maybe that one isn’t necessarily a secret, but you get the picture). There’s a saying that some things are best left unsaid, and you are always well within your rights to withhold anxiety-inducing information from your relatives waiting for you at home.
I also kept those memories locked in my cranium because they are not other people’s to have. Tucking those moments away branded them with an entirely different potency. Had I pulled my phone out in the height of those experiences, maybe I would be reflecting on them differently now. Perhaps I would’ve remembered the way my heart was beating out of my chest with my phone in my hand, instead of the incredible sense of presence that I felt.
Here comes the inevitable COVID-19 angle, but memories of time spent abroad are a vital commodity in the current climate. Photos do moments justice, but recollections carry much more emotional weight. They say a picture says a thousand words, but I think a memory speaks a million paragraphs. To not sound too Boomer-y, memories tainted by an obsession with oversharing online feel different. You often remember sending the text to your friend more than the moment itself. That is a form of thieving emotions away from myself that I can’t really justify.
Even now, in self-quarantine, I advise practicing the lost art of keeping secrets. It’s a millennial reflex, and even I have a hard time shaking it off, but there are some things that should just remain in your brain. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t share things with your friends ever, but maybe hold off from disclosing every precious experience until it has truly fermented into memory in your mind. It’s kind of like a bottle of homemade Kombucha: if you take a swig too early, you might regret it for a lot longer than you thought.
Cover by the author