Sunday, 7 October 2018

Fight or Flight, A Travel Story.

There are defining moments in everyone's lives. Sadly you won't remember most of them. Your first steps are confined to the memories of your parents, excited by watching their baby morph into a toddler and terrified at the prospect of their once immobile child being able to move around at free will. Your first day at school, possibly memories or possibly recollections pieced together from photographs of the event. I myself do remember the clown themed briefcase I merrily carried out into the world that day. Your first kiss, okay you should remember this one but if you are anything like me it is lost in the haze of the excess of alcohol consumed on the night and the unrelenting effects of time.

I do however have one very clear memory of one very defining moment, so clear it's as if the adrenaline that pumped through my veins that day dug a deep scar to remind me in the future what terror really is. It is the moment I knew for sure, if it came down to it, if my life was really in danger, where instinct would take me. It's the phenomenon known as fight or flight and I know without a doubt that my instinctive reaction is flight.

There is of course a story that goes with this, there is always a story. Mine, for the last fifteen years has been an amusing anecdote to tell at the pub. I was never in danger but turns out you have no control over what flashes through your mind in the moments where your brain perceives a serious threat to your life and in turn I discovered you have no control over what actions your physical form will take in said situation.

Let's go back there. It was a very recently post 9/11 world. Those first few years after the towers came down and the US closed their airspace, grounding every aircraft from passenger carrying airliners to crop dusters, were tense to say the least. Terrorism was of course not a new concept but this event certainly set a new benchmark and we can safely say the world was a changed place. At the time this story takes place I was 21, on my first overseas trip without the safety net of family or even friends and had just crossed the English Channel accompanied by fifty new acquaintances, I was on the obligatory Contiki tour, 11 countries in 21 days, first stop Paris.

I had already settled into my clique, a social circle sitting well outside of the cool crowd where I was comfortable not having to impress my peers and could just be myself. Even at a young age I was confident in my place in the world having progressed through high school with a group of friends a little left of centre and proud of it. Fun was always the order of the day taking priority over goals such as the perfect hair and makeup.

Paris, as you would expect for a first timer, was magnificent. Having viewed the city from the Eiffel Tower in the dusky light of a spring evening it had done what Paris does, charm. Over the years working as a travel agent people have spouted a lot of shit about Paris to me...the people are rude, the streets smell like dog poop, the people are rude. And on a bad day, in the wrong light there is an iota of truth to it but if you aren't charmed by the meeting of art, architecture and one of the greatest cuisines in the world you should question if you are possibly dead inside.

So back to the story, we had one day in Paris. That is what the Contiki tour schedule allowed, one day. We completed the sprint through the Louvre to photograph the Mona Lisa, the only piece of art worthy of a 21 year olds attention, we took a snap of the Arch De Triumph (no time to scale it) and we glimpsed the Seine from the Pont Alexandre III, my 3/4 khaki cargo pants and practical sandals not quite worthy of it's gilded fames and posed nymphs.

One more stop to make, the flying buttresses and rose windows of the Notre Dame. As an atheist it astounds me as to the quantity of cathedrals I have visited but if anyone can afford tourism-worthy architecture with all the trimmings it's the tax exempt Catholic church. But first there was a physical need to take care of, a bathroom stop. Bathrooms in Europe are hard to find and never free, it's like the penance you have to pay as a noisy, street clogging tourist. At the Notre Dame the bathrooms reside out in the courtyard in front of the church, down a staircase and into a cavernous room built well underground where no natural light can creep in. As we descended the stairs there was a large group of school children queued up waiting their turn. Frustrated, we lined up knowing there was little choice, it was pee here or forever hold your peace.

The children were doing what children do. Little boys darted from the urinals to the girls cubicles in hopes of catching one with their skirts up. They slid under the turnstiles to get away without paying the fee and the squeals echoed off the cavern walls creating a cacophony of noise that was beginning to agitate the heavy-breasted black ladies who were trying to keep order. We neared the front of the queue, only a few stray children in front and a few more forming behind us when the lights went out. In an instant the room was as dark as your deepest nightmare, children howled and before I had time to react there was the loud whining of what could only be described as a world war two air raid siren. It was the type of noise that elicits an immediate response. It isn't one many people will have heard in real life, only in movies. It's an unmistakable warning that attack is imminent, that bombs are going to fall and destruction is on it's way.

Thinking back on it now it felt like not a single thought went through my head, my reaction was entirely instinctual like a lion taking down a gazelle on the African Savannah. This was survival. I grabbed the arm of the girl with me (glad to see I thought of someone other than myself) and in the pitch dark I ran towards what I thought was the direction of the entrance. Invisible children tangled under foot, I tripped over something hollow, a metal construction that bounced aside as a ran, possibly a garbage bin. As I saw the light coming down the stairwell vivid flashes of what I might find at ground level started to enter my mind. I imagined carnage, blood, chaos, all the hallmarks of a terrorist attack. People have since pointed out to me if there really was a terrorist attack I would have been better off underground than running into the melee but instinct doesn't work like that. I needed to be out of the darkness, away from that wailing siren making the blood course hard through my veins with fear and adrenaline.

Dragging my companion roughly behind me we emerged into the sunshine like divers pursued by a hungry shark breaching the ocean's surface. My mind took a moment to assess what was happening around me. Tourists lazed in the spring sunshine, kicking their shoes off to enjoy patches of grass, children ate ice cream without a care in the world, there was nothing to indicate the underground horror we had just escaped.

I looked from my shaking hands to my new travelling companion. I couldn't form the words to express my confusion and fear. She looked mildly rattled but was able to let out a giggle, an emotional state I was far from. We walked away from the stairwell, my brain ticking over as to the possible scenarios as to what had happened when my companion informed me that I had missed the key action that explained the situation. One of the women running the facility had become so infuriated by the misbehaving children that she threw a switch behind the desk which plunged the room into darkness and set off the siren. The explanation circled in my head but wouldn't soak in. My heightened state wouldn't allow me to fully process the how and why of it. Over the course of the last fifteen years I have concluded that we were in an old air raid bunker turned bathroom and for some unknown reason the siren had never been disabled. I have also never been able to understand why I was the only one in that bunker that day who reacted in such a way. Everyone else stood in place and rode it out. Maybe others saw the switch being flicked or maybe I have a greater sense of self preservation.

It also came to remind me of the stories told post 9/11. Those in the upper floors of the second tower were told to stay put after the first plane hit and the tower next door was engulfed in flames. A small minority of people chose to ignore the instruction, sensing mortal danger they let instinct override direction from authority and made their way down the fire escape only to find everyone else on their floor died when the second plane hit their tower. I like to think this is the instinct that resides in me.

For years I have retold that story, starting with our fellow Contiki travellers, then to my parents, standing in the lobby of the Moulin Rouge that night telling them how I thought I was going to die that day and on and on to friends and colleagues usually over a few drinks, it always elicits a good laugh and I tell it with dramatic effect and much hand motion, embellishing a little here and there. After each retelling the story loses something, there is no way to convey fear on that level, it has become much more humorous than it started out, as do many of the best travel stories. Those times we are most uncomfortable, when you think things are at their worst, if you happen to survive... and generally most do, what a tale you have to tell.

Originally posted on Sunday, 7 October 2018 by

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