It has been a while since my last post, as you no doubt have noticed. That is because after a little over three years of writing this blog, I am taking time off to rework (nay, re-imagine) it. So, for the moment the blog (though not its author) is on vacation.
As I work in the background on the next iteration of this project, herewith, in reverse chronological order, are some of my favorite posts. A little light reading to keep you occupied. It was difficult to choose my favorites, so this list isn’t short.
Boston Marathon Bombing – Part 6
It’s two months after the 2013 Boston marathon and life in Boston goes on. A lot like normal for most people. A little less like normal for some. The bombing fades in my memory. Now the experience and the aftereffects are woven into the story of my life.
After evacuating the bleachers at the finish line, my friends and I found each other at Back Bay Station, thanks to a few texts. Thanks to some more texts I was able to communicate with family and friends and let them know that I was ok. And thanks to the working digital side of the network, I was able to email a couple folks and post on my Facebook wall a follow-up post–explaining that I was near the action but unhurt and safe.
One phone call notably made it through. I think it was close enough to the immediate aftermath that circuits were not yet overloaded; most far away friends and family had not yet heard the news. My friend called from her office in the suburbs. Her voice on the other end, which I could barely hear because of the nearby wailing sirens and the general fear that clouded my brain, was the sweetest sound. To this day, I really don’t know what either of us said, other than my indicating I was ok. And to this day, I feel bonded to her…that she reached out immediately and we spoke amidst the chaos. Sometimes, thinking about it still makes me cry.
One phone call sort of made it through–my brother’s name and number appeared in my missed calls log and in the voice mail log. But after hearing him say his name, the rest of the minute-long voice mail was empty. The circuits must have overloaded just after he connected. Thus, his words of concern were lost to me.
We stood outside the station for an hour or more. Helping runners reach out to family and friends via text. Talking to people who needed to talk. Hugging each other. And generally looking, no doubt, like we had no idea where to go or what to do. Because in truth, we didn’t really. We were not far from home as the crow flies, but far given that we were on the other side of the marathon route, which we knew was now a very large crime scene.
The feeling was most unsettling. On one hand, we wanted to be inside, somewhere safe. On the other hand, the idea of being inside felt a bit threatening. At last, however, we had to do something. So we started on a long, slow trek home, around the crime scene, hearing bits of news along the way about the number of people injured and killed. When I got home, I made a few calls on my landline and powered up my fading cell phone.
Then I turned on the news to find out what the world knew. I stared at the screen in shock.
Wondering, as would become a common thought for me in the days and weeks since, at the vagaries of life’s events and how our personal decisions, even the small and seemingly innocuous ones (right or left on this corner? stand here or there to watch? talk to this person or that one?), change the course of our lives forever.
Boston Marathon Bombing – Part 5
The other surprising thing about having a bomb explode across the street from me was that I didn’t feel fear.
Well, that’s not true. I’m sure I felt fear. But I didn’t feel fear in the way I would have expected, had I ever spent any time imagining what it would feel like to witness a bomb going off so horribly near. No heart pounding so hard you think it’ll crack a rib, like when a noise wakes you up in the middle of the night. No shaking, as you do after diving out of the way of a car speeding through the crosswalk you’re standing in. No feeling of doom in the pit of my stomach, as you feel when you know someone is about to give you very, very bad news.
My fear made itself evident in one way: I froze. Though I immediately knew it was a bomb on a level of thought I don’t believe I have ever accessed before, the level of my brain that I normally access quite freely was stuck, unable to fully process what was going on around me.
The time between the first and second bombs was surreal, one in which it seems I didn’t have any conscious thoughts. (Didn’t have too many of those in the seconds after the second bomb exploded either). So you’ll indulge me as I now tell you what I was thinking or feeling or whatever it was in the nanoseconds after the first bomb went off. In order:
- That’s a bomb
- They just ruined the Boston Marathon
- I should get a picture
The fact that not a single muscle twitched in response to that third thought is just more evidence (in case any was ever needed) of why I was smart not to choose a career in war photography.
After that, thought was absent. I doubt I’ve ever spent a longer-seeming twelve seconds without a single helpful notion swirling around inside my head. I stared at the scene across from me. The second bomb went off and I uttered the words “We have to get out of here.”
Then no more thoughts. Just action. I stared down at the bleachers as I climbed over benches to get to the bottom. Some of my other friends walked over to the stairs and then down. Not me. The shortest distance between me and the exit was a straight line, diagonally over the benches.
There was no pushing, no shoving, no panic. We were all moving quickly and as orderly as I suppose it gets at a time like that. Yet, I’d be hard pressed to describe a single person near me or his or her behavior. Inasmuch as I knew I’d been in a place with people, I suppose I knew I was still surrounded by them. But I was in a wave of people I couldn’t see or feel or hear. Not a single one of them. There was still no sound or feeling in my world. My focus had shifted from across the street to the approximately two-square foot area of the bleachers under my feet.
After my pronouncement, the next thing I heard was a yellow-jacketed race official standing at the top of the stairway that took us off the bleachers saying, “Keep moving. Go to the right.” That was actually the only way we could go, short of climbing over the fence onto the course, closer to the site of the bombing. But it helped to hear him say it. His voice was so calm to my ears, so authoritative.
The entire way down the bleachers, I stared at my feet and the bit of floor and bench around them. Never once did I look up. Never once did I even think to glance at the scene across the street. That’s why I can only describe the race official as yellow jacketed…because that’s all I saw of him.
As I reached the bottom of the bleachers, and the top of the nine- or ten steps that led to the ground, I saw one friend in front of me. I grabbed her jacket and said, “It’s Manya. I’m going to hold on to you.” Our trip down those steps required that we walk in front of the grandstands with them on our right, then turn right toward the library, putting our backs to the bombing site. I never looked to my left, not once. My entire world now existed of just one thing: the back of my friend’s black leather jacket.
At the library wall, another guard, not a race official, perhaps a library guard, said “Keep moving. Go to your left.”
My recollection of our escape from the scene is that we were somehow holding on to each other in a way that would typically prevent useful forward locomotion. But that didn’t stop us.
At one point, we passed between four blue porta-potties on our left and the granite wall of the library on our right, a narrow, four- or five-foot wide passage, made narrower by the bench that runs along the library, part of the granite wall. A woman was walking toward us. I yelled at her, “Turn around. Keep moving. Turn around.” She didn’t turn around; she just shuffled past us, toward the bleachers.
By the time we got back to the plaza in front of the library, on Dartmouth Street next to the medical tent, I knew I was safe. I could hear again. My world once again expanded to take in the scene around me. And I realized that I was crying.
We waited there for the other half of our group, but we couldn’t see them. My friend said, “I don’t want to stand here. Let’s go into the South End.” And off we walked, through a mostly empty plaza (where did all the others from the bleachers go?), out past the security barrier we’d needed our VIP passes to get into, and onto a bustling street filled with confused and scared people–many who only knew something happened, but didn’t know what.
We were surrounded by the sounds of more sirens than I’ve ever heard at one time in my entire life, coming from all directions in the city. Toward a place not far from where we were just standing.
And I cried all the way to where we finally stopped to wait for our friends.
Read part 6
Boston Marathon Bombing – Part 4
The most surprising thing about having a bomb explode directly across the street from me was the utter and complete silence.
The bomb was loud of course. The sound of the blast reached my ears, what…nanoseconds from the moment of ignition. It was a crisp, loud, shattering thunder.
Then…nothing. Not a scream. Not a cry. Not a heartbeat. Not a breath.
One moment, I was watching the runners. Eyes focused on the middle of the street. Was I cheering someone on? Was I clapping? Was I watching quietly in awe of someone’s accomplishment? Was I staring unseeing, mind on something else?
Then…I lifted my gaze at the sound of the blast. A few clicks upward and there it was. Just at the height of the flags of the world, so proudly on their poles atop the fence that divided the runners and spectators A small cloud of white-gray-brown smoke. Small and distinct enough that it looked like a child’s drawing–an outline of softly curving, wavy edges, colored inexpertly but with the sure knowledge that this is exactly what a cloud looks like.
I watch it rush upwards to the second and third floors of the building behind it, then beyond. Spreading outward in all directions, becoming less a distinct cloud and more a thick gray, acrid smelling haze settling over everyone in the vicinity.
I watch the spectators on that side of the street. After what seemed like a moment of hesitation, people rush away from the site of the blast in waves, like ripples shattering a calm surface when a large stone is tossed carelessly into a pond. Then…emptiness. Where moments ago the other side of the street was a colorful and indistinct cheering crowd, it was now empty, hollow ground with people I cannot see, fallen behind the fencing, hidden from my view.
And still…I hear nothing.
I stand stock still and stare. My experience of the entire world around me has collapsed–it consists merely of the scene unfolding across from me. I am aware of no people near me. No sensations in my body. No pain. No complete or conscious thought. Nothing.
I see a woman standing alone, just to the left of where the bomb went off, in the mist of gray smoke, in front of a shattered window. A green-white pile of glass at her feet. The black, empty space behind her bordered on either side by the dark brown brick of the building, surrounded with glass still clinging to the frame, a grim, delicate white lace edging. It frames her–she is a picture in my mind. Inasmuch as I have any thought floating just beneath my consciousness, I cannot figure how she alone remains standing in that spot. So near to where a bomb just exploded.
Then, just about twelve seconds later from what I’ve learned since that day, I hear something again. Another crisp, loud, dull boom, echoing along the valley formed by the buildings that line Boylston Street. Another bomb, I know. Somewhere to my left. Not as near to me as the first one. But too close by miles. I turn my head, I’m certain nothing else could have moved.
I see a cloud of white-gray-brown smoke about halfway down the next block, on the other side of the street, same as the first bomb. By the time I hear the sound, the explosion is farther along, the cloud of smoke is higher and bigger than the first one. It has reached the third or fourth levels of that building. It is losing its distinct, childlike shape.
My mind clicks. I turn my gaze down–from the bomb blast down a street so familiar to me it forms the no longer noticed landscape of my daily life. I look to my friend sitting a couple feet away from me on my left. I sit down or partially sit or duck, I’m not really sure. We lock eyes and I’m sure the look of shock and confusion I see on her face is the look on my own. I grab her shoulder or her arm or something. A conscious thought forms: We have to get out of here.
Later I discovered that I actually said that to her. For a while I wasn’t sure I’d said it out loud–I didn’t hear my own voice.
For the past twelve seconds I had heard precisely two things–the loud hollow horrible sounds of two bombs exploding. The rest of the world was nothing but silence to me.
Read part 5
Boston Marathon Bombing – Part 3
Here’s the thing…standing for a long time to watch the marathon is exhausting. I know how silly it is to claim fatigue while standing on the sidewalk watching and cheering for people who have just run 26 miles over the course of several hours to pass in front of me. But it’s true. So I was particularly thrilled to spend the afternoon in the grandstands, a VIP as it were, knowing I could sit to watch the runners in the final 20 yards to the finish.
But when we got there, it turned out that everyone was standing. On the benches in the grandstand. Ha…so much for my restful afternoon. We grabbed a spot with enough room for the five of us about five or six rows up from the bottom of the bleachers. One friend was on the aisle, next to the stairs we walked up to get there. I was sitting (well, standing) four or five spots in. Up onto the bench we hopped and started cheering.
Being a spectator at the Boston Marathon, especially anywhere along Boylston Street in that final approach to the finish, is all about the strength of the human spirit. If you’ve made it to Boylston Street, you’ve finished in my book. And my job as a spectator in the finishing stretch is to cheer the runners home.
Cheer for the folks who look like they might not be able to take one more step. For those who seem to be on a leisurely afternoon stroll. The people who look dazed. The ones checking their watches or filming their own finish. Those whose families have joined them for the final paces. People with names on their shirts. Go Tom! You can do it Lisa! You’re almost there, Pedro, way to go!
Sitting in the bleachers is a slightly different experience than standing four or five or six deep behind the three-inch wide metal barriers further west down Boylston Street. Sitting 10 or 15 feet above street level, 10 or 15 feet back from the edge of the course it’s harder to see runners’ names to call out. As they stream by there are enough that it’s hard to pick out a particular runner to dedicate a cheer to.
It’s also impossible to cheer the entire time. As with any crowd, there are bursts of energy followed by resting points, where we all take a breath or two. Then a runner will run buy waving his or her arms out to the side, up and up, to encourage more cheering and a roar fills the street again.
Even with the lull in the cheering, it’s loud at the finish line. The announcer (who sits in the booth at the left in this picture) identifies people as they finish. Registered runners run with a chip that enables race organizers and family and friends to track their progress and get an accurate finishing time–based on when they crossed both the starting and finishing lines. That means the race announcer knows who has just finished. He calls out names, cities or affiliations (like those who are running for charities), and words of congratulations. It’s a constant stream of names and information, a soundtrack that accompanies runners crossing the sensors at the finish line.
At approximately 2:15 pm on Monday, April 15 I posted this photo to my Facebook page with the words: The view at the finish! Way to go runners! Not once suspecting that at that very moment a set of events that began I don’t know when or where was unfolding across the street, perhaps just 50 feet away from me, and would soon lead to a very specific moment in time that would change my life and the lives of so many people around me. Not once even imagining that the post would be a cause for anything other than happiness or, let’s admit it, a teensy bit of Facebook-induced envy because of my amazing seat.
Then, unbeknownst to me at the time and as happens every afternoon, usually with very little notice from me or anyone else, the clock ticked from 2:49 to 2:50.
The moment was at hand…
Read part 4
Boston Marathon Bombing – Part 2
After a morning of watching the Boston Marathon, I met up with my four friends and we grabbed a spot on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall to eat lunch. We chose a bench facing the sun and as free of tree cover as possible given the grand elms that line the mall, casting shadows even without their summer coats of leaves. The day was a little chilly and we wanted to soak up as much warmth as possible. Great weather for the runners, but just a tad on the brisk side for the spectators. Much better than last year’s marathon–the 2012 marathon was too hot for many runners. Indeed, a friend and I simply watched the race and felt a little ill afterwards from the heat.
During the marathon, the sections of the mall closest to Copley Square serve as a staging area for a set of first responders. Sort of a back-up set of responders, I’ve always imagined. To be available to help in certain circumstances, to be outside the perimeter of the area closed off for the marathon, just to be close by and ready for whatever might befall the event. There’s a decontamination tent set up and extra ambulances and other resources parked and ready to deploy.
This year, there were three black SUVs with tinted windows parked on the asphalt pathway, just across from the bench where we sat. One friend determined that they belonged to Homeland Security, though I don’t know how she knew that. I guessed they belonged to the FBI. We giggled at the thought that inside those imposing vehicles there were probably federal agents of some sort looking back at us. And, you know, running facial recognition software to make sure we weren’t a threat: we five women, all on the backside of 40, wearing jeans and sneakers and jackets, eating sandwiches and oranges and chips.
Then it came time to head over to the grandstands. We all lived nearby and I was cold even sitting in the sun, so we ran into our homes and prepped. Final bathroom runs for all and a change of jacket for me. The grandstands for the marathon are in front of the Boston Public Library, on the shady side of the street.
So I donned a purple hooded fleece and put my black jacket back on over it. I’m not much of a hoodie under another jacket kind of gal, but it seemed the right combo for the day. It’s a garment that has a funny significance to me and may to a few members of my family, if they recall the wedding. I’d purchased it one sale at an outdoor equipment shop in one of those instances where you find yourself far from your own closet, without adequate warmth, but not wanting to spend a lot of money. The fleece went with me the next day to the wedding, in case it, too, would be too cold. Then it became a joke–I carried the purple fleece with me and never once put it on.
We departed. The site of the grandstands is just two short blocks from where we ate our lunch; a five minute walk on an ordinary day, seven minutes if the lights are red or you dawdle. But marathon Monday is not an ordinary day. The grandstands were on the south side of Boylston Street and we were on the north side, and there is no crossing over the course this close to the finish line.
So…off we set. Five blocks closer to downtown to the barrier at the final block of the cordoned off area on Boylston Street. Past the yellow school buses filled with runners’ gear and labeled with ranges of bib numbers, awaiting retrieval once past the finish line. Over three more blocks and along the edge of the family meeting areas. We walked through the chaos of life after the finish line. Past runners draped in silver blankets to keep warm, leaning up against walls, sitting on the curb, eating snacks, drinking water, elated, tired, content, weary. Around family and friends taking pictures, hugging, cheering, themselves exhausted by the experience.
Finally, we made it to the site–a half hour later. The entrance to the VIP area at the finish line is on the corner, at the front of the Boston Public Library facing Copley Square. We flashed our VIP badges and were directed to the security tables. My dark green cross-body bag, draped over my body so well that I could forget I even had it on, was deemed to small to need to be searched. The guards searched a couple of my friends’ bags, but we had been told in advance to bring picture ID and only small bags.
We walked past the front facade of the library. On our left, the steps leading into that great pink-gray granite building with five American flags hanging from the second floor, fluttering in the wind. On our right, Dartmouth Street shut down and filled curb to curb, cross street to cross street, with a tall white tent. The medical tent, ready for runners who made the distance but needed some attention. Though the streets just outside the VIP area were packed with people milling about, inside, in front of the library, it was relatively empty. Most of the people inside the VIP area were in the grandstands, viewing the race, joining in the festivities. A moment of calm after the long walk over, and before joining the roaring, clapping, cheering crowd.
We turned left on Boylston Street, at the corner of the library, and proceeded to walk along the wall toward the grandstands. The first grandstand we came to was for VVIPs–it was directly in front of the finish line. Our passes didn’t get us in there. So we turned into the next grandstand, walked up the stairs, saw a reasonably sized empty space in the seats to fit all five of us, and took our spot to watch. Just across from Marathon Sports, as it happens, though I didn’t think about it at the time.
It was just a few minutes after 2:00 pm on Monday, April 15, 2013.
Read part 3
Boston Marathon Bombing – Part 1
Early the morning of Monday, April 15, 2013, I watched the progress of the Boston Marathon on television. As is my habit on Patriot’s Day, I watch until the wheelchair and elite runners are close to Kenmore Square. Then I walk the few short blocks to the finish line and watch as runners approach Exeter Street, just yards from the finish line. From that vantage point I cheer them home–You can do it! You’re almost there! Good job! And, of course, the general purpose, high-pitched: Woooooo!
This year, I didn’t make it for the elite wheelchair finishers. (A bit of lethargy slowed me down that morning.) That didn’t stop me from crying with joy as they crossed the finish line–the bells of the Old South Church peal in celebration as they break the tape. I was straightening up in the bedroom when I heard the bells for each wheelchair finisher, and ran to the t.v. to catch the replays.
By the time the elite women were approaching the finish, I’d made my way out to Boylston Street and found a spot just west of Exeter Street, without too many tall people staked out near the fence. Being on the taller side myself, I can stand a few feet back behind most people and still have a decent view. We all cheered and clapped for the elite wheelchair runners making their way to amazing finishes, not far behind the first place winners.
A woman hopped onto the rounded top of an olive green relay mailbox, just to my right. Her friend leaned into her legs to hold her there, and she twisted to face the oncoming runners. As the first elite woman runner came down Boylston, she screamed, “She’s coming! She’s coming! She’s coming!” and rang a cowbell in celebration. She was so excited, she was bouncing up and down and her friend was struggling to hold her, to make sure she didn’t slip off her precarious perch.
Her dark eyes were bright and her smile huge. Her many braids, black with just a touch of grey, were gathered together in a fat ponytail down her back; they bounced along with her excitement. It seemed like her first marathon, but I don’t know. Maybe this was her fiftieth. No matter, she was having the time of her life. It didn’t even bother me that by being up on the mailbox, she blocked my view of the runners coming down the street. Her excitement was infectious. Like so many of us do in a crowd like that, I knew I’d only see the winner for the briefest of moments, as she passed directly in front of me. So I cheered and cheered in anticipation until I saw her, just 10 feet away, running like a graceful gazelle.
After watching the first elite male runner stride past, looking to all the world like he was out for a stroll on a crisp spring day, it was time to head back inside. The plan for the afternoon was much different. Grab some lunch, meet my friends for a picnic on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, and then head to the grandstands in front of the Boston Public Library for the afternoon. My friend knows a guy…and she got us VIP passes for the grandstands, good for anytime after 2:00 pm. An amazing surprise gift by this very sweet man. Since one of the fun parts of watching at the finish is cheering on those for whom this is an achievement of a lifelong dream or a leisure pursuit of the highest order…I knew we’d get to cheer on some people who might really need it at that moment.
I couldn’t wait…
Read part 2
I am really looking forward to following Adventurous Kate’s quest to visit 50 UNESCO World Heritage sites this year, to bring her total up to 101. This is similar to a quest I’ve long wanted to fulfill–to see all 745 cultural heritage sites (over a longer time span than one year, of course!). Though, knowing me, I’m willing to bet that I mean most of the 745, as I’m certain I would discount those that require more than a certain level of difficulty to reach.
Following Kate’s lead, herewith is a list of the 25 sites I have seen so far (in alphabetical country order):
- Historic Centre of the City of Salzburg
- Historic Centre of Vienna
- Palace and Park of Versailles
- Paris, Banks of the Seine
- Historic Centre of Avignon: Papal Palace, Episcopal Ensemble and Avignon Bridge
- Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto
- Historic Centre of Mexico City and Xochimilco
- Pre-Hispanic City of Teotihuacan
- Seventeenth-century canal ring area of Amsterdam inside the Singelgracht
- Cracow’s Historic Centre
- Historic Centre of Warsaw
- Monastery of the Hieronymites and Tower of Belém in Lisbon
- Historic Centre of Saint Petersburg and Related Groups of Monuments
- Kremlin and Red Square, Moscow
- Ensemble of the Novodevichy Convent
- Works of Antoni Gaudi
- Palau de la Musica Catalan, Barcelona
- Studley Royal Park including the Ruins of Fountains Abbey
- Blenheim Palace
- Westminster Palace, Westminster Abbey and Saint Margaret’s Church
- Tower of London
- Maritime Greenwich
- Independence Hall
- Statue of Liberty
If you count natural properties (not just cultural), you can add:
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Redwood National and State Park
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
This list is definitely shorter than I want it to be. Then again, I’ve not spent much time actively seeking out these sites before. So it’s probably pretty good for an accidental list.
Where on the list of have you? And where to you want to go?
A snowstorm brings out all sorts of interesting behavior in people. Myself…I love ‘em. (The storms that is.) And I am fully aware that part of my love of snow storms comes from not having to drive in them and not being responsible for shoveling any of the stuff when it starts to pile up. To me, a blizzard is kind of fun (for the most part and notwithstanding that I am aware that they can cause real problems for people).
Recently we experienced a big storm here in Boston. This big blizzard fell into the top 10 (and perhaps even the top 5) biggest storms in Massachusetts. (I refuse to refer to it by the name the Weather Channel conferred on it, with all due respect to that company, which I generally like and appreciate. But I’ll stick to using only official storm names bestowed by the World Meteorological Organization. And they don’t name winter storms. ‘Nuff said.)
The thing I like about a big storm is that it changes the landscape. It changes the city I live in and for a day or two or maybe more, it is like I’ve traveled far away to a land I don’t know and can’t navigate easily.
The light of daybreak and eventide is softer, the light of midday dazzling and twinkling, the light of the witching hour ethereal. Trees and fences and light posts transmogrify into snow cones or modernist sculptures.
But the thing that really changes the city, at the gut level for someone who lives here, is the piles and piles and piles of snow. Paths are carved, or not carved as some see fit, along the sidewalks and through the parks. The edges of the cleared walkways meander, showing off the skill, fatigue level, or equipment budget of the landowner at that stretch of walk.
In the early hours after a storm, there are many places that require one to walk in the street–an act that feels at once seditious and liberating. And a little frightening when the few cars that dare to make their way along the same piece of road.
No longer can you walk a straight line from A to B. You must walk the path that was carved for you by an unknown worker–in some case an employee, you can tell; in others merely a good Samaritan with the goal to help fellow citizens. And you must share a path that is sometimes just a foot wide, with nothing but slushy, impassable borders on either side. No longer can you walk the speed you wish to walk, when the ice forms on the exposed and wet walk. Or when a crowd (and now just two people sharing the path is a crowd) is ahead of you.
No longer can you cross a street mid-block. Or even wait to cross the street in your favorite spot on the corner, as now there may be someone blocking your way. Or pedestrians approaching from the opposite side, who need to get out of the street and make their way along the path before you can approach. No longer do you remember where the street ends and the sidewalk begins, when you think you’ve stepped onto the curb (or off of it) but you are wrong. Or when previously known obstacles are hidden by layers of ice crystals.
Yes…I wax philosophical about piles and piles of snow that cause others frustration and fury. The thing is, I really like that a snowstorm allows me to see my home with fresh eyes and a fresh heart. And I readily admit that my sentiment would likely be slightly reshaped, if not utterly destroyed, if the snow was on the ground for the entire season.
For then, it would be familiar. And not a passport to a strange new city that looks a little bit like one I used to live in.
This post about solo female travel and safety from Adventurous Kate reminded me of an experience I had in Paris.
It was the one time during the almost three months I was in Europe last summer that I felt threatened in any way. Quite unexpectedly, I found myself in the middle of something that felt very dangerous. And I was frightened.
The place I was staying was in the 18th arrondissement, at the bottom of the hill not far from Montmartre. It was a fabulous neighborhood in that it was nothing like the tourist Paris of the 1st through the 8th. Don’t get me wrong, I love those parts of Paris. But spending time in a neighborhood where regular Parisians live and few tourists venture allowed me to see a different city. One just as lively and beautiful in its own way, but one that was a little simpler and with a different vibe.
During my stay in this neighborhood, I did not to use the metro. There were a few reasons that aren’t all that interesting for this story. Suffice to say I walked very far over those five days. One day, I walked to the 5th (roughly 3.5 miles away) to run an errand. On the way back, I took a different route so I could see another part of the city. It was during the walk home that I encountered a bit of drama.
Several reasonably large sized men stood scattered along the length of one block, some near the curb, some near the storefronts. They were verbally pummeling all passersby. My lack of fluency in French felt terribly debilitating as I navigated through this obstacle course. What were they saying? What were they trying to get us to do? Or say? Or give them? They approached people quite closely, yelling but never touching anyone or blocking their way.
There was moderate foot traffic on this avenue. The faces of the people walking toward me were telling. As someone would become victim to the onslaught, the look on his or her face turned to stony resolve. Her eyes stared into the middle distance. His pace picked up.
Like I do in all such circumstances, I looked around to identify my savior in the group. It was a man walking just a few paces ahead of me. He was wearing blue jeans and a red, white, and blue plaid button down shirt. He was also tall and had a stocky build and a confident pace. So…I quickened my step to get closer to him. Closer than I would ever choose to walk near a stranger if I didn’t have to. All the while assuming that he would, of course, come to my aid if I called out to him. As I got closer, from behind I saw him square his shoulders to the assault when one of the men approached him
It was one of those things…the block after this one felt just as safe as the one before. But there was something about this stretch of road. Or the businesses there. Funny thing, though. On some level I realized this as it was happening, but it only crystallized after I crossed the next street and was removed from the situation. No one, not one single man in that group, said a word to me, aggressive or otherwise. Not one of them tried to block my way. Indeed, not one even seemed to look at me.
I can only guess this is because I looked markedly different than all the other folks on the block. My skin was light, theirs was dark. Perhaps this was merely a bellicose marketing or sales technique that I misunderstood because I didn’t know enough French. Or prospective customers all shared a trait I quite obviously did not have. In any case, I was not the target demographic for whatever these men were doing. It was almost as if I was invisible to them as I walked through their midst.
I’ll never know what was really happening. And, to tell you the truth, I only have the vaguest recollection of which boulevard I was strolling along when this happened, so I’d have to look to find this spot again, in case that would shed light on the story.
It was just one of those things. And, even though I didn’t understand the experience, it was a little taste of Parisian life that made me glad to be far from the tourist zone.