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.