…was about the extent of my French when I hit Paris.
Well maybe not just ‘baguette’…I’d heard horror stories about the legendary rudeness of Parisians (and the French in general) towards non-French speaking foreigners/tourists and I was a little bit worried. In the last few days of Tunis (thanks to my Tunisian friends expert tutelage) I’d managed to progress to the stage where I could confidently greet someone, order a coffee (most important) and a meal, plus make extremely general inquiries. I thought I was rocking it. Obviously I wasn’t.
The first time I tried that in a classy sidewalk Paris cafe, the waiter actually laughed at me. In a sympathetic way, like you would a cute but backwards child (who may wear a bright orange ‘stakhat’ to school). Ill take sympathy over scorn any day, so I stuck with it. As long as you at least make the attempt to say ‘bonjour’ and speak even a little French (even badly) there is a definite defrosting of people attitudes towards you. Although to be completely honest, I never met any one person in France that was actually rude to me.
Maybe I was just lucky.
My first night in the hostel was interesting. After my little emotional adjustment at the Louvre, I wandered up the 2 city blocks to my hostel and checked in. The hostel was great, with dorm accommodation (bunk beds and shared bathrooms) but the building itself was several hundred years old, had excellent facilities, and I was right up top on the 5th floor with a wonderful view of the Paris rooftops. The place was the type of hostel that take large school groups and it was full of schoolkids on an excursion. It was currently a buzzing mass of kids as 2 groups had overlapped – 1 coming in, 1 going out – and instantly unbearable. The poor girl on the front desk was frazzled as she processed 100 excited kids and the wifi was getting hammered as everyone was online.
So a good opportunity to bug out and explore. With the Immigration officers words – “most dangerous city in Europe” – still bouncing around my head, I was a little uncertain of heading out at 11 pm, but the streets were full and the sounds of the inner city were beckoning, so I rugged up and headed out.
So where to start? I only had 5 days in this beautiful city to explore.
Retracing my steps back to the Louvre, I turned towards the distant Arc de Triomph glittering 3.5 kms away, thought ” I can do that” and started walking into the cold dark Parisian night.
I’d gotten about 100 meters before my spider sense started jangling.
Walking through the Arc de Triomph du Carrousel (above) you are strolling down a wide barely lit gravel boulevard, surrounded by dark hedge gardens and statues. I was wandering down trying to take photos in virtual darkness, when I noticed dark shapes lurking in the gardens beyond the lights. At first it didn’t seem like anything odd, but I then it occurred that there were no tourists in this area, just me.
I stopped and looked around, patting my pockets down looking for my cigarettes.
Three dark figures detached themselves from the deep shadows on either side of the path and wandered out of the gardens, forming a rough triangle around me. Casually moving towards the spot I was standing. Dark jackets, scarves and beanies. Identical. Indistinguishable.
I took a moment, lit my cigarette and looked at my options, then turned and started casually walking back towards the light, and safety of the tourists on the other side of the arch.
They all instantly changed their approach vectors (fuck) and the closest guy intercepted me part way there, babbled something in French, and held out a cigarette. My heart was thumping a little and I thought “Ok here we go”. Watching the others approach closely but casually, I fished out my lighter and passed it to him, all the while still heading towards the light, forcing him to keep pace with me. The 2 guys were closer now, just strolling alongside but never more than 10 steps away.
The cigarette dude lit his cigarette, and paused. Exhaling a cloud of smoke into the night sky, he looked at me and I met his gaze with my best “don’t fuck with me” look. He nodded and held out the lighter to return it. I took it quickly, rumbled a low “merci’ and walked quickly through the remaining 2 guys into the welcoming light of the archway. Turning back on the other side of the arch, the men had gone, melting back into the shadowed gardens.
And then I was back with the laughing tourists, the lovers and the light.
So lesson learned – when someone tells you to not do something stupid in a new city, this is the sorta thing they are talking about.
Day 1 eh?
Deciding to call it a night, I wandered back through the busy Louvre complex, past the Comedie De Paris, passing through the local streets to my now largely silent hostel.
I’ll start exploring tomorrow.
In the daylight.