- A Madman in Paris
Landing at Charles de Gaulle airport was a bit surreal. This being early in my professional career and my first business trip to Paris, I was excited but nervous. My boss had sent me to do the trip solo. Although his parting words were encouraging, still I wondered if I would be up to the task of several days of meetings with his higher-level French colleagues.
A free Sunday afternoon before the work week started was an invitation to get out and explore the city on foot. With the mild temperatures and blooming irises, April seemed the perfect time to visit. Ella Fitzgerald singing “I love Paris in the springtime …” would become my earworm for the next few days.
Feeling carefree as I set out walking along Rue de Rivoli, I became aware that a stranger had suddenly appeared at my side, a nondescript young man nattering in French as he kept up my pace.
Although I spoke some French, I was catching only a few of his words. He seemed to be trying to persuade me of something. I mostly avoided looking at him and consciously accelerated. He kept up with me. My ears were soon numbed by his rapid-fire monologue. Whether he was benign or malevolent, I couldn’t tell.
After some minutes had passed and he was still at my side, I pondered what to do in the event he planned something crazy. Where is a gendarme, I wondered, when you’re a woman alone in Paris and a possible madman is walking with you! I rehearsed in my mind the phrase Aidez-Moi!—Help me! But, would I be able to raise my voice loudly enough to attract attention? Or, would the words freeze in my throat. I wasn’t sure.
Perhaps this fast-talker was one of those boulevardiers I had read about. A man-about-town who noticed me strolling alone and decided I needed company. When we reached the Tuileries Gardens, my uninvited companion became more animated. He and I had been in near-lockstep for almost 30 minutes at this point. From the Louvre Museum toward Avenue Champs-Élysées, I had said not a word. He did all the talking and I had no idea what he was saying. Whatever it was, now he was saying it faster and louder.
I glanced at him a couple of times and decided he was probably harmless. Just a nutty, lonely—certainly loquacious!—person. Relief came when we reached the Concorde metro stop. Whatever his intention had been, he gave up on it. I watched him peel away and bound down the steps to the subway. At last, he never did hear my voice. “Au revoir, monsieur,” I said softly. I thought to myself, That was weird.
As I continued my Sunday stroll, Ella’s lush voice in my head was interspersed now with darker thoughts. What would I have done if my madman had turned violent? Did he have a car waiting nearby that he would force me into? Did he carry a long knife strapped to his leg? Or maybe he hoped to entice me to a café in order to slip drugs into a friendly glass of chablis. I might have awakened to find myself held captive in some obscure Parisian flat! Would I have been able to escape and call the police? Try explaining that to one’s boss! My mind was reeling.
Years later, I occasionally replayed the scene in my head of how I would react as my older, more worldly, more assertive self. For one thing, I had learned more French, including how to say “Go away! Leave me alone!”
As it turned out, the rest of my week was uneventful. I had an interesting story to tell my co-workers back in Minnesota. And my boss was happy to know that I hadn’t needed to be rescued by the Parisian gendarmes on my first solo business trip.
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- A Gun Too Close
He held the gun in his left hand, pointing it at the young woman behind the counter. “Give me all the cash!” he demanded. It was a sunny San Francisco morning in 1991, and I was waiting in line to pay for dog food at my neighborhood pet supply store. An armed robbery was about the last thing I expected. Yet there he was standing next to me. A gaunt, angry man with a gun. I had never seen a real handgun. This one looked larger than the ones on television. The steel looked cold and dense like the barrel of my father’s hunting rifle back in Wisconsin.
The man wore a heavy coat, despite the balmy spring weather. I backed away from him slowly, hoping he wouldn’t notice my movement in his peripheral vision, and retreated quietly to the back of the store. My calmness surprised me.
The young clerk, frozen in terror, did not immediately comply with his demand. “Do it now!” he barked at her. “All the money or you’ll be sorry!”
I had left my dog alone in my car parked across the street. I thought about what might happen to him if I never returned. My husband was traveling internationally for business and would be unable to rescue him—or me.
Crouched in my quasi-hiding place behind 30-pound bags of dry kibble, I observed the clerk withdraw a handful of bills from the opened till and, trembling, place them on the counter. Scooping up the money with his free hand, the robber thrust the wad into a coat pocket and fled without firing a shot.
For the next couple of seconds inside the store, there was complete silence. Make sure he’s gone and not coming back. It’s what I was thinking, and I imagine the others were, as well. As we slowly emerged from our hiding places throughout the store, I saw that some customers were crying, our shared trauma now briefly banding us together. Some tried to comfort the young clerk still trembling, while the manager phoned the police.
Eventually paying for my purchase, I carried it to my car. To be greeted by a golden retriever’s canine exuberance—excited barking and a wildly wagging tail at the sight of me with his kibble—was at that moment the most normal and wonderful thing in the world.
∗ ∗ ∗
- Nelson Mandela at The Mall
My friend and I arrived two hours early in order to beat the crowds. Queen Elizabeth and Nelson Mandela would be riding in an open carriage along the ceremonial route called The Mall on their way to Buckingham Palace, and we were determined to stake out a prime viewing spot. It was July 1996.
Lynn and I passed the time chatting, enjoying the glorious sunshine. As US expatriates, we both felt challenged by some of the cultural differences we had been encountering in England. Say trousers, when describing pants. Say pants, when describing underwear. At the supermarket, get used to packing your own grocery bags and don’t look for eggs in the refrigerated section. The egg cartons will be stacked on the floor in aisle 3.
I remarked to Lynn that she was now saying cheers instead of thank you, and accused her of “going native.” “Before you know it,” I teased, “you’ll be eating baked beans at breakfast.” We discussed the recent tabloid photos of Princess Diana, as well as Lynn’s recent dinner at a neighborhood restaurant, La Tante Claire.
“Chef Gordon Ramsey came out from the kitchen to chat to the people at the table next to us,” Lynn told me. “They must’ve been his friends.”
“Oh, did you eavesdrop?” I wanted to know. “How many times did Ramsey use the f-word?”
“Ha! Quite a few times!” Lynn chuckled. “I must say our meal was very good.”
As we waited during the next two hours, we watched as the number of assembled spectators steadily increased to 10 or more deep behind the barricades along the entire length of The Mall. Lynn and I couldn’t help feeling a tiny bit smug about our superior planning. We were solidly in the first tier with a perfect vantage point to wave at the Queen and President Mandela when they passed by. It would be momentous and definitely worth the wait.
When the time of the scheduled appearance drew near, Lynn noticed a wide-girth woman jostling her way through the crowd toward us. Lynn whispered to me, and I turned around to look. I immediately spotted the woman behind us, getting closer. With her imposing size and determined expression, clearly she was intent on getting to the front. There was no obvious space for one more person, yet somehow she was managing to wiggle-inch her way through the assembled throng. Evidently she planned to insert herself into our prime viewing location.
“We are chockablock with humanity here,” Lynn commented to no one in particular. Suddenly, I felt flesh pressing against my backside.
“She just hip-checked me from behind,” I whispered to Lynn while trying to stand my ground.
“She’s got the hips to do it, too.” Lynn said it loud enough for the woman to hear.
The buttinsky smiled coyly in our direction and continued to slither sideways, almost imperceptibly. By sheer will and mass, she was going to force an opening next to us.
“We’ve been waiting here patiently for two hours in the sun, and someone has the nerve to barge to the front at the last minute,” I said. Suddenly, I felt overheated.
“I will not allow it!” Lynn declared. “This chutzpah!” She raised her arm in the air as if charging into battle. Her state of high dudgeon was so overly theatrical that, although she and I were squished now into a postage-stamp space, I burst out laughing at her cri de cœur.
I became aware of an airborne stew of diverse scents of cologne and deodorant dispersed by the heat that engulfed our fellow spectators. Buttinsky, Lynn, and I were now engaged in a silent skirmish to maintain our claims of eminent domain at the barricade. Lynn made an ugly face at the back of the woman’s head when she wasn’t looking. I executed my best hex-making hand-waving—also behind her back. We were starting to get goofy from the heat. Having planted herself firmly at the front, Buttinsky did not budge.
Suddenly there they were! The guests of honor! The crowd hushed momentarily as the carriage, ornate with red and gold, came into view with its two special passengers. The queen wearing yellow, smiled and waved. President Mandela seated alongside her, beamed as he waved with his arm outstretched, clearly enjoying the moment. The man exuded grace and charm.
“He looked right at us!” Lynn said.
The cheering, the clapping, and the waves from the assembled crowd proved our outpouring of affection. The carriage passed by quickly as it proceeded down The Mall, away from us too soon. The funny thing was that in that brief moment, Lynn and I completely forgot our manufactured indignation toward Buttinsky. Thanks to President Mandela, we had tacitly reconciled with her. We smiled at those around us, and they at us. All was forgiven and life was good.
“Let’s go have tea,” I said to Lynn.
∗ ∗ ∗