We’ve had many wonderful experiences living in France. This wasn’t one of them.
The doorbell rang in the early evening. I hastened to answer, thinking it was too early in the year for pompiers’ annual appeal for their firemen’s fund and too late in the day for the chair caner looking for work or Jehovah’s proselytizers; it must be a friend.
“J’arrive,” I chirped, as I unlatched two locks on the door, never thinking to ask whose outline loomed behind its opaque glass.
He seemed tall, skinny in that French manner and neatly dressed in a white, gray and blue plaid shirt, jeans, I think, and an American-style white baseball cap pulled forward. His head lowered as I cracked the door about a foot and briefly startled at the agitated stranger before me in the quiet alleyway. He mumbled. I gave him a quizzical stare and tried to both to hear and to ask what he wanted in my fumbling French.
Nary a second passed, he lunged, grabbed my right arm, pushed open the door, plunged down the two steps and began to pin me against the entry wall. I pushed back with my left arm and screamed so my husband, upstairs in the office, would hear: “There’s a man in the house.” Funny the things one says in such situations. I would have thought I might have yelled, “Help!” It seemed mine was as much a warning to Peter as it was a cry to come to my aid. And, it was loud.
I’ll never know whether the man was shaken by the strength of my scream, by the sounds of someone solid coming or because I was bellowing in a language as confusing to him as his was to me.
As Peter thundered down the kitchen stairs, the assailant turned and ran out and to the right of the door. I ran after him. “Stop, come here,” I yelled for some foolish reason and in perfect French. He stopped about 20 feet away as the alley narrowed at the corner. He turned, looked at me, turned back and ran out the narrow passage, across the wider street and alongside the museum beyond. He turned again as he ran, saw Peter giving chase, ducked behind the museum and disappeared.
I stood in the ruelle shaking with fear and with rage. The assault had lasted a matter of seconds, the incident not more than three or four minutes. Peter led me in, bolted the door, sat me down in kitchen and called the gendarmes. Fifteen minutes later, he called them again.
By the time the two gendarmes arrived, nearly a half hour after the first call, shock had set in. My spoken French, never good, deserted me as they politely asked what happened, dismissed the suggestion that we drive around town to see if we could find the invader and persisted in challenging my contention that he was indeed French.
Inside the entry, I re-enacted the incident. One of the gendarmes pointed to the chain lock on the door and asked if I opened the door without having it latched. Ah, yes, I had.
The victim was duly chastised.
We repaired to the kitchen. Our passports were called for. One gendarme copied out our details, the other commiserated and questioned. How tall was the assailant? How was he dressed? Was he gitane? How white was his skin? Was I sure? Did he have a tattoo? Was he on drugs? Did he act crazy? “Agitée, trés agitée,” I said, remembering the intensity of my assailant’s stare.
How old was he? Late twenties, I said. How old am I, the gendarme asked with a smile. Thirty nine, I guessed. “Thirty-three,” he replied.
“Is this kind of thing rare?” I asked, my French voice having returned. “No,” one of them said firmly. “There is no work for the young.”
And so, it continued, with disbelief on their part that such an unsavory brute could be French. “Italian? Spanish?” and several attempts at “Romany?”
Few notes were now taken. Clearly this was a routine matter. I could come to the gendarmerie and file a formal complaint. This, they discouraged. We were leaving for America in a few days. It would take our time and mean a lot of paperwork for them and another crime statistic for the region. No good would likely come of it. They promised to keep us in mind as other incidents came about. In the end, they wrote down more about us the they did about the incident, wrote out their direct phone number in case we had another need, shook our hands, smiled agreeably and wished us “bonne soirée.”
The last one out turned first to me and then to the chain latch on the door and warned again, “Never open the door without having this latched.”
The invader had gotten away, the gendarmes had escaped the burden of paperwork, and I’d been caught with my latch down. Next time, I think I won’t call the gendarmes. I’ll just follow the example of an old friend’s octogenarian grandmother and bite the hand that assails me.
Photo credit: A door in France. Flickr Creative Commons/Lindy Ireland
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