Not long after confidently proclaiming it was much safer in Paris than in London, I had my first taste of violence at the weekend and am now considering whether that statement remains true or not. In London violence is everywhere; I don’t mean literally, I mean perceptively. Whenever one browses the net, reads the paper or catches the news there are stories of both random acts of violence, usually serious and fatal, and also voyeuristic tales of premeditated crime. It is almost as if there is a thirst for fear.
In Paris, though whether it is because I am new to the city, I see little news of violence in the city – perhaps the occasional gang problem in the suburbs; but I do not see or hear each day the reason for the sound of the sirens. Here I had begun to feel as though I had no need to continually assess potential dangers, often finding politeness where my preconceptions had expected trouble. Certainly it felt possible to stroll home at night in my neighbourhood, where alternatively, in London, I may have done so with a lot more caution.
N and I were walking along a stretch of road that is very familiar to us, roughly 5 or 10 minutes from the flat, a road where we shop quite often. It was 11.30pm and we had already passed a police car and camera crew filming an arrest for their version of ‘Police, Camera, Action’. A little further along, walking arm-in-arm, we passed 2 young men, one of whom made a move toward us. Coward that he was he made no move at me, but went straight for the bags that N was carrying. What happened next was in slow motion…
From my recollection the one guy snatched at N’s bags. As I reached around to prevent him stealing them I remember him kicking the bags so that the contents would spill on to the pavement. It seemed to me that I very calmly swiped up the box of macaroons that had smashed to the ground and led N away from the scene as swiftly and safely as possible. Having turned around and seen him leave on the bus we returned to the scene and recovered 2 other items that I did not realise we had left behind.
N’s recollection is slightly different, in that she recalls the antagonist’s friend not wanting to get involved and wondering why his mate was doing what he was doing. She also remembers him saying he was stressed and needed to take it out on something or someone. She recalls that I tried to reach round and stop him but that it was her who insisted we walk away from the scene. I do not recall anything remotely like common-sense running through my brain, simply instinct for survival and protection.
It was much like the time a friend and I experienced an attempted robbery on the tube when some youngsters tried to snatch a film camera I was carrying. My friend later said that I was hanging on to the camera but quite calmly, amongst all the violence (I recall the one chap repeatedly punching my hand to make me release the camera), asking that they ‘Please don’t steal the camera’. It was the same surreal reaction that insisted I stop and bend down to retrieve the macaroons before ensuring that we both got away safely.
Of course, no-one watching from the little shop along the road did or said anything and neither did any of the 3 or 4 persons at the bus stop outside. Not that I blame them – I am not sure what I would do if I witnessed anything similar. And naturally, though we dealt with the situation correctly I think and came away physically unharmed, I spent the next 2 days feeling like I should have done more to protect the one I love – picturing alternative scenarios where I am an expert in Kung Fu or am carrying a big f*ck-off gun.
More disturbing is the realisation that I would, and still could, quite happily hold a pistol to this guy’s head and pull the trigger; that without any remorse or sense of guilt I would happily rub his life out in cold blood. But I think, on reflection, we did the right thing – we walked away from a scene that could easily have escalated and left one or both of us in serious physical danger. It is just so frustrating to be powerless to do anything about what happened. I am led to understand the police in France would not be interested if one was to report the crime at the time – is that really the case?
Feeling threatened and powerless not only ruined one of those rare weekends that we rarely get to spend together, it also sent me spiralling into a sea of depression for a few hours. It has tainted my introduction to this city, perhaps waking me up to the true colour of life in Paris. Though I continue to go about my daily business, I no longer do it with hope and optimism – instead I travel with suspicion and the tired resignation which I thought I had left behind in the UK.