One of my favorite places to visit in Paris is the Parc de la Villette. It’s clean, children play; there’s a library with free wifi, and it is home to the Cité de la Musique and the largest science museum in Europe. In summer, the Parc hosts the Cinéma en Plein Air where cinephiles gather on a large, grassy field and watch movies on a jumbo inflatable screen. On my final summer night in Paris, the Parc was showing Grease. I had made plans to meetup with my expat friend, but she got sick and canceled. I still planned to go because I wanted to see if the French enjoyed Grease the way I’d grown up enjoying it. The thought had occurred to me that an American movie like Grease would be bait and point out to the scums of society exactly who was a foreign target. I was everything a predator could hope for: female, solo, foreign. And it was night. Before I left my apartment for the park, I left all of my valuables at home including my passport and credit cards. If I were robbed, I had to be sure I wouldn’t lose anything important. I headed to the park.
The sun finally set and the crowd began to file onto the field. I moved around a bit trying to escape the inescapable cigarette smoke. I finally settled on standing in the back so I could make an early escape to avoid the Metro rush at the end of the film.
Groups of boys gathered in back. They seemed harmless. I enjoyed watching the French sing all the songs and dance along. Having second thoughts about battling a post film metro crowd, I decided to leave after Cha Cha and Danny won the dance contest.
There’s a long, well-lighted, crowded walkway from the field to the metro. There were enough people around to make me feel safe. Having been a latch-key kid since I was 12, I know how to walk with authority and get to where I am going so no one messes with me. I also have a heightened awareness of my surroundings. I trust my instincts and never ignore them. I noticed that there was a short, sketchy young man a few paces behind me, and he was doing his best not to lose me.
To be sure I was being followed, I did a test. I stopped to read a map. I really read it. I took a look around me as though I was looking for another map or sign to read, and noticed the man had stopped too. He didn’t pretend to read any signs. He just stood there with his hands in his pockets watching me. There was a wickedness about him, especially in the eyes. They were bloodshot and appeared soulless.
I continued walking and stopped at a different sign. He stopped, too, still watching me. Any doubts that he was following me were quashed. Not really sure what to do next, I continued to the Porte de Pantin stop of Line 5, descended the stairs and landed on the platform. He was right behind me. Frustrated and frightened, I mustered up all my fear and anger at being this man’s victim and turned around, looked down on him and yelled “Stop fucking following me.” “You don’t speak French?” he asked in broken English. “No, I don’t speak fucking French.” His spooky, bloodshot-red eyes were now inches away from mine. Adrenaline rushing through me, I was ready to rumble if I had to. He took off up the stairs, and I thought it was over. However, he remained at the top of the stairs just above the platform and watched me. Then he got on the phone and continued to lower his head to check on me while I waited on the long platform. I walked further down the platform to where a couple was waiting. I noticed a young man sitting on the platform. He was on his cell phone. The follower was still at the top of the stairs on his phone looking down at me. The man sitting on the bench on the platform kept looking at me while talking on his phone.
I didn’t know if the man on the bench had been on the phone all along and witnessed me confront the perp or if he was who the perp had called and they were discussing what to do next. I was not going to take any chances. I kept my eye on both of them as I began to worry if this could be more than just a robbery.
The train was soon to arrive. I stood parallel to a sign on the platform so it wouldn’t be easy to see me. I was in full paranoid survival mode. There was no Liam-Neeson-in-Taken who would come and rescue me. I had to protect myself.
The perp eventually disappeared which did little to comfort me; however, the man on the platform still remained. The train arrived, and I cautiously boarded, careful to watch that the perp didn’t sneak on. The man on the platform did board a few cars down.
There was a group of boys on the train. Two of them sat opposite me. By now, I’m hyper paranoid, I’m angry, and I feel violated. I didn’t know if this was over or if there was a network of these men waiting for me when I got off the train. The two boys across from me were staring at me. Any other day this would not bother me. But that night everyone looking at me was the enemy. Feeling uncomfortable, I stood up and shouted “why is everyone so fucking weird,” and walked away. I put my hood on and sat in a corner where I could keep an eye on them. One by one the teens got off the train until there was one. I watched him while he watched me until my stop.
Before disembarking, I looked out of the doors. No one was there. The Richard Lenoir stop was already a quiet one. At 11 pm on this night, it was even quieter. I made my way through the small station. I was still very paranoid and thought the boy from the train might have called the kidnapping leg of the operation and told them where I got off the metro. When I reached the street, no one was there. I walked the short distance to my apartment gate and made it inside. I was safe.
Everyone handles this sort of experience differently. I believe I handled it how I know best and it worked this one time. I used my words to show my strength even when I felt my weakest. I have no idea what was in store for me if I hadn’t done everything I did the way I did it. I am incredibly grateful for the movie Taken though which gave me a glimpse into a darker side of travel. In hindsight, I never should have went into that near-empty Porte de Patin train station.
It would be easy to blame Paris. But it’s not Paris that followed me and made me feel paranoid. It was that man who was following me and maybe a crew of men that I made up in my mind or maybe I didn’t. I blame him and them. But I don’t blame the city or think solo women travel is dangerous. I blame one man and his seedy crew.
If you think you are being followed:
1. Trust your instincts.
2. Do the test I did. Stop and read something. If he stops too, repeat. If he stops again, chances are you are right.
3. Stay where there are a lot of people. If you are not around a lot of people, find some.
4. Know how to say “I am calling the police.” Take out your phone, and tell them you are calling the police. Know if there are helplines or police lines in your language for any country you visit.
5. Don’t let down your guard until you know you are safe.