Back in the summer of 2005, I took a trip to Austria, Italy, France, and England. Towards the end of the trip, I had a couple of days in Paris. On my last day there, I spent almost all of my remaining money on going to visit Versailles with a new friend I’d met at my hostel. That night, I was supposed to catch a train out of Gare du Nord, but the train was delayed, and then cancelled. With almost no money, there was nowhere for me to go.
I figured I’d spend the night at the rail station, then catch my train in the morning. Unfortunately, the station closes after the last trains of the night, and everyone is required to leave. After learning this from a friendly African man who helped translate what was being said over the loudspeakers, I began to panic. The neighborhood didn’t look particularly safe, and I don’t speak any French, both of which put me in a dangerous spot.
In the end I flagged down a passing railroad employee to ask him for for help figuring out what to do. He spoke only the tiniest bit of English, but he understood my problem and found a few more stranded travelers for me to hang out with that night. There were two Swedish girls, backpackers like me, and a French guy who said he had missed his regular train that night. The four of us had to leave the station, so we made a plan to sit nearby on a bench for the few hours until the station reopened.
At first everything was fine. None of us had full control of the others’ primary languages, but we managed to share our basic stories. I immediately liked the Swedish girls, who had been traveling for a month and had a month left to go. They were childhood friends, and both seemed particularly capable and streetwise. They knew a little French and a little English, and were much more prepared to be camping out in Paris for the night than I was. The French guy seemed a little odd, but to quote The Hitchhiker’s Guide, mostly harmless. We sat on a bench in a residential neighborhood not that far away from the train station and chit chatted for a bit. About an hour into our time together, the guy started to get a little weirder.
It started when two drunk guys stumbled down the street past us on their way home. One of them asked if we were all American, and when he found out that I was, he said that he’d heard American girls would have sex with anyone who asked. I told him definitely not, and to get lost, and the other girls stood with me in solidarity. “Our” French guy stood up to the two guys and started yelling at them to leave us alone. Later I found out from the Swedish girls that he’d called us all his girlfriends, and said that we belonged to him. The two drunk guys acted tough and tried to start a fight for a bit, then went away.
After that, things degraded pretty quickly. We told the French guy thank you for rescuing us, and he immediately asked me for “payment,” saying that he’d like to kiss me. I said no, as nicely but firmly as I could. Then he asked each of the other girls if he could kiss them. Both of them turned him down, too. After that, he got angry and told us all off in broken English, calling us whores. Eventually he calmed down, but this was the first time in the evening that I got the feeling that he was not completely sane. He seemed in some ways to be a bit slower, mentally, but also all over the place with his thought pattern. He seethed silently at the end of the bench. For reasons I’m still not sure of, I still wasn’t completely worried, so I decided to take a little cat nap on the bench, wedged between the girls and the guy.
I awoke to one of the girls tapping my arm. “Wake up, get up!” She whispered urgently in my ear, “he has a knife!” The fear in her voice woke me right up. Too afraid to turn completely toward the end of the bench, I slowly sat up as naturally as I could, then turned until I could see him out of the corner of my eye. He had a huge hunting knife – where had he been hiding it? Muttering to himself under his breath, he periodically stabbed at the air. I almost peed myself right then and there, as I realized I’d gotten myself into one of those situations they always recount on crime TV, where the stupid young girl trusts all the wrong people, then ends up dismembered in an alley somewhere.
Trying to remain calm, I slowly stretched and stood up. The other girls did the same. We all strapped on our packs. The guy kept muttering to himself, lost in his thoughts, as we started to back away. We had covered about 100 feet of sidewalk before he realized what we were doing. He started to scream, this raw, primal bellow, yelling what the girls later told me was “Come back! You’re MINE!”
With that, the spell was broken and we sprinted back towards the train station. All three of us were loaded with 50 lb packs, but we ran like gazelles. I’ve never covered that much ground in so little time before or since; it’s true what they say about adrenaline rushes giving you unknown strength. For a while, the sound of his footsteps followed, almost catching up, and then finally falling behind. We were safe, but to make sure we ducked into a garish little motor cafe that catered to cab drivers, and ordered coffees. The very last money of my grand European vacation was spent caffeinating myself in the back booth of a harshly lit Parisian greasy spoon. The girls and I took turns peering out the window into the dark street, examining passersby to make sure they weren’t our psycho killer in disguise. He wandered by once, but didn’t look in, and didn’t go back to the train station – just kept walking.
I’ve always wondered what happened to those two amazing ladies who quite possibly saved my life that night. Likewise, I wonder if our would-be attacker ever got help, or if, when he finished chasing us that night, he used his knife on someone else. At any rate, I shook with fear for hours after the encounter, and didn’t start feeling safe until I made it back to London that afternoon. For years after that, I swore I’d never go back to Paris. But I think I’m ready to see the Eiffel Tower again. Just no Gare du Nord, please.