Yesterday, I got to have an experience in Paris that I really hoped I'd never have anywhere: I was nearly (stressing NEARLY) mugged at a bank ATM machine.
[Pause for reaction.]
I was around the block from our new apartment near Place de Clichy, and there is one section of the Place where there are about 5 or 6 banks all grouped together, and cash machines galore. One of these banks has been Georges' bank branch for decades and now also houses our joint bank account, and across the street is a branch of another bank where I have an account, and I just got done switching to their branch because I hate my current branch anyway.
I was on my way home after stopping by the new apartment to take measurements of, well, everything (finding out our oven won't fit in the space provided, by the way, but that's another story). It was about 6:30pm so I called Georges to ask if I should bring home some Chinese take-out for dinner and he agreed, so I was walking down this street toward all the banks because I'd seen a Chinese restaurant there and because it was on the way to my bus. The restaurant ended up not being a take-out type of place, so I was going to look around for another one (lots of restaurants in that neighborhood) and remembered I didn't have much cash, so stopped at Georges' bank's ATM. They have both an indoor and outdoor machine, but the indoor one is only available when the branch is open, and this was after hours.
It was also still light out and in an area where there were all sorts of people around: there's a bus stop across the street, and a bar-café right next door where there were four middle-aged men standing around, talking, laughing and smoking, like the "regulars" they so obviously were.
Let me just say now that I was pickpocketed here in Paris in 2001 (in the metro) and I am now always careful about being aware of my surroundings in certain situations, and going to a cash machine on the sidewalk is one of them. We all know the safety rules, right? Be aware of what's going on around you. Don't go to a cash machine in a poorly lit area or where there aren't a lot of people around, especially late at night (which this wasn't). Look around you before you put your card in the machine and tap in your PIN code because THAT is precisely the moment a mugger can force his way in and put in any amount he wants, and then you're screwed.
So, I did everything right: still daylight, people around, not isolated, and I looked around me before doing anything with the machine.
And then someone touched me lightly on my left shoulder and I heard, "Madam" in a male voice.
In the first moment, I thought he was a panhandler just ASKING for a few extra coins, but it only took another moment before I realized this was no mere panhandler. He was DEMANDING money... and he had a tall friend who was behind me on my right. They kind of moved close to me in a very intimidating way. And the guy made his demand again. I'm not even sure I 100% understood the words he was using, but the message was clear: "We want money and you're going to give it to us." I didn't see weapons but that didn't mean they did NOT have weapons.
I have to say, other than the pickpocket incident, I've never been the victim of a crime. I've never been in a situation like this where I had to make a split-second decision, assessing the danger level and coming up with how I would react. It's not like you have all this time on your hands to figure it out, right?
In that split second, I knew (I can't say I consciously THOUGHT, this was more of an instinctive thing) that my choices were: step aside and let them take what they wanted without any sort of resistance, OR offer some resistance and make a big scene in the hopes they'd back off and go away.
Now, I am not crazy enough or dumb enough to think I could physically fight two young guys for my money, and frankly my life and well-being are worth more than any amount of cash (plus, that bank has a 500 euro limit on ATM withdrawals, so they wouldn't have gotten more than that anyway). So had I seen a weapon or had they been immediately more physically aggressive, I would have just given them what they wanted because doing anything else would have meant disaster.
But you know what? Although I was scared and all my adrenaline was kicking in, what I was mostly feeling at that moment was ROYALLY EFFING PISSED OFF. There was a part of me that was all: How DARE you lazy, thieving bastards come up to me and think you have a right to OUR money, money that Georges works very hard for? Seriously, you think I'm going to just curl up in a fetal position and let you have one red centime without so much as a word of protest? Don't you assholes know I'm from NEW FREAKING JERSEY? You don't know who you're dealing with! GO GET A JOB AND EARN YOUR OWN MONEY!
And without really thinking about it much at all, I decided to take a chance and make a scene in the hopes they would just leave me alone, so what came out of my mouth was: "NON!"
They started to move closer, not at all happy with my reaction, and then I just started yelling at the top of my voice, in the direction of the four (rather big and burly) men standing outside of the bar just 15 feet away. And I yelled in FRENCH, no less:
"Aidez-moi! Aidez-moi! [pointing at the two guys] Voleurs! Voleurs!" (Help me, help me, robbers, robbers!)
And in about 2 seconds, two of the four men rushed over and started shouting at these guys while the other two also started yelling from where they stood. There was a split second where I wondered (and hoped not) if somehow those four men were in on it, like it was all a set-up and then I'd be facing 6 potential attackers instead of 2, but then I realized they really WERE coming to my defense and making those thugs go away. (While calling them some very rude names in the process.) I wasn't even shocked that the robbers argued back with the men; the same thing happened to Georges when he observed a pickpocket in a Quickburger restaurant and called him out on it (after first snapping a photo to prove the crime). Thieves in France seem to like to argue when they're caught in the act -- as if arguing will make them any less guilty.
As the two guys crossed the street and headed in the other direction, I started to relax a little bit although I was a bit shaken up, but I didn't fall apart and I didn't cry as I saw the voleurs going away and realized I was going to be OK. (My ATM card was still in the damn machine, by the way, waiting for me to say how much cash I wanted.) I thanked the men profusely and one of them said it was no problem and that those guys are ALWAYS there, trying that sort of stuff on people. There is no point in asking where are the cops and why don't they do something; chances are they know about it but there are only so many street cops around to patrol on foot and they can't sit at that corner all day waiting for robberies that may or may not happen. It's a big city, and this stuff happens. And this time it almost happened to me. Thankfully I had a few angels disguised as barfly-smokers on my side; I hope they all got some good karma out of being willing to get involved and help a lady out of a bad situation.
After that, I still took my cash (quickly) but decided to head straight for the bus and skip the hunt for Chinese food. There was a moment where I thought I saw one of the two guys again, but I wasn't positive (really, I don't think I got a clear look at either of them because the whole thing was over in less than 60 seconds), and I realized they could still be in the vincinity and pissed off as hell at not getting what they wanted, so on the way to the bus I made sure to walk where there were a lot of other people as a deterrent. I got on the bus and then I had time to slow my brain down and absorb what had just happened.
First I thought about Georges; he definitely would be concerned but I also felt like he'd be a little proud of me. In fact, although I felt shaky, I was pretty proud of myself for standing up for myself in a difficult situation. It's not always the right decision to resist a mugger or attacker, but sometimes if you act quickly before things get too out of hand, it can be the right thing, and this was one of those times. I was also very grateful; I knew that I was very lucky that someone was around who was willing to help me, and had they (or someone else) not been willing to step in and let those 2 guys know they'd been caught, I would have had a much different and far less pleasant outcome.
Last but not least, I was kind of excited to know that I could handle the situation in FRENCH. I've started dreaming in French once in a while, but I never really thought about how my French skills would hold up in an emergency situation. So now I know: my French might not be perfect, but it's good enough. That feels really good.
Because I posted a little about this on Facebook last night and someone asked me if this happened in Montmartre near our current apartment or our new rental apartment, NO, it did not. Those areas are extremely safe (although pickpockets do frequent ALL known tourist zones in Paris and Montmartre is one such zone. I'm very careful about taking cash at the ATMs at Place des Abbesses because we know there have been muggings there. But I still will use those machines if I think it is safe to do so. You can't stop living your life because crime exists). This happened near where we'll be moving to, and it's still a good neighborhood or we wouldn't be moving our family there. But thieves will show up anywhere if they think they can get away with something, and this was no exception. Like I said: I know I did everything right. And they STILL chose me. Why? Because they thought they could, that's all.
And because -- if you think about it -- they were kind of stupid. In broad daylight with a group of men standing so close by and with a lot of other passers-by in the vincinity, it was probably NOT the best time or place to try and mug someone at a cash machine. If I had to be targeted by muggers, thank God they were of the Dumb and Dumber variety.
Oh, and for the record: "Mugging" = "une agression" and "mugger" = "un agresseur". "To mug" = "agresser. So I think I was "presque agressée".
Again, let's stress the "presque". I'm fine, I'm still smiling, I still love Paris, I still have my Georges and he still has me, and that's all that matters.
Let's just say, though, that I'll be even more vigilant than I already was, any time I need to hit the cash machines. And maybe in that neighborhood I'll pick a different machine next time.