Point blank: Are you following me?
Yes, he said.
The audacity of his simple answer bordered on the comical. I would have laughed at the admission if I weren’t a single woman, alone at night, in a foreign country, betting my security on a show of strength. Are you following me? I demanded, seething. And he was.
There had already been mussels and wine, overcast skies above the Seine photographed with pleasure, crepes on the barge Daphne, a sweaty jet-lagged nap in the tiny apartment, easy use of the rail from the airport. July’s Paris keeps sunlight well into evening, and by twilight I had been from Charles de Gaulle to 10, 4, 1, 2 and 6 with leisure. Quenching my thirst for Paris became more effortless as the day lengthened.
“Stop following me. I am standing here and watching you walk away, and I will call the police the moment I see you again.”
I had been careful with my guidebook, pulling it out of my bag only inside the restaurant and stowing it when on the move. Signaling unfamiliarity can draw kind pity from some, frustration from others, and menace in the worst cases. While I’ve brazenly stood on sidewalks surveying Google maps in the city that I live, or argued about directions with travel companions, the self-awareness of solo travel is both difficult and unadvisable to suppress.
I should acknowledge that not all travelers will share my perspective. Even if blind, ignorant, and unwarranted, confidence is left intact more often than not. Without it even seasoned travelers would not go, the risks too pressing to enjoy adventure. And yet, confidence is easily spoiled, even without the added risk of travel. A marriage proposal in the Met may sound romantic, unless it comes from a persistent, imbalanced stranger. Attention on the street may be a mere annoyance, unless that attention comes from an otherwise standard young man repeatedly grasping at your long hair. Pausing to view a display of books in the shop window with a fellow pedestrian is innocuous, unless he has been pacing you for blocks and waits silently with you at the display until you start walking again. Strange things happen, and it would be foolish not to update confidence levels. And so the clever quips that preceded my solo trip to Paris, “I hope you don’t get Taken,” made me laugh as I picked out a guidebook small enough to conceal in my purse. I was vigilant.
It baffled me, then, to feel the prowl that first evening in Paris. The eerie sensation is not alien, if you’ve ever known it before. The space behind you suddenly captivates. The awareness develops from behind, the back of your head and your neck becoming sensitive, your eyes fixing in place so you can listen, process. I could tell he was bulky – short but meaty, deliberate and heavy in stride. The awareness rotates to the side, your slanted eye sweep cataloguing everything that peripheral vision promises. He was sweaty and dusky, skin touched by the sun and clothing creased and nondescript. His lips drew back into a smile as he noted my fleeting survey. Awareness pulls briefly to the front, purposefully identifying where your body will be next, and then his body after that. It snaps again to the side, the back, the awareness extending and shimmering and roiling, the discomfort palpable and purpose singular: Get away.
I moved to the interior portion of the sidewalk, the slow lane. Pausing to scan a menu, I peered obliquely down the street toward the entrance, still unfamiliar, of the gated alleyway concealing my rented apartment. I strode forward, gauging the sunset. I needed to lose him before I reached my apartment or the sun went down, whichever came first. I entered the first store I saw, a tiny bodega selling wine and corkscrews and shampoo. Here’s where I deflect him, I thought – it’s not my first time shaking a stranger. I took a bottle of wine from the shelf and peered under my brow at the window of the shop. When he passes outside, I’ll wait. If he does not, I’ll talk to the shopkeeper.
But he was inside the store with me. He was around the corner; he was next to me. Even as his eyes settled, unchanging and satisfied, there was an incongruous thrill in his body. He advanced minutely in posture with every shift I made. In the intimacy of the bodega he could have touched me with just a small hand gesture. But his limbs hung; any brush against me would emanate from his torso, pelvis, thighs. It was deranged, the closeness with which he followed me around the shelves in the store. We could have been slow dancing. I paid for the wine without saying a word, my horrible French concealed along with my growing concern. My thoughts were no longer on frustrated expectations of safety. Now I was baffled by the simultaneous irony and gravity of becoming the victim such a formulaic event.
I exited and doubled back purposefully, visiting a second store. Wash, rinse, repeat. But I couldn’t rinse myself of him. After losing him briefly, he was beside me again, eyeing me evenly with the same leer. I looked back at him, held his eye. There was no mistake. I paused to consider another menu; he waited. It had been 25 minutes. Spinning around, I looked him in the eye, scanned him up and down, and faced him squarely. The sun was nearly down, my apartment close enough that I could only avoid revealing my residence to him a little longer. I set my stance, deepened my voice, narrowed my eyes and leaned toward him aggressively. Are you following me?
I’m certain every young woman has seen an article: what to do if you think you are being followed. Usually all it takes for me is a quick confirmation that I have an intentional shadow, a swing into a public place, and in the worst of cases, a pointed glare enough to communicate that I’m not an oblivious, easy target. That I’ve done this more than once is moderately unsettling, and the subject of several incredulous, fortunately amusing recounts with friends. Either I’m a beacon for bizarre advances, or I’m uncannily aware of my average share of lurkers. Whichever it is, I had never met with such persistence. And all of the articles agree: persistence is a problem. The shadow that doesn’t go away when you’ve tried standard escape tactics is a dangerous shadow.
“Are you following me?” And then, thrusting my arm forward, “get out of here. This is offensive.”
Confrontation is risky, but I had run out of sunlight and I was done drawing him ever closer to my door. Twice I confronted him, saw him absorbed by the streets, only to have him reappear. Never ruffled, only hot with hostility, I asserted myself a third time and bought the minute to slip swiftly into the gated alleyway containing my rented apartment.
With a secure gate closed behind me, I could have exhaled. But losing my shadow seemed a minor victory: if he had seen my escape, he knew my address. And it wasn’t him that concerned me in that moment: it was the portent of being picked out, stalked to my doorstep, and marked. Maybe for later. Before my imagination could overwhelm me, I searched the Internet for emergency numbers in Paris and called. Yes, I was foreign; yes, I could describe him in detail; yes I was behind a locked door; yes, he was gone – no, wait, he was not gone. I was looking down at him from inside my darkened apartment. Inside my gated alleyway. He stood eerily still in the otherwise deserted corridor.
Three French policemen later, he remained un-apprehended. The next day, I left that apartment, alleyway, and arrondissement in the company of my landlord, and didn’t come back. Despite it, I loved Paris. As a lifelong stalker of Paris, I won’t be deterred by the one time it stalks me. I only wish I had Liam Neeson on speed dial.