It was a final day of my trip to Paris in the summer of 2016, and I was on the way to my hotel in Montmartre. My phone was on and in my hands, with Google Maps open, showing me that I should get off at Barbes-Rochechouart station. I have only used this station once before and it was in the early morning hours, so there was practically no one around or in it, except for maybe a few homeless people asking for change, but I dismissed that as something quite usual for a big city like Paris.
These days I have to disclose what I was wearing so that people won’t judge, and alas, we know this is sad and outrageous, but here it goes. I was in my dark grey dress, which is about ankle-long, and has a long slit on the side which goes up at about the same length where most mini-skirts are. This H&M dress has a good, thick fabric and it is quite figure hugging so it clings to my body and I guess you can call it smart sexy, when you don’t know any better.
I got off my seat in the train car and made my way to the escalators and out of the metro station. When I came to Paris this year, I was welcomed with quite a few incidents of catcalling during the day, many friendly stares when I was wearing my summer dresses and long wavy skirts, just like any regular girl and I would lie if I said I didn’t like the attention. I do not consider myself a feminist these days, the word has a bad reputation and lots of misunderstanding today, plus I am sure many of them would criticise me for saying what I just said right now. There is no catcalling in Russia (at least in my case) and I believe it is due to the fact that it is a different culture and men are naturally not inclined to approach women to make an acquaintance, as they are quite reserved, let’s put it like that. England was different for me, I enjoyed smiling at guys in the street, in response to their smiling at me, enjoying these “what if” moments that are usually talked about in detail in fairy tales and women’s magazines.
“Her skirt was flying in the summer wind, but he was looking her in the eyes, knowing it was love at first sight”
And stuff like that. Sad? Maybe. Fun? For sure. However, I would call it hopeless romantic. Plus, in the evening you usually have something to gossip about with your girlfriends over a biscuit or two.
As I was making my way to the top, I was carrying only my handbag which was hanging over my shoulder. A nice looking French Black man was walking just a little behind me, who I noticed on the train, was smiling at me occasionally and looking away shyly. I got off the escalator and started looking around. The man caught up with me and uttered “vous êtes très jolie” with a teenager smile on his face. I blushed, smiled back and said “merci” and kept looking for my exit. The lovely shy man left but many homeless people and those who appeared to be drug addicts, and drug dealers, as well as gang members stayed. I could not believe my eyes. I was standing in the middle of a street in Paris which was cordoned off with a 2 meter fence that seemed never-ending with maybe three or four exits and I didn’t know which one to use. The station looked very big but I was yet to leave it unnoticed. The “which way do I go” feeling lasted a split second so I just went straight ahead, clutching my phone in my hand and my bag in another, whilst trying to act cool and confident. I know I didn’t look anything like a tourist, but I know I didn’t look like a local either. For once, I was using Google Maps to find the way to my hotel, so I decided to stop looking at the screen and just go for the metallic gates that usually end the metro station.
The next five minutes felt like fifty. I got out of the gates. I took a glance at the maps in my phone, figured out which way to step out and hid my phone in my bag right away, whilst looking like I don’t give a damn. I was walking past the fence which now didn’t look like it was two meters long, it was shorter now, but nevertheless still dangerous. All the people who seemed, let’s say, unapproachable were standing along it. Men with motorbikes and without, in groups or by themselves were shouting something to each other, some were looking my way, doing their catcalling thing but I didn’t blink an eye. This was no place to say “thank you” in response to the arrogant remarks they were making, which I have not experienced previously. It was coming from every street corner, but I could not count the number of times someone said something addressing me or mostly, my body. First, I didn’t need to count those times as I tried to walk fast but calmly, looking straight in front of me, pretending that I frequent Barbes-Rochechouart on a regular basis. For me it was important that they kept shouting and not start approaching me for real. My only thought was to get out of there as soon as possible, to get from Boulevard de la Chapelle to Boulevard Rochechouart, and into the safety zone of a familiar Anvers metro station, which harboured my hotel and luggage. It was a five-minute walk at 7pm in a bright July and I have witnessed men catcalling in its worst form, coming from all directions and all races. That moment I knew it wasn’t safe to be there, I knew I had to keep calm and… well… carry on walking, which I did. As soon as I got out of the area, about four minutes later, I took a deep breath and looked back. Nothing seemed dangerous anymore. Paris was Paris. I was standing opposite a pharmacy and the evening sun was lighting my face, and my dress skirt was flying in the gusts of that summer breeze. I looked at my phone, it was time to get my luggage and get on a train to Charles de Gaulle airport, that I was supposed to take from Gare du Nord. Google Maps said I can get there by taking the underground from Barbes-Rochechouart or walk for ten minutes. It didn’t take me long to choose the latter.