Two weeks ago, as the weather in Switzerland turned to snow showers and icy rain, I was frantically moving out of my apartment; stowing bags of my things in a friend’s storage room, giving away what I couldn’t store, and trashing the things that just weren’t worth the hassle.
It took just over a week to move my entire life out of my spacious top-floor, two-bedroom apartment and into a series of bags and boxes. Just over a week to change everything. Just over a week to become homeless.
And all because of sexual harassment.
It started last winter. I had just gotten my Swiss residence card and started looking for an apartment. Up until then, I’d been living in a simple-but-clean hotel room above a pub. It was a nice place for the most part, but I was impatient for a kitchen and a bathtub and a place to call home.
This is when I met a local building manager, Fabien, a short, skinny, 40-something French man who said he knew a couple of my friends.
He was drunk when he approached me that night at the pub and kept telling me over and over again how much he wanted to help me. In hindsight, maybe that was a red flag. On the other hand, don’t people sometimes just want to be the hero, to help the damsel in distress? Did passionate offers of assistance always have to have ulterior motives?
Whatever the answers to those questions, he seemed harmless enough to me at the time, and a couple weeks later, I had moved into the top floor of his building.
It was only after settling in that I learned of his horribly disquieting past. Turns out, he’d been caught (not so long ago) putting roofies in a girl’s drink at the pub. When confronted by the staff, his answer was that “she was so nice.” (As if he expected the pub staff to say “Oh, well, that’s understandable, then!”) I’m sure he was banned from the pub for a while, but beyond that, there were no consequences.
When I heard the story, a little ball of fear settled in my stomach. I started leaving my key in the interior lock when I was home (which kept the door from being unlocked from the outside, even if the person trying to get in had a key). I stopped thinking that his small jokes and flirtations were purely innocent. I started renting out my spare room sometimes, in part just to have another person in the house.
Around that time, his girlfriend moved out, then back in, then out again. The reason, I found out later, was that he’d hit her across the face outside the pub one night.
That’s when I learned that he also had a history of violence, especially when he’d been drinking. He’d publicly attacked at least two people in town and had been banned from the pub for a time.
All at once, I was terrified and, yet, somehow, I also started trying to normalize the situation. Maybe things weren’t as bad as they seemed…maybe it was a misunderstanding…maybe…maybe.
Then, things reached a tipping point.
The basement floor was under renovation and the water for my floor was knocked out for a day. Fabien offered me his shower. I declined and walked my shower caddy down to the hotel where I’d formerly lived.
Then the water on his floor was “accidentally” knocked out for a few days. He showed up at my door covered in dirt and asking to use my shower.
I should have said no.
But if I said no, I’d have to explain why. (“Because you’re a dirty, aggressive pervert and I don’t trust you as far as I could throw you.”) With his history of violence, the certainty that my real reasons wouldn’t go over well, and the fact that I was already standing there, vulnerable and with my door wide open, I weakly said “OK” and sat, scared, unproductive, and alert at my desk until he’d finished and left.
Still trying to normalize things, I chided myself for being afraid (see, nothing bad happened!) and went off to the pub to have a beer with some friends.
This is when he crossed the line he’d been dancing around.
While I was sitting on the patio, laughing with those friends, I felt someone come up behind me, grasp my arms, and plant a wet kiss on the back of my bare shoulder.
I turned around, bewildered, to find Fabien smiling slyly.
“Thanks for letting me use your shower,” he said, laughing suggestively.
My body reacted viscerally. I wanted to vomit. Or maybe scrub the skin off my shoulder. And at the same time, again, my brain tried to backpedal: That didn’t just happen; you must have imagined it.
No one at the table said anything, so maybe my brain was right. Maybe this wasn’t a completely terrifying and weird situation. On the other hand, every instinct in my body was telling me to run. I felt like I was going crazy.
Finally, because I felt so insane, I started talking about it.
The women (and a few of the men) that I told made sympathetic listening noises and encouraged me to move out. The men I told, for the most part, either twitched in uncomfortable silence or tried to diffuse the situation with inappropriate humor that made me feel horribly isolated and misunderstood (“Poor Gigi, it’s tough being hot, isn’t it?” joked one friend).
Even though no one reacted the way I wish they had (sensing the very real danger), just talking about it made me realize that I wasn’t overreacting. This wasn’t normal. I was in danger. And I needed to get out.
Fabien already felt entitled enough to my body to touch me without permission. He’d already started coming upstairs -- to look at the leaking toilet or the broken heating unit -- and telling me, unasked, about his sexual history. I didn’t want to know how this was going to escalate.
I needed a way out, but I wasn’t sure how to make it happen.
I didn’t have a formal lease, and I’d never given a deposit, thank God. But I also felt that if I left unexpectedly, I’d need an explanation. I wasn’t ready to face him with the truth, especially with his history of public violence. And I didn’t have another good excuse…yet.
So it came as a strange relief when an excuse to leave presented itself a short time later.
The broken heater in my apartment, which had been plaguing me since September, still wasn’t fixed in mid-October. The forecast called for snow. My toenails developed blue marks. I took hot baths several times a day just to stay warm.
Not having heat was wildly uncomfortable and left me physically ill, and yet there was something relieving in those horribly cold weeks at the apartment -- I finally had an airtight, nobody-would-blame-me, don’t-have-to-explain-further reason to get the hell out of that apartment.
Just over a week after the snow began, I was out.
Only once I was out of town, safely installed in my friend’s little studio two towns over, and with a day’s worth of reflection under my belt did I write to Fabien to tell him that I had moved out and the keys were on the desk. (His response, before I blocked him? “How could you do this to me?”)
The next day, I left for a long-planned vacation in France, where I’m writing this.
I’m in a cozy holiday apartment and my landlords are a kind Swedish couple who wave at me from their balcony. When I have a glass of wine at the local bar, I don’t wonder who’s behind me. I feel safer than I have in months.
Still, when I get home to Switzerland in December, I’m homeless. I’m sure I’ll stay with friends. I’m sure I’ll figure it out. I’m sure I made the right decision. But I’m also sure that it’ll take a while to untangle this mess, to figure out my living situation, to fully recover.
And while I’m here in France, safe to look back over the past seven months, safe to stop normalizing aggressive behavior, I’ve been asking myself why.
Why is it the victims who end up displaced and inconvenienced, left to figure out what to do with their hastily packed-up lives? Why is this man -- an attempted rapist with a history of public violence, harassment, and a drinking and drug problem -- strolling around living his life with little inconvenience? Why does he still have friends and an off-and-on girlfriend and a building to manage? And how do we tip the scales of the justice the other way?
I don’t know the answers. But what I do know is that there is power in telling the story. Power in asking the questions. Power in struggling through the normalizing phase, taking our safety back, and admitting that this is so not OK.
So, this is where I am today: Recognizing that it’s OK to run the hell away from a bad situation, even without a society-approved excuse and even if it means a big life change or a storage room full of bags. Because safety is more important than comfort, more important than saving face, more important than normalizing, more important, even, than having a home.