We were walking back from dinner when we heard him shout. “Je vais te faire foutre."
I’m gonna fuck you.
My street harassment French vocabulary isn’t that good, but I heard “la chatte” and knew it meant pussy. The threats continued, but worse, so did the footsteps. They got louder and louder, closer and closer. When we turned a corner, we ran.
My best friend and I were in Paris at the halfway point of our post-graduate Eurotrip, after six months of waitressing (me) and working in a research lab (her).
Straight from a week visiting her family in Morocco, we were excited to be back on our own and nervous to use our French in front of real-live Parisians. (And lucky, of course, to have the resources and time to take this trip together before we started our lives in different cities).
I had been to Paris on a high-school French program, but Hannah had never traveled to France before. We planned to cram all the tourist attractions into one day to spend the rest of our time wandering alleyways and cafes, so we were exhausted after a day at the Louvre and the especially tiring Champs-Elysées.
On a high from a group of German tourists who asked if we were locals as we took photos of ourselves picnicking in front of the Eiffel Tower — confused or trolling? — we decided to head back to our Airbnb to rest before the evening.
The sun had set while we were below ground. We got off the métro in the 12th arrondissement and started the walk to the apartment. We saw a group of men standing a little past a bar up ahead and instinctively crossed to the other side of the street.
I don’t know if the man who followed us was part of that group. When I made it to the front door, sprinting faster than I had since I quit ninth grade track, my hands were shaking. I tried to steady them to enter the code to our building and find the apartment key in my bag that suddenly seemed as big as Mary Poppins’.
Hannah slammed the door behind us and slid every lock into place. I ran to close the curtains before the man outside could figure out which building we were in.
I heard knocking on a window a few down from ours. In a glimpse outside, I saw that the most threatening man I’d ever encountered was actually a boy who couldn’t have been more than 19 — not old enough to drink in the U.S., but old enough to make me fear for my life in any country.
Angry, my heart still racing, I got in the shower to calm down. I grew up outside of New York, but this was the scariest street harassment I’d ever encountered. It wasn’t his yelling, but his determination. His willingness to follow two girls for several winding blocks, and the sound of his pursuit as his footsteps got faster and more deliberate.
When we planned our trip, booking cheap hostels in every city except this one, we prepared ourselves for the possibility of some unsavory encounters. But this was Paris! This was supposed to be the most picture-perfect part of our time in Europe. Instead, I was shaking in the shower, scared of a 19-year-old boy who might still be outside my door.
I got out of the shower, and Hannah was angrily pacing. We had planned to head to a bistro near the métro stop, but it was clear that wasn’t happening now.
Our little neighborhood had seemed so perfect the night before — exactly where Marion Cotillard could have been walking in “Midnight in Paris” when she ponders whether the city is more beautiful by day or by night. I was firmly in the latter camp.
Now, our neighborhood seemed like it could be anywhere, and Paris by night wasn’t quite as magical.
We spent the rest of the evening in the apartment, fuming at the reason we had decided to stay in. The drunk man had probably staggered far beyond our apartment by now, but we were too shaken to enjoy the night. Any French men who flirted in a bar tonight would suddenly seem much less appealing than they were 24 hours earlier.
Hannah and I watched French Netflix, pausing to rant every half-hour or so when we got riled up again about the man outside.
My experience with a threatening catcaller wasn’t any worse, or really any different, because he said “foutre” instead of fuck.
And of course women experience harassment like this, and much, much worse, every day and everywhere. But the man who seemed like he would tear down the wall of my Airbnb reminded me that we’re not protected from sexism and harassment just because we’re on vacation or in a city that happens to look good on a postcard.
The next morning, the 12th arrondissement looked just as charming as it had the day before. I went to the boulangerie for a croissant and coffee, passing the corner where we first heard the footsteps that caused us pause.
I loved Paris again, despite a brief crash back to reality.
But the drunk, ignorant man had one lasting effect, anyway: Now, I’d answer Marion Cotillard’s question differently. Paris is much more beautiful by day.