Boom … boom … boom.
I’d been woken up before by the random pigeon cooing in the courtyard or the occasional wine-soaked resident stumbling up the stairs. I’d also been routinely roused out of a dream state by the building’s concierge, Madame Dontas, as we were instructed to call her, who insisted on sweeping outside our door at the first light of day. This noise, however, was different.
Boom … boom … boom.
“Do you hear that?” Jessie whispered, rolling over to face me. The pounding, louder and more frequent as the minutes ticked on our bedside digital clock, indicated there was a very impatient (possibly deranged) person on the other side. If this were happening back in New York – a place where I speak the language and know the proper procedures in which to deal with an unexpected, possibly inconvenient situation – I could handle it. But being in a place that was unfamiliar and foreign to me only amplified the fear. I barely knew the language – my French wasn’t even good enough to transcend eye rolls from waiters and condescending switches to English by shoe salesmen when I made gross mispronunciations or failed to conjugate an irregular verb the right way – and this paralyzed me.
Our apartment was directly across the courtyard from the oversized thick wooden front doors that led out to the Rue des Pyramides in the very center of the city. It was one of only two apartments on the courtyard. The other belonged to the Dontas’ who had just left that day for their native Portugal. There had to be other people in the building, but it felt like we were all alone – just us and the thugs trying to get in.
I crawled out of bed, squatted down in front of our apartment door, and lifted the narrow mail slot. I could see the front door rattle – little cracks of light – every time the mysterious potential intruders pounded on the apartment building door, about 40 feet from me. Jessie squatted next to me and together we watched the door in front of us shake. She locked her arm in mine and I squeezed hers tight to my chest. I hadn’t been this frightened years.
Jessie wondered out loud if we should call the police. But that would mean I’d have to talk … in French … on the phone. I didn’t know what frightened me more: what these guys might do if they succeeded in getting in or having to actually talk in French on the phone. I’d have to explain what was happening and I must have been sick the day we went over the chapter “When an intruder comes to say bon soir” in the French class I took before we moved to Paris. Despite my frustrations with speaking French, I was the more linguistically inclined between us and therefore the mouthpiece when one of us had to say something in another language. But if I called, I’d have to meet the police outside and what if they asked for my passport and they’d see that we didn’t have a residency permit.
The door began shaking more violently with each pounding and the screams from the other side grew louder. “Maybe we should call,” Jessie said.
Kitty Genovese popped into my head. “But we don’t even know the number for the police,” I said, relieved that I didn’t have to make the call.
“I think it’s 1-5,” Jessie said.
Damn. I went over to the phone and dialed. It was that European phone ring I still hadn’t become accustomed to – the kind of ring that, from an American ear, almost sounds like a busy signal. Someone answered. I paused.
“Good evening,” I sputtered out in French. “I have an emergency.” I hesitated, hoping the person on the other end of the line would say, No problem, we’ll send someone right away, and that would be it. It wasn’t.
“And…?” the man on the other end of the phone said.
“There is a man who…er….um….” I didn’t know the word for knock, pound, slam their fist, break down the door, cut me up into tiny pieces and deposit my remains in a dumpster.
“There is a man who boom, boom, boom” – I mimicked the sound – “on the door.”
Is anyone hurt? Do you need an ambulance?”
“No. Not yet”
“So what do need me for?” the voice on the other end asked.
I paused. I knew that the French were more nonchalant than Americans, but this was ridiculous.
Just then, in a terse whisper, Jessie said: “They’re starting to kick the door down.”
Before I could answer the question from the voice on the phone, he added: “This is medical emergency. Call the police emergency line if someone’s trying to enter your apartment.”
Then I could hear the swift motion of a hang up.
“Wait! Wait!” I screamed. “Hello?”
“Do you have the number for the police?”
He let out a sigh and then said, “1-7.” Then the phone went dead. He’d hung up as soon as he could.
When the woman at the police emergency center answered the phone, I tried a different approach: “Parlez vous Engles?”
She didn’t, so I went though the same kind of verbal miming I had already done with the ambulance emergency and then she asked the address. “Rue des Pyramides 7,” I said. She said the police were on their way. I put the phone down and Jessie and I hugged, relieved that we were going to get through this. We both paced around our diminutive one-room apartment and then squatted in front of the door again, peering out the mail slot. We watched the door continue to shake with each pound as we silently rooted on the police who were undoubtedly just around the corner by now. But, in fact, they weren’t. Twenty minutes had gone by and the thugs outside were still screaming and pounding. And then finally, our phone rang.
“Bon soir,” the familiar female voice from 20 minutes ago, said. “The police officers just informed me that the address you gave them is a church. You are not living in a church, no?”
“A church? No,” I whispered. “We’re at Rue des Pyramides 7. Just a block from the Louvre.”
“Ah,” she said. “Rue des Pyramides,” putting an accent over a part of the street name that I apparently hadn’t. “Before you said Rue des Pyramides.”
It sounded exactly the same to me. To this day, I have no idea where I sent the police, but apparently they were now on their way, which was good because when I put the phone down and peered through the mail slot, I watched as the front doors to the courtyard burst open. Even the thugs were surprised when the doors swung open and slammed against the side walls.
French criminals, I had thought, were relatively harmless. They’d sneak around in a beret, with a black mask over their eyes and a stylish black-and-white-striped shirt. When I taught English as a second language, there was a section in the text book for stupid criminals and one of the anecdotes told of a burglar in France who, lured by a nice bottle of Bordeaux and a hunk of brie, decided to put down the jewels he was five-fingering for a minute and have a brief epicurean feast. After a little while, he was sleepy, so he lay down on the couch to take a nap, only to be woken up a few hours later by the police.
These guys, however, weren’t dressed in the French national burglar outfit. Nor did they seem very hungry for cheese. About five of them poured through the door and made a sprint straight for us, as we slightly lowered the mail slot. But instead of coming to knock our door down, they tore up the stairwell, screaming as they advanced up into the building. C’mon police, I thought. Where are you?
Noise and ruckus from above echoed throughout the courtyard. Where was everyone? Was this entire building empty except for us? Jessie and I kept mentally willing the police to stride through the busted open front doors. Five minutes later, the thugs stomped down the steps and exited the building, leaving the doors wide open. We didn’t know what they wanted; nor did we know if they got what they had come for. But twenty seconds after they left, the police arrived. And, surprisingly, they were met in the courtyard by several residents. I was too bashful to go out and talk to them, saying I was the one who had called the police; I was the one who couldn’t say the name of the street correctly, which is why they had just missed the intruders. Instead, Jessie and I sat inside and listened to the trembling voices of the residents intermingle with the police officers’ radio dispatches on their transmitters.
Like good criminals, we opened a bottle of wine, unwrapped a hunk of cheese and ate and drank until we became sleepy and then drifted off into the Paris of our dreams.