Rescue at Notre Dame
Umbrellas became our constant companions during a trip to Paris as we eyed the fashions in shop windows on the Champs-Elysees or gazed through the mist over the city from the lofty view of the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur. It appeared that someone had dropped a long sheet of smoked plastic wrap from the sky and refused to pull it aside.
But at Notre Dame, the weather granted us a bonus. Waterfalls gushed from gargoyles’ mouths, a sight we never would have seen without the rain. My husband suggested we try to observe closer up how the gargoyles protect the structure from the erosion of runoff, the intent of their architectural design. They’re also believed to keep evil spirits at bay, which means we should have been safe and protected there.
In spite of the downpour, we persisted in investigating every centimeter of the cathedral’s exterior, climbing its outside stairs with railings that left rust stains on my hands and down the full length of my blue London Fog, but the sight was worth it. We had plenty of elbow room, too, because we were the only tourists silly enough to be out there.
Several stories up, small peek holes in doors barred with crossed, rough-hewn timbers gave us a voyeur’s glimpse of rooms that may have been dormant for centuries. When we found one too tall for us to see into, my husband raised his camera over his head and clicked the shutter.
Satisfied and dripping, we clambered down the stairs and took refuge in the gift shop. In looking around at the medals, crosses, key chains, and other memorabilia, we somehow became separated. Anticipating that possibility, we had agreed to meet in the less-crowded center of the shop.
As I waited there away from the display counters, a man who looked as if he’d romped in a stable, one not yet mucked out, shouldered his way through the crowd. He headed for the spot where I stood and stopped inches in front of me. A fresh, bleeding slash across his cheek betrayed a recent encounter he’d obviously lost.
His mouth snarled. “Give me money.” He spoke English well enough to make his demand clear.
Even a child would know enough to turn from a thug with drugged, leaden eyes and a bloody wound, but I ignored all the danger signs and focused instead on the brazen intruder’s violation of my private space. I pulled my shoulders back, stretched my neck for extra height, and narrowed my eyes. “I have no French money.”
He stepped close enough for me to feel his offensive breath. “Give me American money!” Emphasis on “American.”
“No,” I barked in my best French accent, the one I’d practiced before leaving home. I tightened the grip on my umbrella, trying to decide whether to poke him with the tip or swing it like a bat.
From behind me, a hand slid out at my left side toward the stranger, palm up, bearing several coins. The hand belonged to my husband.
Why did he think I needed rescuing? Instead of being grateful, I was furious. My rationale ran something like this: I’m capable on my own of telling this guy to get lost, and if he doesn’t take the hint, my 007-style umbrella will convince him.
The more I thought about it, the more indignant I became. “Why did you give him money? He had no right to approach me.” The square-foot section of stone I’d been standing on had rested in place there for more lifetimes than I could imagine, but following an adage from childhood that possession is nine-tenths of the law, I felt it belonged to me for the moment at least. The bloody tramp had some nerve to think he could co-opt it.
My husband knows from experience when my usually low boiling point turns to steam. It’s a behavioral tendency that runs in my family and may be why my mild-mannered siblings and I turn into creatures with hair bolting straight up, teeth and fingernails bared, when someone utters a challenging word.
Earlier in our trip, while I was buying scarves near the Montmartre, a clerk shortchanged me. I called her on it. She waggled her fingers at me and said, “No, no, no,” in quick succession.
My observant spouse recognized wispy coils rising from my head the way a watchman reads semaphore and pulled me away to another booth before I could grab one of the clerk’s fingers in a twist hold or jump across the counter and wrestle her to the floor. He understood we were foreigners there, ugly Americans, in fact, who could end up being hauled off by the police. It’s smarter to walk away poor than get into such a predicament. But it bruised my sense of justice. I later gave away all the scarves except one in mixed burgundy and rose, but the blush of rage still rises to my face when I see it hanging in my closet.
Back in the Notre Dame shop, the vagabond took the ransom and slunk off without a fare-thee-well. What he pocketed got me off cheap, but I didn’t have the good sense to be thankful for a clear-thinking mate.
My husband asked in a calm voice, obviously a gift from his inheritance of less antagonistic traits than mine, “Did you see the new scar on his face? What if he had a knife?”
I hadn’t thought of that possibility. I could have been on the wrong end of a stabbing and all because I’d concentrated myopically on my own intended weapon and not the possibility he might be carrying a real one and have skill in using it.
Happy to have the incident behind us, we dashed out into the rain once more to traverse another stretch of Paris, armed with sturdy umbrellas and spare coins.
Thinking back on the event in my current, blissful state of being alive, I’ve come to realize a truth: My husband is a throwback to the tradition of Sir Galahad in an updated version: bearing neither bow nor arrows, but simply a handful of common cents.
About the Author
Connie Kallback, former managing editor of business publications at McGraw-Hill, Prentice Hall, and acquisitions at CPP, Inc., has retired to North Carolina. Her work has recently appeared in US-based publications Gravel, Foliate Oak, Lowestoft Chronicle, and The Rockford Review.