Friday night I made dinner with Anna and her friend Chris who is visiting from Ottawa. After five days in Paris experiencing European men, C was relating tale after tale of weird comments men had made to her or strange ways in which she’d been hit on. Once she ran out of her own stories, C turned to me and said, “You’ve been here for a year, I bet you have some good weird men stories!”
At first I couldn’t think of anything. I shrugged my shoulders and begged off with a “I guess I’m just so used to it I don’t pay attention anymore.” Hearing this, A started laughing. “What about the bloody eye patch guy? What about that guy on Pont Neuf?” Oh, yeah.
European men are notorious for both their skilled romancing and their completely obnoxious habit of hitting on anything in a skirt. In Barcelona Christina and I were yelled and whistled at wherever we went. After studying in Greece for a quarter, my friend Kelly had countless stories of Greek and Italian men following the girls in her program, whistling and hissing at them. In Paris, my girl friends and I are approached by men on a daily basis – it happens so often that we just start to tune it out. But maybe we shouldn’t – some of the stories are just so funny that they have to be shared.
First there’s the “bloody eye patch guy.” Late one Saturday night on my way home from Rachael’s apartment in the 11ème arondissement, I was waiting for the last metro to come through the Charonne station. The metros run until 2h-2h30 on Saturdays so I was pretty sleepy and the station was pretty empty. Sitting next to me in the orange plastic RATP chair was a bedraggled older man who was clearly planning to sleep there. He was wearing stained and dirty clothing and over one eye was a white medical eye patch that was completely soaked with blood. My attention was momentarily fixed on the eye patch and trying to figure out what kind of injury could possibly make an eye bleed that much. He saw me looking and leaned back in his chair, puffing out his chest. T’aime la forme? (You like my body?) he asked me, as he ran his hands up and down the sides of his potbelly. What could I possibly say? If I said non, that was just an invitation for confrontation. If I said oui, that was an invitation of another kind entirely. Instead I opted to point at my own chest and say loudly “American.” He shook his head, rose slowly from his orange seat and started peeing on a large wall advertisement for the 15th anniversary of Disneyland Paris. I also rose from my seat – and moved to the opposite end of the platform to wait for the train.
Then there’s “that guy on Pont Neuf.” Pont Neuf (new bridge) is actually the oldest bridge in Paris. It was completed 400 years ago this year by Henri IV, and is supposed to be one of the most romantic bridges in Paris – not that any bridges spanning the Seine River are particularly unromantic. Pont Neuf gets its reputation for romance from the benched alcoves that line the sides – perfect for kissing if you’re half of a couple. During daylight hours the alcoves are usually filled with pushy peddlers of light-up Tour Eiffel figurines and cheap metal key chains and self-proclaimed artists hoping to entice a tourist to sit for a quick portrait. One day I was strolling across the bridge while speaking in English on my French cell phone, when a balding sweaty man who’d been lurking in one of the alcoves leapt out in front of me and shouted, “America! You want me to give it to you?” Obviously I did not want him to “give it to me,” but I couldn’t decide whether I was actually being harassed or if he just didn’t know any English and was trying to communicate something else entirely. I just smiled at him, shook my head and kept walking. The nice thing about these French harassers is that they don’t push it beyond the first no. You don’t want it? That’s fine, I’ll just offer it to the next girl who comes along.
While some of the men who hit on us are just confused and creepy, like the bloody eye patch guy and the Pont Neuf guy, some will approach females just to pay them compliments. At first if can be off-putting, especially to a girl who is becoming more and more used to the balding peeing men, but this second breed of men roam the city for the purpose of letting women know that they genuinely appreciate their bodies. Nothing is expected, except maybe a simple merci. They’re not trying to grope you, or get you into bed – they’re just trying to tell you that they like what they see. For example, the young guy who approached me and my mom while we were walking down boulevard St. Germain des Prés on her first day in Paris. He came up from behind me and interrupted our conversation to say, Excusez-moi mademoiselle, je veux juste vous dire que vous avez un trés beau cul. (Excuse me mademoiselle, I just wanted to tell you that you have a very nice ass.) I must have given him an odd look because he grinned, shrugged and said Quoi? Je l’adore! (What? I love it!) before making his way off down rue des Saints-Pères. I couldn’t do much but yell out a feeble, Uhhh merci! as I blushed bright red. I only turned redder as I had to turn to my mom and translate our brief but embarrassing conversation.
There are still the guys who yell from their cars or mopeds or from across the street – but they’re of a slightly different stock than the ones back in U.S. At home girls experience a lot of “Heeeey sexy!” from guys dangling out of their car windows, but in Paris we get ravissante! (ravishing!), chouette! (cute!), charmante! (charming!) and je t’aime! (I love you!). As outraged as the feminist in me probably should be at being hollered at while I’m walking to school or to the park with Georges, I, uh, kind of don’t mind. But really, what girl doesn’t want to be stopped on the street and told she’s charming? It just wouldn’t have the same effect if that cute guy on the moped were to pull over and tell me I look like a really smart and independent woperson. I’ll take ravishing, thank you very much.