59: The Perils of Politeness or When a Walker Attracts a Stalker

Someone watching the woman closely could see that she favored her left leg as she sauntered along the canal and into the town square. She drew a plumb-line through the crush of office workers hurrying home, and as she passed the cafe at the far end, she lifted her head at the cigarette smoke drifting up from the tables.

The square fell away behind her so that she was alone again. To her left stood wrought-iron fences guarding deep canal walls that plunged down to rumbling waters. To her right were more cement walls, low and topped with ornate iron stakes that rose protectively around the small coiffed gardens of the town’s grand stone apartments. Heavy fists of lilac leaned over the garden walls and drenched the air in perfume, pushing back the tobacco odour.

Ahead, two men came into view, ambling in the same direction as her; their heads slightly turned in her direction. One man paused to examine a shoebox left by the curb. Almost imperceptibly, the woman hesitated, then stepped off the sidewalk and onto the street, picking up her pace as she drew a large crescent-shaped berth around the men. Her eyes followed the tall spiked gates of the small gardens and down the empty road ahead.

The shoebox man stayed on the sidewalk, but his companion, young and lean, skipped onto the road until he was beside the woman. He spoke a few words in German, and when she only glanced at him, he tested French, moving in closer all the while, right to the point where another inch in and she would have had to stop to keep from walking into him, but he held back just that one inch. Without altering her stride, the woman looked the man full in the face for the first time. She said something.

They reached a road crossing and she stopped. The man continued to prattle at her as she looked down the canal, then past the man where a block away people herded through a retail district. Where the man and woman stood, however, there was only the scent of the lilacs and the sound of the canal. The shoebox man could no longer be seen.

She turned left, almost bumping into the man who stepped back just in time to avoid her, but then he continued on at her side, his face rearranged to convey bewilderment. He hunched his shoulders forward and turned at the waist, forming an umbrella over her. He smiled as he talked, to reveal large white teeth against plum-coloured gums. She moved away from him, stepping off the curb and crossing the street without checking for cars. As though their ankles were cuffed, he held his position beside her. To an onlooker, they walked so close and he talked so intently, they looked like friends.

At the store doors, she turned as though to go in but paused as he begged intently for her phone number. When that did not succeed, he begged for her to take his number. She scraped a foot backward, the store door’s motion sensor blinked, the glass doors parted, and voices from inside wafted around her. She should go in inside. Why doesn’t she go inside, but the man has her fixed in his stare, his dark skin smooth and glinting in copper where it catches the late-afternoon light.

He reaches his hand out and for a moment his intention is unclear, but as if by reflex, she grabs his hand, shakes it and then disappears into the store.

 

This is more true story than fiction, my account of a quiet, polite and terrifying encounter on the quiet seemingly safe streets of a small Swiss town. 

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A few more photos from Thun, Switzerland’s overlooked city & a note on crime

Sailing at Lac Thun on a beautiful November day.

Thun was so pretty that it is worth one more look. Here are some photos from that charming place.

A note on crime: We strolled the old-city without any sense that pickpockets were nearby, and even Thun’s train station lacked the menace that other European train stations have with their notoriety for thieves (see Paris blog about the Gare d’Lyon in that fair city by clicking here).

Many Swiss cities have urban injection sites for drug addicts, which reportedly are having some success in helping people out of that lifestyle, but their presence also leads to a whole lot of unpleasantness around many train stations (for some reason the sites are situated near the train stations, probably because the stations are in the city’s core, naturally).

Our little town of Biel/Bienne has an injection site near the train station, making it the most unsavory part of town. It’s too bad because it’s also the first place tourists see when visiting here. Thun didn’t seem to have that drug/drinking population, although we were there on a Saturday. Maybe they took the day off. We have seen our town’s preeminent drunk on the train – perhaps he was on holiday, or merely scouting for new franchise locations.

Covered walkway over a river dam at Thun, at the River Aar.

The Swiss even make car parks look pretty. They are a wonderful people.

The Swiss idea for a garage along a river. This was off a little creek just a few metres from the River Aar - it was full of wood boats. Lovely.

Switzerland is like Victoria, B.C., Canada for its large trees. Holy dynamite, Batman! That's a big one.

On the cusp of villainy … or at least drunkeness

The neighbourhood where we normally walk ... fa la la la ...

We have only four channels on our television, and this paucity of choices has knocked us right off our evening television habit.

Happy streets, shining homes.

Happy Swiss walking to work.

We can’t just sit in the suite and stare at one another, or even out the window where the view is other windows like ours. Might as well paste a mirror up there.  And so, we’ve fallen into the practice of taking an after-supper stroll. Normally we head west, not because we are following an innate migratory desire to head back home to Canada, although that would be okay, but because it is the direction of the lake, not to mention a number of lovely waterfront cafes.

The trees along the way are huge with oddly rumpled trunks, and the canopy is thick owing to the town’s vigorous amputative pruning program that chops off branches so burly that the sight of it would trigger environmentalists into action, raining press releases down on the media, chaining themselves to shrubs, complaining about the effect on fish habitat and marmot reproduction rates.

Where was I? Oh yes:  The wide walkways west of our place follow a network of open canals that lead down to the lake, making it a happy walk, but last night we decided to venture east.

What harm could come of that?

Early clue that we weren't in Kansas anymore (North American cultural reference to being really lost)

Not a third of a block in, we noticed an open produce market. How delightful. But we did not check on it, owing to a number of loitering males. We avoid loitering males, especially in the evening hours. We always suspect they are up to no good, especially if their hygiene regimen appears substandard.

A few feet later, three chums – two men flanking a corpulent woman –  spanned the breadth of the sidewalk. It is difficult to describe them now because we averted our eyes so as to not call attention to ourselves, but it didn’t work. They did not so much walk as lurch, beer cans in hand (very likely as a balancing mechanism), eyes glaring wherever they landed, which was on us.

I’ve noticed this about the town drunks – they look right at passersby menacingly, as if to dare them/us to point out their inebriation.

It’s a little different than Canada’s street drunks, a vigorous lot who spend daylight hours in the courthouse challenging city hall for looking down their noses at addicts and alcoholics pitching tents in parks (I know this seems like a pejorative statement, but I’ve gone and checked, and haven’t seen anyone in those tents who looked much different than what we saw on the seamy side of the street last night).

Nevertheless, at least our Canadian drunks have some gumption. And lawyers.

We passed the wild-eyed, teetering trio, then turned a corner, thinking a one-block walk was sufficient exercise, when we spied another staggering fellow. Apartment buildings took on a blemished look, their balconies curtained in makeshift bamboo screens, and in the narrow walkways and alleys, waves of debris piled up against the buildings.

I went back the next day - this is the seedy mafioso-looking cafe, although really, it probably isn't that. Just looked like it after treading Intoxication Promenade.

We rounded the corner and came upon a scene that looked right out of the Godfather – the early New York ghetto scenes, not the later rich-crook scenes: An assembly of dog-eared cafe tables filled with somber middle-aged men with greasy combed-back hair, shaking hands formally in introductions. It could have been the Knights of Columbus planning its spring fishing expedition, or it could have been the Mafia, plotting what to do with all these foreigners wandering into their turf.

A few metres later, we were back on our street where pedestrians walked in straight lines without the balancing benefit of beer cans in their hands, the alleys were clear, the streets charming enough for a movie set, and the trees appropriately park-like and trimmed. What a difference a simple left or right turn can make.

It is fair to say that we are not ordinarily so jumpy, and in my work I engaged street people in conversation many a time, but there’s a new dimension at play when the street-folk speak another language altogether.

It can be socially awkward. For one thing, you have no idea if they’re asking for the time, or your wallet.

One wrong turn, and the scenery changes. Even Swiss towns have a wrong side of the tracks, although, technically, this is on the same side of the tracks as our neighbourhood, just one block over.