58: Je suis un idiot! Plus some stranger-danger tips.

Here’s the way stalkers look on the inside, but on the outside they can look normal.

I hate to get serious in a blog, but it’s time someone introduced a Stranger Danger course for adults.

I acquired two stalkers this week on my afternoon stroll. I wrote the bare-bones of it with a detached viewpoint yesterday (click here to read it).

With that experience in mind, and with a few tips I’ve gleaned over the years, here’s something you can do if you sense you’ve picked up unwanted attention:

  1. Never walk alone: What’s good for grade-schoolers is good for grown-ups, but sometimes you will walk alone, even for just a block or two, in which case, be aware of your surroundings.
  2. Don’t be a talker with your stalker: When someone chats you up for no obvious reason, do not acknowledge them and do not stop. It gives bystanders the impression you are acquaintances and they will then be less inclined to intervene. No one wants to get in the middle of a private or a domestic squabble.
  3. Keep your wallet/purse closed: It’s obvious that you don’t want to reveal the location of your valuables, but many people are robbed right at the moment they are fumbling around in their purse because thieves know that is when you are least likely to notice their approach.
  4. It’s only money, honey: If someone demands your stuff; give it to him.
  5. Don’t follow the leader: If someone demands you go with him, he plans to take you somewhere that no one can hear your cries for help. Don’t go with him. Where you stand right now could be your last chance to get away. Take it.
  6. Talk the talk: Learn how to ask for help in the language of the country you are in. I was in a particularly bad spot because my stalker spoke German, French and English, giving him a decided advantage over me. If, for example, I had seen a bystander and asked for help, there’s no sure bet the bystander would have understood English, and there’s every chance my stalker could still control the situation by “translating” for me.
  7. Break from the script: In sociology, we learn that even criminals expect matters to unfold in a certain way. If you break from that script, you might unsettle them enough to make them ‘break their stride.’ My stalker peppered me with personal questions to keep my eyes on him and away from his partner. I broke his script by firing questions at him, not going in the direction he was herding me, and not hiding the fact that I was surveying the area (although, I still couldn’t see his friend, which made me very uneasy).
  8. If you are being followed, that makes you the leader: Take your stalker to a busy store. They’ll stop at the door. If you have to walk into someone’s yard or house to evade your shadow, just do it.
  9. Stay out of the strike zone: Standing well back of a stranger makes it harder for them to lunge out and grab you while giving you a better chance at escape. It isn’t possible in every country to maintain a safe distance because cultural interpretations of personal space vary, but give it a try.
  10. Are you just being paranoid or is that guy watching you? I’ve heard police say again and again that if you think something might be wrong, something is wrong. Act on your intuition. It’s probably right, and if it is wrong, the worst thing to happen to you will be that you are mildly embarrassed in front of a stranger. So what?

I wish I could say this week’s stalker incident was my first, but it is the fourth time in Switzerland that I have had freaky men get way too close. That is a lot in the course of one year of day-time walking. I somehow managed to go the half-century before this with only about six or seven scary encounters.

Be careful out there.

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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. 

How friendly are the Swiss?

When the woman took a seat across from us on the train ride back from Murten, she looked normal.

She had come on with a pack of senior citizens, all rattling in lively conversation. She hovered over some people who we thought must be old friends, clutching about half-dozen twigs in her hand. They were only about two feet long – too short for basket-weaving.

Snug alleyway in Murten.

She then eyed our cluster of seats, flopped down with an exaggerated gasp of exhaustion, and appraised us silently with her enormous brown eyes. Her chin-length hair was auburn brown and her posture suggested she was fit, but she had bags under her eyes and what looked like a patch of skin cancer on her cheek – she could have been 55 or 80.

She addressed us in German, then raised her eyebrows at our fumbling response: “No German,” not meaning that there are no Germans, or that we refuse to associate with Germans, much less attempt the language.  She leaned closer, waved at the bundle of twigs and said in English,  “I put sticks  in and get wine. You know, sticks, water.”

No, we didn’t know, but we were sitting knee-to-knee within grabbing distance so we nodded politely and mentally calculated how long to the next train stop.

Was she insane? Would she pinch one of us by the arm and force more alcohol-related recipes on us?

As she pressed us into conversation with her not-totally-broken, but not quite all-there-English, we tried to not look like we were thinking about the distance to the next train station, but it didn’t work. She somehow deduced that our estimation of her mental faculties was not as it should be, even though neither of us gave into the rising urge to claw madly at the stop-buttons and demand the train doors open (we had already done that earlier on the ride into Murten).

She returned to the wine-twig topic and elaborated until her meaning became clear: That she would stick the twigs (dried vines) in the ground, water them, and eventually they would take root, produce grapes and then wine. She was not expecting to get wine from them that evening.

Swiss trains are spotless, their schedules and routes relatively easy to understand, but be ready for a sociable time as the Swiss love to chat.

Her mental stability established, we relaxed.

We have seen signs of such friendliness before. The day earlier,  in a grocery store line-up  a woman discerned our foreign-ness and invited us on a boat trip over Lake Biel. Suspicious North Americans that we are, we politely evaded the question, but we can’t help noticing that overall the Swiss are extraordinarily friendly.

Either that, or they are all stalkers-in-waiting. We shall see.