Editors' Choice

A Cultural Lesson Lying in the Gutter

by Sandy Sims

Sometimes you have to step out of the crowd.

Helping someone in another country can sometimes mean a slip between cultural cracks. At least that's what I felt late one afternoon in Paris.

My out-of-place feeling began at Les Deux Magots cafe, Hemingway's old hangout. Instead of the Bohemian coffeehouse I'd expected, the cafe seemed more like a gathering place for the social elite. I kept my white tennis shoes tucked under my chair. Leaving turned out to be a relief. From there my husband and I wandered a couple of blocks up the wide Boulevard St. Germain and then crossed over to work our way back down the other side.

It was a cloudy July day, around five, and traffic was swelling in the streets.

As we strolled past an expensive furniture store, we heard footsteps and a man's voice behind us. We sidestepped to the right, and a man passed on our left. He was generically handsome, thirty-something, hair combed nicely, dressed in pressed slacks and a long-sleeve knit shirt. But he was gesturing intensely and sputtering slurred French to some imaginary character on his right. I caught a faint whiff of alcohol as he plowed ahead of us, weaving along the sidewalk and poking his arms at the air.

We caught up to him at the intersection by Les Deux Magots. He was babbling in the center of the crowd waiting for a green light. I got a kick out of people stealing glances at the flamboyant drunk and then quickly looking away. I felt secure that he was French, and they were French, and they knew what to do in this situation - something akin to family dealing with family.

The light turned green, and our crowd moved together with the babbler still in the middle.

As we approached the curb, the man's foot slipped or tripped. Down he went in the gutter, collapsing like some floppy sack of Jell-O. The crowd kept moving.

For a second or two, the man stopped babbling. Then he bleated, "Je suis tombe." (I've fallen down). He lifted his head a little then and his left arm, as if reaching out to someone. "Je suis tombe," he whined to the curb.

He was so into the je suis tombe thing that he hadn't the slightest idea cars right next to him were lined up like horses waiting at the gate for the light to turn green. I stopped. My husband, who was fiddling with a map of Paris, kept going.

And here's the thing: Not one French person stopped to help. The guy was so blotto he couldn't conceive of rolling up onto the sidewalk to save himself. Instead, he kept bleating to some apparition that only he saw. All I could imagine was this man as roadkill, or maimed legless, or armless.

I could see my husband's head still bobbing along with the crowd. He hadn't missed me yet. I had to do something. I bent over and muttered some inane Frenglish to the sorry sot, something like "l�vez yourself." I was desperate.

I poked and pleaded with him to come out of the street. He went on je suis tombe-ing as if he neither saw nor heard me. Still, no one came to help.

I began to wonder about my own judgment. Maybe the guy was perfectly safe, and my perception was screwed up. Maybe this is a regular Paris event, and everyone knew it but me.

The light turned yellow. The cars revved. Fumes wafted into my nose and mouth. I made eye contact with the man in the lead car and pointed to the gutter. The man in the car looked at me with a blank stare. Even my gestures weren't French enough.

I had to do something, so I stepped into the street and stood between gutter-boy and the traffic. I figured the cars would flow around me. Now I poked at the man's backside with my foot. I yelled, "Monsieur, monsieur les autos. Get up." I might as well have been blathering at a sack of soggy baguettes.

The light turned green. I didn't look at the cars driving past, because I figured they wouldn't understand why I was foolish enough to stand in the street. A small crowd of mostly old men gathered on the sidewalk to watch, as if I was doing something strange. I pointed to the young man. The watchers looked at him and then at me. Maybe they thought this was my friend and didn't want to interfere. Maybe no one wanted to get involved. Maybe they loved watching an American make a fool of herself.

Then a woman stepped out of the crowd, just a couple of steps, but enough that I knew she was not just a watcher. She wore a brown cape. Her curly, auburn hair was shoulder length. And she was beautiful - 40ish, very chic.

Here she was the quintessential French woman: sophisticated, intelligent, earthy, able to leap tall buildings. There I was, white tennis shoes, in the gutter, poking at some drunk.

She looked down at the man in the gutter, then up at me. I expected a signal, something to indicate she would help me. Instead, her expression was thoughtful, internal, as if she were weighing her words and actions carefully. I'm not sure which of us she thought needed saving more. Everything depended on her. I said nothing. What could I say that she couldn't see?

Finally, she stepped up to the curb and bent over je suis tombe. She tilted her head sideways and uttered French sounds in a husky, warm voice, like thick chocolate. Maurice or Pierre, or whoever he was, stopped babbling and listened to her. He even mumbled something back to her.

With her right hand holding her purse close to her waist, the woman extended her left hand to him. He reached for it like a babe in a pool, and then scooted up onto the sidewalk. Then the woman straightened up and turned her eyes on me.

"Eet's OK now," she said.

As I stumbled onto the curb I caught a glimpse of my husband heading my way. The small band of watchers began turning away. I searched among them for the woman, but she had disappeared. She probably hurried home to her husband, with a throaty laugh: "Wait till I tell you about this American woman standing in the middle of the street."

Sprawled on the sidewalk in front of me, the young man had taken up je suis tombe-ing again. When my husband finally reached out his hand to me, I grabbed it as if I'd fallen into some cultural abyss and he was throwing me a lifeline. "Let's get out of here," I said, and stepped over the young man. I wanted to disappear in the crowd.


Sandy Sims, a freelance writer in San Jose, writes in local coffee shops, changing to a different one each day so as not to overstay her welcome. The coffee house thing is because it’s lonely stowed away at home. She was once a social worker, once a college English teacher, once a journalist, once an editor and once retired. These days, she writes fiction for rejection, travel for publication, and on occasion, she knits. Her husband cleans the house and shops. "A Cultural Lesson Lying in the Gutter" won the Silver Award for Doing Good or the Kindness of Strangers in the Third Annual Solas Awards.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




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