It was more than half past two in the morning, and I had no idea how I was going to find my way home.
I had spent the past 40 or so minutes wandering an unfamiliar neighborhood in Paris — in the 18th arrondisement, which felt like an entirely different world from the 6th, where I lived in the city’s center. Each of the streets I walked down seemed to wind into one another, an endless loop that kept me worried that I would never make it back.
The area was in the process of becoming gentrified — as many areas bordering the outskirts of Paris are — but parts of it were still very gritty. The teachers on my study abroad program cautioned us against going there — at least, not at night or without a sizable group to buffer us from any possible dangers. Still, my sense of recklessness was greater than any sensibility I possessed. When a friend insisted that another friend and I accompany her to a concert at the Moulin Rouge — right in the heart of Paris’s Red Light District and right across the street from a strip of sex shops in the 18th — I was eager to agree.
“It’s Bassnectar, and it’s my birthday,” she said, and I was more or less sold because I had never been to a dubstep concert, but attending seemed like a relevant experience.
Right before the concert ended that night — as Bassnectar stepped back on stage for an encore — the birthday girl, Kim, grabbed me by the elbow and began to pull me along with our other friend towards the exit through the throngs of slick-chested, moshing Parisians.
“What are you doing?” I yelled, my voice inaudible under the thump of electronic beats. My other friend also looked confused, but she obediently marched through the crowds behind Kim’s lead, so I followed suit.
Kim explained when we got to the exit and stepped outside, in front of Moulin Rouge — where the night air was a refreshingly crisp change from the pungent mix of body odors I’d inhaled for the past three hours.
“It’s almost two,” she said, tapping the face of her watch, reminding us that the metro would close in fifteen minutes. In many ways, Paris is a near-perfect city —cleaner and culturally denser than most of its size — but one major drawback is that its metros don’t stay open all night (excepting certain occasions). We needed to find the nearest metro station, so we could hop on the lines that would take us home.
Kim and our other friend took off running while I limped behind them in heels that were too high to effectively navigate the uneven sidewalks. When you are 5’3 (and a half, on a good day), heels become a near-necessity, an excellent tool, but that night, I cursed my foolish choice in footwear as I struggled to keep up with my friends. When we made it to the metro station, they passed through their requisite turnstiles with no problem, but as I headed towards the one before the line that would take me home, the lady manning the information booth called after me.
“That line’s closed!” she said.
“Are there any that are going to the 6th?” I asked, but she shook her head and continued scrutinizing the computer screen in front of her. I turned to my friends, who hadn’t yet gone to their respective platforms but were waiting just behind their turnstiles for me. I waved them off, “Don’t worry about me, y’all. I’ll find the night bus or something.”
Before they could protest, I took off, running up the metro station stairs. When I got outside, it hit me, like a sudden gust of night wind, that I had no idea where the night bus station was or how, if I managed to get to it, to find the appropriate route home.
So, I started to walk around, looking for any sign of life. But, around that time of night, Paris — which went to bed earlier than other European cities I’d visited — started to shut down. And the metro station we’d found was far from the Moulin Rouge venue, in a remoter neighborhood. The streets around it were empty, and everything seemed to be closed or closing. Save for handful of late-night restaurants. There weren’t any cabs — at least, none that I had managed to spot. There wasn’t even anyone I could stop for directions.
At this point, I should also explain that I didn’t have a cell phone when I was living abroad. As practical as it would have been, the idea of going off the grid while I was in a different country seemed sexy. I was aimlessly wandering an unfamiliar part of a city that was already foreign for me to begin with, at night, without any means of communication should I have needed it. My common sense is lacking; it’s a wonder that I’ve made it this long without serious incident.
I am going to die in the streets of Paris tonight, I thought as I passed the same park for what felt like the fifth time. I am going to die alone in Paris after a Bassnectar concert, and I never even got the chance to visit the Louvre.
As I rounded a corner, I noticed a couple of guys standing under the awning of a crepe stand that was still open. They looked as though they were in their early 20s — around my age. They, along with the cashier manning the crepe stand, were the first people I’d seen in a while, and I started to speed towards them.
“Excuse me! Excuse me!” I said, hoping that my American accent would give me away as a harmless, lost exchange student rather than a potentially crazy person soliciting them on the street. “Can you help me find the night bus?”
The two guys stared at me. They glanced at one another. One of them — who was taller, with curly hair and a crooked nose, like a young, European Sean Penn in a beanie — chugged the rest of his beer, crushed the can between his hands, and tossed it into the street. He told me that, yes, he and his friend would help me find the nearest night bus station but only if we stood in line for a club first.
“I’m Tristan,” he said as we started to walk towards the club, which was a few streets away — in a direction that I hadn’t yet explored that night. He pointed to his friend, on my other side. “That’s Theo.”
He explained that it would be easier for the two of them to get into the club if they were with a girl. Once we got in, we’d stay for a little while, and then they’d help me find my way home. In retrospect, the logic here doesn’t really make sense, but, at the time, I was happier to be with other than people than I was to be by myself.
We stood in line for the club — whose name I can no longer remember — for an astounding ten minutes before Tristan decided that the wait was no longer worth it.
“My apartment is only three blocks away,” he said, pointing up the street. “We could go there, and you could wait until the metro opens again.”
By this time, it was about 3:30 in the morning. The metros opened around 5 or 5:30 in the morning — I couldn’t remember which time, exactly — but I had two choices. I go continue to wander the streets alone and possibly get into trouble. Or, I could go to this apartment with these people I’d just met, wait there, and possibly get into trouble. At least, if I chose the latter, I would be inside — Paris was brisk at night, even during the summer, and the clothes I’d picked out for Bassnectar were hardly enough to keep me warm.
“Let’s go,” I said and held my breath, hoping that, out of the 2.2 million people who lived in the city, I had chosen to go home with two who were not planning to kidnap me and hold me for ransom. There would have been no Liam Neeson to come save me, and my parents would have been furious.
Tristan lived with his mom and his sister, he explained as he opened the front door to his apartment and ushered Theo and me inside. He was in university, studying art and graphic design. He liked street art, and sometimes, he and his friends — not including Theo, who was too much of a coward — would go tag the side of buildings. I was 18 at the time; Tristan introduced me to Banksy, who he began to talk about as he dragged a mattress into the living room for me, in case I wanted to nap; and this all seemed incredibly impressive to me.
The three of us sat on the couch, and Tristan put on an episode of South Park, which seemed more hilarious because it was in French. He and Theo would stay up with me until the metros opened in a few hours, he promised.
At one point during the episode we were watching, Theo, who was much more taciturn than his friend, turned to me and asked, “Would you do this back home, in the States?”
“What do you mean?”
“Would you just…go home with two strangers like this?”
“I mean…” I fumbled for an answer. “I guess not.”
Theo shrugged in lieu of any further response, turning his full attention back to South Park. I began to wonder why I felt safe doing that here, in Paris, when it wasn’t something I’d ever consider doing at home. Everyday, I’d read a new headline about some kidnapping, some murder, some robbery, or some rape; I knew that people were completely capable of hurting one another for no good reason. But, whereas many people harbor a slight suspicion towards strangers, I always tended to trust them — probably more than I should. In Paris, on that night, that streak of naïveté became much more pronounced. How could Tristan and Theo possibly think of harming me, I had thought, when all I wanted was their help? Maybe it was because I was in a foreign country, but I felt young and invincible. Or just desperate.
Tristan got up to get a class of water. He stuck his head out of the kitchen and asked if I wanted anything. Water. Snacks — crackers or yogurt or maybe there was something else in the apartment that he could rustle up, he said, almost sounding apologetic that he had nothing else to offer me. And I reminded myself that, despite everything I knew or thought that I knew, there are good people in the world.