Le cambriolage (part 1)

Paris: I’m woken by the sound of my own name and insistent knocking on my bedroom door. In my groggy, semiconscious state, my first thought is that my Airbnb host Cecile* has decided, with good intentions but poor timing, to bring me a cup of tea to start my Friday morning. But no. My mind clicks into gear — I respond to Cecile’s knocking and digest her rapid, agitated French. The house has been robbed.

My insides hollow out. Somehow, I feel simultaneously dazed and shocked into alertness. I descend the house’s wooden staircase to the ground floor, where Cecile and her son Gerard are taking inventory in the living room. Panic renews each time an item’s loss is realised: a camera, a bank card, two microphones.

I stand on the perimeter of the room, feeling like a perverse spectator. There’s a television missing, but otherwise I see no change. A large Mac is still in its place and the paraphernalia that gives any home its character remains in situ: Cecile’s red-gold wigs, quilts in primary and pastel colours, crockery without a cupboard to call home.

Soon, attention turns to me. Gerard leads the questioning, trying to piece together the events leading to the break-in: where was I last night? Did I drink? What, and how much? What time did I get home? Where are my keys?

Of course, I’ve already considered my potential role in the robbery. I’d returned at one o’clock that morning, and struggled to enter the house. This difficulty was nothing new; as Cecile had explained to me upon my arrival in Paris, the front gate’s lock was old and temperamental, often requiring multiple attempts and a gentle, patient hand to be successfully opened. I’d failed to position the key correctly on previous evenings, resorting to jumping the gate rather than waking my host. Cecile had condoned this tactic, allaying me of any concern when jumping again on this particular night.

Having surmounted the first barrier to entry, I’d reached the front door and endured several minutes of key-turning and the sound of a clicking lock without gaining entry. Annoyed, I’d opted for a glass side door, gingerly shifting a trundle bag and a crate full of beer bottles to step over the threshold and shut the door behind me. Success, and sleep.

Now, recounting my protracted entry to Gerard and Cecile, I recognise my naivety. To prioritise my host’s uninterrupted sleep above the security of her house was a mistake; I shouldn’t have jumped the gate. This becomes particularly clear when Gerard’s questions change tack: did anyone follow me home from the station? Was the street empty when I climbed over the gate?

The area, he tells me, is known for crime and robberies. This news brings back that hollow feeling. Amidst the clicking of the front door’s lock, did I inadvertently leave the door unsecured? Was my mistake witnessed, and my jump mimicked? It seems a likely explanation, if not a certain one.

My interrogation is conducted entirely in French. As the conversation unravels at an increasing pace I revert to rough, basic verbs, unable to properly explain myself. I feel (and, I’m sure, sound) stupid.

Recount over, Gerard and Cecile return to their evaluation of the robbery. Gerard throws around swear words (often adjacent to my name) and slams things. At some point I’m dismissed, and I return to my room.

***

It’s nine o’clock when I wake again (unprompted by knocking this time). I sit in bed for a few minutes to collect my thoughts and steel myself for what is unlikely to be a pleasant morning. The hollow feeling persists.

When I go downstairs, the mood in the living room is one of begrudging calm. Cecile and Gerard are sat on the floorboards, documents fanned out around them. They’re collating things for a visit to the local police station: a list of losses, relevant receipts, and a typed sequence of events. They decline my offer to accompany them, but ask me to remain at the house in case my testimony is required. I notice that the television has returned to its cabinet. Some of the stolen goods, it turns out, were abandoned by the robbers on the sidewalk.

I’d felt uncomfortable lingering around Cecile and Gerard and their paper moat in the living room, but following their departure I feel more uncomfortable still in the house by myself. Every creak gives me pause, and silence makes me nervous too. The family’s cat jumps onto the front gate, and I nearly jump out of my chair.

Stoic and terse, Cecile and Gerard return from the police station after an hour or so and gives me a copy of the police report, which is really just a typed version of Cecile’s oral account. There’s talk of insurance claims and excess fees — it’s taken as given that I’ll be forthcoming with a contribution to help cover the losses — and I bluff my way through in French. I give more ground than I should, but I’m outnumbered and far from eloquent.

By midday I’m in need of a change of scenery. On my way out, Gerard walks me to the front of the property to demonstrate how to open the gate correctly. Despite his years of experience, it takes him a couple of attempts to hit the lock’s sweet spot. I’m thoroughly reassured.

I leave Gerard at the gate and make my way to the nearest Métro station. The house is just beyond the periphique that separates Paris’ city centre from the surrounding banlieues, or suburbs. I’d thought nothing of this previously — if anything, I’d been happy to be among everyday Parisians, rather than the tourists that flood the Marais and the Latin Quarter each summer. Now, though, I wish I’d chosen a more conventional, closely surveilled quartier of Paris.

On my walk to the Métro I pass through a local marketplace. A far cry from the artisanal food emporium I visited daily in Florence, or the boutique stalls that sell jewellery and overpriced knickknacks in Kreuzberg, this market is decidedly grey. Cans of deodorant and piles of cheap, knock-off clothing are displayed under a large pergola, with their prices printed on laminated pink and yellow paper. Hollers of “un euro, un euro!” emanate from all sides.

Usually I’m fine in crowds, but today the concentration of people sets me on edge (or, rather, holds me at the edge I’ve been set on for the last several hours). I can’t help but wonder if one of the sellers, buyers or passers-by might be connected to the robbery. Descending to the Métro brings relief.

When evening comes I make my way back to the house, soothed by Monet’s Waterlilies and a few barefoot hours in the Jardin des Tuileries. The market’s stalls are being dismantled for the day, with folds of cardboard and other waste collecting on asphalt corners.

Even after Gerard’s tutelage, it takes me three minutes of twisting and turning to open the front gate. As I struggle with the lock I can make out some figures about 100 metres to my right, at the street’s end. They look like bored, harmless teenagers, but their presence makes me nervous all the same. Once inside, I draw the curtains and avoid silence until I go to sleep.

*I’ve changed all the names in this piece — despite what my actions may suggest, I’m not a complete idiot.

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