The difference between French and American humour was made very apparent this weekend.
Actually, the difference between French humour and everyone else’s in the world was made very apparent.
D’you know, I am going to clarify that still further. The French are warped.
So, I am sitting in a Paris bar in the Gare du Nord, celebrating the Welsh win over France in the second weekend of the Six Nations’ annual rugby tournament.
There are a lot of very drunk, happy Welsh people and a lot of very drunk, sad French.
I am facing the door.
What happens next does so in a millisecond.
I see a man with his face covered not only in a black motorcycle helmet, but also what appears to be a black mask under it. He is dressed in black leather, moves very fast, brandishing something in the air and he is yelling. My French is probably about 70% fluent and I understand enough to know that this is a hold-up.
I have no idea whether throwing yourself to the ground is the best thing to do in these circumstances, but it is what I do. And I suddenly hear myself screaming to everyone else to get down too, and words coming out of my mouth that I think might have been along the lines of: “Stay down, everyone! Give him what he wants!” In a language that may be French. Or Norwegian. Who knows. It is a gurgle of syllables; a sound of trapped terror.
My voice is loud. Very, very loud. So loud, in fact, that it appears to stun the “gunman”, who turns out to be nothing of the kind – just a friend of the owner “having a laugh”.
The first I know of the jest is when I uncover my head, open my eyes and realise I am not dead. Not only that, I am the only person lying on the ground. And still speaking Norwegian. The Welsh are still drinking, but now the French are not sad; they are laughing hysterically at the woman in a little black dress, fishnet tights and Jimmy Choo shoes, prostrate before them.
They say that your life flashes before you when you think you are going to die. Mine didn’t. My instinctive reaction was to save everyone else. On an airline, when they tell you to “Fit your own oxygen mask before helping others”, I have always thought that it was stating the bleedin’ obvious. Why would you help anyone else when your own life was in danger?
Yet I went into rescue mode. I wanted to be a saviour, even if it meant that my own life would be sacrificed in the process. I felt strong. Invincible. I would be dead, but my actions would have saved a generation.
When I stood up (oh, how they were laughing, those bloody French), I went into shock mode. Serious, serious shock mode. My whole body started to shake, I was sobbing uncontrollably, I couldn’t breathe. I felt every fibre of my being convulse.
What sort of idiot, in these times, thinks it is funny to enter a bar – particularly on a day when there is a high profile event in town – and pretend to the assembled throng that they might be about to die?
Why does anyone think that is even remotely funny?
In the US, he would have been shot on the spot.
In the UK, he would at least have been arrested.
But, more than anything else, the thing that worries me is: Why did nobody else react?
I lived In London during the worst years of terrorism. In the UK and, having been living in LA for nearly three years, I am acutely aware of the necessity of being vigilant at all times – 9/11 transformed the US in that respect. Lone bags, people acting in a shifty manner, things that don’t quite add up – I watch everything very closely. Yes, it’s my job as a writer to do that, but I also think it’s our job as ordinary citizens to try to make our environment as safe as we possibly can. As Jerry Springer says: Look after yourselves – and each other.
Talking of Jerry . . . I wondered whether my work as a TV critic made me extra-sensitive to these particular circumstances or, indeed, events in general: reading high drama into everyday situations that might pass other people by?
Possibly. Probably. But, to me, it is still an act of total stupidity to play a gunman – ever.
I have been trying to laugh it off and it has made a good story; but really, it ain’t that funny. The good news for all my friends and family, however, is that they know when push comes to shove, my instinct is to put their lives before my own.
Call me St Jacqueline.
Or buy me a pint.
Just not in Gare du Nord.