When I left the BBC in 1997 my concerned bosses told me they thought I was truly mad. You are going to France but don't speak French? You are giving up a decent job to do what? I tried to explain that I had left New Zealand three years earlier to learn another language and live on the continent, not speak English and settle down as an Englishman. However, after just one week on the Côte d'Azur, I almost flew straight back into their arms!
I was greeted at Nice airport by a lovely friend, a bubbly French-Spanish woman who'd tried in vain to teach me the basics of French when she lived in England the year before. I had lodgings, at least for a week; she and her boyfriend were in the process of moving to Marseille, but I had breathing space to find somewhere to live. I enrolled in a language course at Alliance Française. I soaked up the sun. I tortured impatient shopkeepers with my terrible French. Life in Nice seemed to be fun and carefree. I turned down an invitation from my friends to join them on their move to Marseille, a city they thought might suit me better. No, Nice seemed like a good, "relaxed" place to learn a language. I also wanted to be independent.
I took a room advertised on a university noticeboard; it was cheap and there was a piano. The landlady and her daughter spoke little English. Perfect for my French. After bidding farewell to my two friends, helping them load up their van for Marseille, I spent my first hour in my new room, feeling lonely, wondering how my new "family" was going to communicate with me. We just smiled and pointed at things. I thought it would be good to go out, to get away from the silence. I would go and do some shopping. It was about eight at night.
The supermarket, called Champion, was due to close, but I had time to grab a few things. Just inside the entrance, however, I was distracted by a noticeboard, where people advertised all kinds of things. Perfect, I thought, I will put up an ad for English lessons. There was a card provided to fill in. It was the start of my new life in France! I was happy. As I wrote out my advert - leçon d'anglais avec journaliste - I thought to myself that I would celebrate my first night in my new abode by later choosing a decent bottle of French wine.
As I struggled to work out how much I was going to charge for the hopeless lessons I was planning to give, I was shocked to find someone elbowing me in the side. How rude! The bloody French are so impatient! Someone waiting to use the pen? To put up their own advert? I elbowed right back! When I turned to see who was being so obnoxious, I saw someone wearing a motorcycle helmet. The person elbowed me again, only this time with more force, which caused me to stumble. I was just on the verge of thinking about pushing back, when I noticed a pistol in the man's hand. He came closer and pushed it into my stomach. I didn't understand the words at the time, but they would've been something along the lines of "get out of the f***ing way". He certainly hadn't asked for the time! I remember seeing a little bird tattooed on his hand. I also remember noticing that he wore a mask under his helmet, and all that were visible were his mean black eyes. I honestly thought I was going to be a dead man.
Needless to say I didn't fight back. I froze. My blood stopped. My whole system shut down. I didn't breathe. Yes, I kept my cowardly elbows at my side! I then realised why I had been pushed out of the way so brutally: I had been writing on the part of a counter that lifted up, which allowed access to a small office in front of us. The man went ahead and appeared to take bags of money out of a safe. I noticed there were seven other people wearing helmets, brandishing pistols and guns, cleaning out the cash registers. It was all so quiet. No one had yelled. There was no fuss. In fact, many people just carried on shopping. People queued up at the checkout, unaware that we were in the middle of an armed robbery. Some people did click and slowly moved to the back of the store. The managers, I later learned, were the first to head out the back doors. One girl at the checkout started crying because she couldn't get her till to open. The gun was quietly held to her head.
I don't know why I didn't move away from the office counter. I stayed there frozen. There were a good few minutes when the man was filling his bag with money, when I could've slowly moved off to the back of the supermarket. My legs wouldn't move though. I could still see the pistol in the man's hand, the same hand that clumsily held open what looked like an old bread bag. It then entered my head that I was a gonner. I had seen the gun. I had seen the colour of his eyes. I had heard his voice. I had seen the tiny bird on his hand. Oh my goodness, he will shoot me as he leaves. I still couldn't move though. My head told me to run, as my heart raced, but my legs just wouldn't budge. I was a gonner. My first week in France. Flown home in a box.
There was a funny moment - I can look back now and see it as funny. An elderly woman, who was totally unaware of what was going on, came up to the counter with a bottle of sauce. I didn't understand what she was rambling on about but she obviously had some burning question about the sauce. She must've thought I was funny-looking: pale and standing as still as a statue. She banged the sauce on the counter when the young man in the office - bent down and with his back to her - didn't respond to her enquiries. I stared at her hard, with wide eyes, hoping she would understand what was going on. She eventually mumbled something and then shuffled off, back down the aisle to put the sauce back. Thank goodness! When it was all over she probably quietly walked home, clueless about what had happened, vowing never to shop there again; they were so rude and no one would answer her questions!
If you're reading this it's because the man in the helmet didn't shoot me as he left. He took his bag of money, rounded up the others - he appeared to tell off the robber who didn't get one of the tills open - and they all sped off on motorcycles. The police came after a very very long wait. The managers slinked back in and shrugged when I asked if there had been any cameras on. I was questioned at length, by a bored officer who spoke terrible English. They wanted to know why I had no shopping. What was I doing by the office? Where was my passport? What kind of bird did the man have on his hand? Yeah right, I was really focused on trying to work out what kind of bird the man had in mind when he got his cheap tattoo done. I was ordered to go to the police headquarters a few days later to speak with a translator - this never happened, by the way, I just repeated my statement in bad French to a bored inspector.
The real fun was on my return to the house I'd just moved into. It was now close to midnight and I was supposed to have popped out for "30 minutes" to do some shopping - that much we had managed to communicate earlier. My nervous landlady answered the door to see me pale, stressed and stuttering. She tried to ask what had happened. I could only say the words "champignon" (mushrooms) - this is what I thought the supermarket was called - and pistolet. Bang bang! I imitated a police siren as well. My landlady just stepped away from me, looking at me sideways. Mushrooms. Pistols. Police. She tried to quickly smile politely but couldn't hide her fear. We all awkwardly retired to our rooms.
All these years later and we are still friends. She laughs about how she thought I had been eating some funny mushrooms and got into some bother with the police. She said she'd locked her bedroom door that night and vowed that I would be asked to leave the next day. Lucikly, the day after the robbery, my teacher at the Alliance Française gave me a copy of the morning paper, which had a report on the drama I had just told the class about (in English). There were long and relieved sighs from my ladylady when I took the paper home to explain my adventure.
I did almost fly back to Britain or New Zealand; I had been left so shaken by the whole experience. My romantic vision of France and the exciting road I had taken suddenly seemed dangerous and bleak. However, I spoke to a friend in the UK about what happened and she talked me out of it. Just think of how many robberies take place in the UK, she offered. Yes, it was just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The week after the robbery my teacher showed me the paper again: a gang of robbers on motorcycles had shot and killed a shopkeeper in Cannes. I put my head back into my grammar books - one of the few times I ever did - and tried to blot out the information. I also promised that I would never again shop at "Champion/Champignon"! Luckily, I have never again seen a gun and my shopping trips in France nowadays tend to be uneventful.