Life

Not a Very Nice Day

The French port welcomes me with blood on the street.

By Steve Burgess 8 Jul 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is now in the returning vacationer witness protection program.

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Nice, France. Where crime lurks.

Crime seems to be following me on this trip. My camera was swiped in Rome. Thanks to the presence in Rome of international thugs Robert Mugabe and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Roman sky was full of choppers that week. They should have been keeping an eye on my camera -- it mysteriously vanished one day, cherished snaps a-plenty going with it. If any pictures featuring me in a hotel room with a group of under-aged circus performers show up online, could someone let me know? Suddenly I wish I hadn't written my name in big letters on my underwear.

Now having relocated to Nice, a violent caper just played out beneath my hotel window.

Blood and yells

I was just settling in to eat some salad (Nicoise, of course) and watch a Euro 2008 match on the tube when I heard shouting below. Two cars had stopped in the middle of our quiet little street just in front of my digs at Hotel Amaryllis. As I came over to look out my second floor window a bunch of men jumped out in a state of high excitement and ran around the corner. More shouting, and within a minute they came back around the corner and dashed to the cars, banging on the windows to encourage the drivers to get going. The rear vehicle almost hit the front one as they peeled out down the street and around the corner. Youthful hijinx, I thought. Excited football fans.

Moments later two shirtless men came around the same corner. A white guy with a torso completely covered in tattoos jogged half-heartedly after the departed vehicles. He was followed by a heavy-set black man, also shirtless, and carrying an alarmingly large kitchen knife. Quickly giving up the chase, they took off.

After what seemed rather a long time sirens grew audible, and now the street was full of emergency vehicles and ambulances. By the time I went downstairs, one of the ambulances had already screamed off down the street. Around the corner, a trail of blood drops led from a little shop called Exotica, advertising food and beauty products from Africa. People gathered in the doorway and around, some talking quietly. There was concern, but no anger on display. I took that as a hopeful sign that injuries had not been deadly.

Savage talk

I gave my fractured statement to a cop on a bicycle. In the process, I came to understand why I was so rarely victorious at Clue. Were all of the attackers black men, the cop asked? I wasn't sure. Some were, for sure; they were tall and at least one wore a red shirt. See any weapons? Only the guy with the big knife -- later. One car was grey and one was red. I remember glancing at the license number and thinking I should note it. But I didn't get around to that. Perhaps I thought I would do it later. Leave me alone.

The hotel clerk helpfully explained that these people are savages supported by French tax dollars. He spoke no English, and at that point I suddenly forgot how to speak French. Such French as I have, anyway.

Return of the linguist

Oddly enough, only half an hour earlier I had witnessed a weird little scene that convinced me police work in Nice was a rather cushy gig. A police van parked on the main boulevard had drawn a crowd of curious tourists, and eventually me. The van was packed with laughing young men and women, most of them wearing wigs of coloured tinsel. They waved at me gaily, and one held up two hands manacled by what appeared to be two-dollar handcuffs. There were two bewigged women piled into the passenger seat and half a dozen other happy passengers behind, waving as the van pulled away. The thing is, it appeared to be a real police van, and appeared to contain at least two real police officers.

Well, the criminal underworld in Nice is a genuine mystery. And likely to remain one as long as the sole witness is giving evidence in half-remembered, 30-year-old high school French that frankly wasn't earning any "A's" even back in the day.

It's been an exciting journey but I'm going home now. What a relief to be back where I can stand up confidently and say, in flawless English: "I can't remember, officer."

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