My time in Paris was... difficult. I felt stressed, distracted, uneasy, but also mute and invisible. I'm someone who talks a lot, but because my roommate Allison was fluent in French, she did all my talking for me. Her friend Natalie was a French national, and though I'm sure they didn't purposefully exclude me, they chattered away with me along as a silent third wheel, just listening, catching only about fifty percent of what they said.
They dragged me through two full days of the Louvre... Madonna-and-Child, Madonna-and-Child, Madonna-and-Child -- "Oh, look, the Mona Lisa; neato" -- Madonna-and-Child, Madonna-and-Child... Endless palatial corridors of Madonna-and-Child. I hate to admit that I felt like I was stuck in some virtual reality walk-through of a really tedious Art History textbook. I told Allison "If I don't see something painted after 1890, I'm going to go blind." I ducked out and went for some amazing (much needed) inspiration from the modern art collection at the Pompidou Centre -- without the girls.
When Allison and I were finally alone in our room each night and she switched back to English, my voice would come out thick from lack of use.
And when we spoke, we bickered.
"What are you looking at?" Allison asked, beyond irritated. I stood by the window, peering out through a gap in the curtains, not really conscious of what I was doing or that it was even noticeable until she pointed it out.
"Nothing," I said, knee-jerk defensive.
She accused me of acting paranoid, day after day -- constantly looking back behind us when we were walking, checking and re-checking the lock on the door, and lurking near the window watching the street.
"You're making me nervous. It's like we're being followed."
I didn't feel like I could explain myself without proving she was right about my behavior -- not to mention, possibly sounding like I was losing my mind. So I let her believe I was simply being a pill; that I was indeed miserable being in Paris with her.
I announced I was going to cut my stay short and go to Amsterdam alone. She didn't protest; I'm sure she was relieved to spend her remaining days with Natalie without having to be my translator. (Hey, everyone deserves to have the optimal experience, and I was admittedly a very different person twenty years ago. The person I was then would have had little appreciation for what I write about these days...)
Maybe France simply did not agree with me. Arriving in Amsterdam I immediately regained the better mood and sense of comfort I'd had when I began my trip in the UK. I met a couple my age from San Francisco, Marty and David, who were staying in my hotel. They had been in Amsterdam for most of the previous week, their last three days coincided with my first three; they were able to show me around to all the "best" places they'd discovered to hang out and eat. We went out to some great clubs every night and, best of all, I could participate fully in conversation again. I had exactly the kind of traveling experience I would have most hoped to have.
I became attached to Marty and David very quickly, and when they departed, their absence was palpable. I had little expectation of achieving the same sense of joy or meeting strangers with whom I could click so effortlessly. Truly, my intuition said "Might as well go ahead and leave" -- but there were a few sights I wanted to see while I had the chance and they seemed appropriate for that lonely, invisible state I had fallen back into.
The first day on my own, I went to the Anne Frank House (a profound adventure that deserves its own story sometime) and then I came back to my hotel room and watched the flocks of thousands of birds that would wheel out into the sky each evening at dusk above the Centraal Station just across the canal from my window, moving together like an enormous tornado or a computer-animated coming swarm in a killer bee movie. They would hover in a shifting cloud for close to half an hour, as if they knew they were performing for an audience.
The next day I chose to walk across town to the Van Gogh Museum. It was a fortunate serendipity on some levels -- there was a special temporary traveling exhibit on Mackintosh Art Nouveau, perhaps the most resonant historical design era in which I could possibly find myself immersed. The entire upstairs of the museum was converted into complete rooms that replicated Art Nouveau interiors, and there was a small movie theater playing a documentary on the period. Although there were a half-dozen other people in the theater with me, I felt like the installation existed at that time and place just for me -- like I had successfully manifested it... and I had more of those intense past-life memories that had made my time in England so electric.
When the credits scrolled across the screen and the lights came on, I pulled myself up with a satisfied sigh and headed reluctantly toward the exit.
I'm sure you would have seen the smile on my face melt when I saw John sitting in the back row.
Impossible. Are you kidding me?
I fled the museum.
The wind that channeled between the buildings was the only thing that kept me from running back to my hotel -- I would round a corner and find the signs and traffic lights swinging wildly, and have to lean into the force of the wind as if I was hiking uphill. It created that horrible sensation you find when you are hunted in dreams, your body stuck in slow motion, your limbs lagging behind the directions of your mind.
It's easy for me now to look back and wonder about the questions that should have been going through my mind -- Who is this guy? Why would he be following me? Is he a stalker, a serial killer -- or maybe he's some kind of cop who mistakenly thinks I'm a serial killer? Why would anyone want to follow me? How is it possible that he can keep up with me from one city to the next?
At the time -- honestly -- I did not care. I wasn't thinking anything except I want to go home. I hurried from the museum as if my home in the United States was just a few miles away, and if I could move fast enough and push myself, I could reach it before collapsing. I was having a serious Dorothy Moment, but I was all out of patience for befriending scarecrows or lions or taking in sights along the road -- can we just cut to the part where I click those ruby heels together?
I'd been abroad for about a month at that point -- maybe I just wasn't as "worldly" as I would've fancied myself to be; maybe all these enormous gray winter cities were sloughing away the edges of my personality... maybe I was incredibly homesick and this was what that felt like?
More than anything, I felt threatened. I felt unsafe. I felt I was in danger… and the stranger behind me, whom I couldn’t seem to shake, corresponded with this atmosphere of fear.
Fear often turns into anger (especially for me) and the anger gets directed at the person you blame for making you feel afraid.
I wasn’t just running away, I was fuming, and at some point I knew it would build up (God help him if he actually caught up to me) – I may have looked like I was moving away from him, but I was really marching toward the break where I would turn around and rage.
I heard a voice in my head (a man’s voice, not my own): You are powerful.
I AM powerful, I answered back.
You are protected, the voice said. That slowed me.
You are fine, it promised.
I was out of breath. There was a stitch in my side. I’d dropped into that slower pace of determined, sustainable endurance, the words rearranged in a sing-song affirmation in time to my foot falls:
I am powerful, I’m protected, I am fine / I am powerful, I’m protected, I am fine /
It became a mantra, a chant that helped me maintain my speed, it pulled me along.
I came upon a man with dreadlocks who stood right in my path. I ducked to the side to go around him and he matched the movement it what seemed like one of those awkward anticipatory dances whose steps are meant to avoid collision without losing momentum, and inevitably end up in a face-to-face stop, a pause, and a polite “Excuse me, after you.”
Dreadlocks wasn’t trying to pass me, he was shadowing my movements, “guarding” me in the posture of a sporting opponent. When I stopped, he walked into me as if he was going to embrace me with one arm and shake my hand with the other.
He held me against him and shoved a gun against my belly. At least, a pocket full of something meant to feel like the butt of a handgun.
“Money,” he said to me in English. “Come on.”
Two things flip my fire switch:
- being assaulted or bullied
- being in the presence of someone I care about who is assaulted or bullied
When I was in my twenties, I had virtually no ability to manage defensive anger and my temper turned on and up in one direction – full-on, unbridled, absolutely ape shit. No warning, no ratcheting up by degrees… And it came with a loud, hateful, free-style narration. My Daddy used to say that I had The Kind of Lip That Will Get You Killed in The Wrong Circumstances. My friends in college were amused by my tongue-lashings and called this aspect of my personality “Julia Sugarbaker.”
I doubt Dreadlocks would have ever predicted the manner in which I responded. He had no way of knowing just how pumped up on anger and fear I already was. I probably looked like someone running away, which his instincts identified as prey – what he ran right into was Royally Pissed.
When my words came out, I screamed them, to berate the passive pedestrians calmly walking by as much as my mugger, and more than anything, loud enough for stalker John’s benefit.
“You have got to be fucking kidding me. You’re going to mug me, in broad daylight, two o’clock in the afternoon, in the middle of the damn street? And you expect me to believe you’ve got a gun and you’re going to shoot me with it in front of all these people for spare change? You know, it’s no shock to me that every fucking piece of shit would-be thug in America actually does carry a gun because our whole society prides itself on the fact, but in the Netherlands, man, really? That’s a pretty big deal for you to be carrying here, isn’t it? I mean, you’re either a serious hard core criminal or you’re faking it. You’re obviously small time, because why else would you be hitting me up for a handful of change that won’t even buy you a cup of coffee? Therefore, logically, you’re a petty thief and the hard on in your pocket is probably – what? -- a plastic cigarette lighter?”
Dreadlocks glanced around nervously at the potential crowd I was drawing and said under his breath “Man, cool down. Just give me some money, that’s all I want.”
I shoved my hand into my jeans pocket and pulled out some Dutch coins and the crumpled, sweaty French bill that John had given me that night at the Gare du Nord. I’d never spent it. I had continued to carry it like a talisman. At that moment I was even a little grieved to be giving up what I’d come to think of as a souvenir.
Dreadlocks held out his hand between us and I slammed the money onto his palm, slapping it hard enough that the coins leapt and pinged off a grate in the sidewalk. He held onto the French bill, looked at it quickly, shook his head slowly, and pulled a clearly disappointed sour face.
“Man, come on,” he said, like he was trying to reason with me “I can’t do anything with this…”
“No? Cause you said all you wanted was money; that’s all I got; that’s all you’re getting. Would you rather have some traveler’s checks you can’t possibly exchange without an ID and a really good forgery? If so, you’ll still need to walk me back to my hotel and let me get them out of my room safe for you, wanna do that?”
Dreadlocks looked at the French bill again like he was trying to decide whether or not to just give it back to me. “Come on,“ he pleaded one more time.
I saw him look over my shoulder and his eyes focused. I knew exactly who he was looking at.
In a much lower, confidential, almost-whisper I said to him. “You see that man behind me, the one in the long coat? ...Yeah, I can see that you do... You'll notice I also don’t even need to look because I know he’s there. He’s been following me for two weeks. He’s some kind of cop, or some kind of detective, I don’t know who or what he is, but he’s watching me, and now he’s watching you too. You want him for a witness?”
It really wasn’t a bluff; maybe the authenticity of my confession gave it power. At any rate, the doubt and confusion played out quickly. He backed away slowly at first, clearly keeping his eyes on John, and then he turned and ran.
I was so jacked up on the adrenalin of the situation, I swiveled around with the full intention of finally laying into this "stranger" John who was following me. I was mad enough to punch him. Of course he was there, just as I knew he would be, keeping to his minimum fifty-foot distance.
John made a gesture, opening his hands and briefly holding out his palms, slightly shaking his head. He grinned a with a kind of lop-side, regretful smile. He looked, more than anything, sad and... apologetic. As if to say, "Sorry that it had to be like this."
He hung his head and walked back in the other direction.
Supernatural never entered my mind I've attempted to relate this story without interpretation, because at the time it happened, and for many years after, it was just an odd mystery and an "I was held up at gun point" story. Knowing what I discuss here today, it's impossible for you not to infer that there is some paranormal or spiritual significance to this memoir.
Ten Years Later It may not even compare very well to more significant, profound, or "poetic" spiritual intervention stories -- it just happens to be one that happened to me. I'm sharing this with you because it's an event that I recalled ten years later.
This is just a Prologue.
The circumstances of my learning What This Was All About form the "real" story of a stranger angel encounter, and mark a transition in my awareness of spirit entities.
See, in 2002, I met a man named Jesse -- who somehow already knew that this had happened to me and prompted me to recall it. Then, he revealed to me What It Meant.
And that, Dear Reader, is another even Stranger Angel story I hope you'll stick around for...
(To Be Continued would be an appropriate name for a blog...)
image credit lambertwm via Creative Commons on Flickr
The Next Chapter in The Paranormal Memoirs is here.