One afternoon some years ago when I lived in the French Alps, I was driving home with my friend Joan, a Liverpudlian (or ‘Scouser’ as she proudly called herself) who lived in the hamlet below my house, which was farther up the mountain. We had been for lunch in nearby Annecy, a medieval town of canals and breathtaking views. Joan, a middle-aged chatterbox and ex-hell raiser, had recently moved to the hamlet from Geneva and her car still had Swiss plates, which may have been one of the contributing factors to what happened that afternoon.
We followed the twisty road up the mountain and came to the narrow one-lane bridge. Coming down the mountain was a man on a large motorcycle. Now, the law is that the person coming UP the mountain has the right of way on such bridges, and so Joan eased the car forward. The curved, ancient stone bridge hung over a gorge of considerable depth. The man on the motorcycle also came forward and we found ourselves bumper-to-wheel in the middle.
“Bloody hell,” said Joan. “What does he think he’s doing? I’m not backing up.” She looked at me and shrugged. “I don’t back up very well on straight roads, let along this goddamn thing.” Joan rolled down the window, waved and in heavily-accented French said what translated (loosely) to, “Come on, now, mate. You’ll have to back up. Stop messing about.”
The man made a rather rude gesture and said, very clearly, what translated to, “F**k you. You back up.”
Joan was not the sort of person to whom it was wise to respond thusly. She blew a lock of black hair out of her face, set her jaw and gripped the wheel. “We’ll see about that,” she said. She inched the car forward. The man on the motorcycle folded his arms and refused to budge.
“Maybe you should back up,” I said. “What difference does it make?”
“To hell with that. He’s a bully,” said Joan.
By now, several cars had appeared behind us, which meant, even if Joan chose to back up, she couldn’t. And then two cars came down the mountain, blocking the motorcyclist. We were in a stand-off.
Car horns bleated. First one, and then two and then a chorus of horns. Someone shouted and someone else shouted. I couldn’t make out what they were saying but none of it sounded good. Arms waved from rolled down car windows. Gestures, some involving middle fingers, punctuated the air. My heart began beating rather erratically.
“I think we should move,” I said.
“Where do you think I should go?” Joan jutted her chin in the direction of the gorge.
A man was at the driver’s window. He was wiry, unshaven, with a missing tooth. The smell of cigarettes wafted in on the hot breeze. He shouted at Joan, told her to get off the bridge.
“I’ve got the right of way,” she yelled back.
The man called her a foreign bitch, a rich bitch who had no rights of any kind. Not in his France. She should go back to Switzerland.
“I’m English,” said Joan.
“Then fuck off to England,” spat the man.
I locked my door. More men were getting out of their cars now and heading for us. I looked behind. Four of them. No, six. Maybe more. Someone banged on the roof of the car. Someone else pounded the hood. The car began to rock. Someone slapped the passenger-side window and I turned to see a wide, red face, contorted with anger, telling me to get out of the car. Joan shrieked and I realized the man on her side of the car was trying to pull open her door, trying to pull her out of the car. I grabbed her arm.
“Leave her alone,” I cried. “Leave her!”
I looked in the man’s face and saw, in a frozen moment, that to this man—and to that one, and the one by my door, who was now pulling on the handle—we were Other. We were The Other. There was no appeal; we were not members of their tribe, their family; we were not their kind. I flashed back to an article I had recently read in which a zoo keeper described being attacked by a hyena she’d fed for years. One day, when she turned away for a moment, she felt a dreadful punch to her right thigh, and looked to find the hyena gulping down great hunks of her flesh. She said the expression in the animal’s eyes was the same as if she’d been a cheese sandwich. My stomach flipped. To this mob, we had, for reasons I still cannot fathom, become prey.
I’m sure, had I been able to breathe, I would have cried. It was just a stupid road and a stupid bridge and a stupid car and for that it seemed we would now be dragged from the car by a group of men who were quite possibly our neighbors and, at the least, beaten.
Just then, another man ran down the mountain. Oddly, all I remember about him was that he was tanned and wore beige shorts.
“Stop! Stop!” he cried. “What are you doing? Stop that!”
Someone yelled that we were . . . well, a word referring to the female anatomy in unflattering terms.
“We should throw them off the fucking mountain,” someone said.
“But, monsieur,” said the man in shorts, “They are just driving and these women have the right of way. They are going up the mountain. It is the law. And so simple. Here, I will help you move the motorcycle.”
And with that he, and the motorcyclist, who I noticed now looked rather frightened himself, backed the motorcycle up a few feet so we could pass.
“Go on, Joan,” I urged. “Go on.” I waved at the man in shorts and touched my heart. Thank you. THANK you.
Just as we drove onto the double lanes beyond the bridge a car zoomed past us, nearly making us swerve off the road and into the gorge. I caught sight of the man’s face. It was he who tried to pull Joan out of the car. We drove on the short distance to my house, looking behind us to see if anyone was following. No one was. We sat in my driveway for a few minutes, but neither of us wanted to talk. We asked each other if we were all right, several times, and finally parted.
I went inside, and noticed my hands were shaking. I burst into tears. There was no word for what I felt, at least no single word. Injustice, terror, sorrow, rage, exhaustion, some huge unspeakable longing for protection. Nothing had happened, not really. I was safe. I hadn’t been beaten or raped or stabbed or hurled over the cliff, but I could see the possibility; I FELT the possibility in a way I never had before. I had certainly heard stories from friends, mostly non-white friends, of instances of this kind, and although what happened to me paled (you’ll pardon the pun) in comparison, still, I had a glimmer of understanding now as to what it felt like to be Other. In a situation involving Us vs Them, I had been Them, Those people, someone outside the circle of protection.
I wondered what the men in the cars were doing now that they were presumably now at their destinations. Did they feel any shame? Did they regret becoming part of a mob? I wondered, too, how many of them I’d recognize at the next village fete.
The thin veneer of civilization on which I’d relied had been torn away. I saw the cruelty and savagery that lurked so near the surface. It frightened me and sensitized me; I became committed to battling my own worst self whenever I detected my own petty tribalism. We live in a world in which we are constantly being asked to choose sides, be name someone else as “The Other.” I believe refusing to do so is a powerful form of political protest.
Hate injustice. Hate the misuse of power. Hate poverty. Hate hunger. Hate racism/sexism/agism. Live your life actively turning toward their opposites — justice, kindness, compassion, inclusivity and generosity. — for when all is said and done who would you rather be: the man trying to pull my friend from the car; or the man in those beige shorts, a peace-maker and truth-speaker, who calmed a violence-prone mob?