And to complete today's streak of postings, part 9 of the European trip of 1995. Part 10 which is the last will appear whenever I feel like it. Cheers! :]
Guess what… I was thrown into a lock-up in a police station in Lyon, the second largest city in France, Some gits thought I might be a Muslim terrorist hell-bent on bombing the city down!
It all started when three Frenchman gave me a lift in their car from Grenoble to Lyon. They dropped me at the city centre near a bridge crossing a river where a tunnel lies ahead burrowing through the hill that divided Lyon into its eastern and western parts.
Not wanting to climb the stairs up the hills, I walked through the tunnel. Big mistake! After walking for about a kilometre, a police car pulled beside me. Out came three French policemen asking me questions in French. They asked for my passport. My visa had expired! And on top of that, my first name if Mohamad, a Muslim name which immediately aroused their suspicions.
It was bombing season in Lyon and Paris, a time when religious fanatics mostly Algerians blow bombs all over the cities (at least that’s what the French claimed). They took me with them citing national security as the reason… Huh?
During the trip to the police station, the policemen at first tried to intimidate me by shouting questions (more like abuses) at me. The one that sat with me in the backseat looked quite eager to beat up somebody judging by the way he was tapping his baton.
At the station I was asked to sit next to a couple of men, most of them Middle-Eastern looking, some speaking in French, some in Arabic. One was handcuffed behind. Another man handcuffed on the front was moving his hands up and down, left and right quickly making the signs of a cross. He looked scared, his mouth uttering something repetitively, maybe a prayer…
I tried to reason with the officers to let me go but none of them understood me. Instead I was ushered into a room where I had to strip my clothings leaving me naked with the pong of several days of unwashed clothes and unwashed body smell spreading into the air.
My belongings were turned upside down as they searched for God knows what. I remembered the police cataloguing my goods which included a loaf of bread, bottle of tap water, a London-Kuala Lumpur flight ticket, two Francs and an assortment of coins in different currencies. Altogether, whatever money I was left with was equivalent to about two Pounds (RM 8) at the most.
Then I saw a sight which made my heartbeat race… One policeman put on a pair of rubber gloves… Oh… Oh,,, Déjà vu… I’ve seen this in the movies. They use gloves to look for items hidden in certain cracks and crevices… Oh no!
And he put his fingers up a crevice… Ouch! Of my jeans and jacket. Phew! Thank God for sparing me the torture…
I was allowed to wear my jeans and t-shirt and then I was put in a cell. Inside the locked room with glass windows I tried to get to sleep. But the room was chilly and I had only a layer of clothes. Coupled with the screaming and singing of other inmates, it was impossible to get a wink.
As time passed, I became restless and started banging the glass window. The guard shouted at me telling me to shut up (in French, le shut up monsieur or something like that…). I went on drumming some beats at the glass while singing doggerels and wailing the blues.
Later, I felt my kidneys straining. I banged the glass hard for attention for someone to let me go to the toilet. Again the stupid guard couldn’t understand me.
I pissed across the room. That the guard understood.
He banged on the glass asking me to stop but I continued letting out all the unnecessary fluid out of me, ignoring the angry guard.
In the morning , two policemen came in, one looking exactly like Freddie Mercury of the pop rock group The Queens! I was handcuffed and led into a room where a superior officer was waiting with a language translator behind him.
Although it was terrible to be detained by the police in a foreign country, I was confident nothing will go wrong. Sure, my visa had expired but two weeks earlier, an agreement allowing Malaysians to enter France without visa was enforced. It was in the New Straits Times (read in Malaysia Hall, London).
Through the translator, I asked the officer to contact the Malaysian embassy explaining to him Malaysians do not need to have a visa to enter France anymore. He refused… I asked him to call the French consulate. He refused again…
“Call your bloody consulate and ask them to verify my claim,” I said. After some deliberations, he did that.
I saw a kind of blush on his face, like that of someone who have just made a mistake. But despite that, he didn’t even tried to say sorry, all in the name of national security huh?
As I collected my things making sure everything was there, some policemen shouted at me asking me to get out fast. We exchanged verbal abuses as I made my way out of the station.
Not only did they not apologise for detaining me, they didn’t return my bottle of tap water and shooed me away!s Then I had to walk three kilometres to get to the city centre from the police station.
Lyon was actually a beautiful city but the way the policemen treated me left a bitter impression on me. Maybe I came to Lyon at the wrong hour. Maybe I should have spent more time at the small French towns that I came across between Nice and Lyon.
Puget Theinier in the French Pyrenes was one. Athough the town was no more than four blocks big, it can calm the most restless spirit. The sight of the locals especially elders playing Payton, a game like playing marbles but with black iron balls the size of lightbulbs somehow stirred the romantic bones in me.
Then there was Entrevaux, a town sandwiched between two hills with a river rapid cutting and curving across. The ancient town was walled with windows dotted on it meant for sentries and archers of old to observe enemies from outside.
High on the cliffs was a chateau, looking down the town observing every activity there. The ancient façade reminded me of movies about mediavel times where peasants walked the cobbled streets while the ruler up in the chateau chanted magic mantras conjuring demons out of the deepest parts of hell.
Sisteron was another walled citadel town but with most of the ancient walls torned down. I spent the night there under an ancient bridge on a slope with my feet pushing against a tree, body balanced on a flat rock with a lake waiting to engulf me 10 metres below. A heavy rain soon forced me to sleep inside a road tunnel ignoring the vehicles passing to and fro just a few metres from my head...
I also remembered the villages of Laragne and Eyquaine where I walked for miles occasionally plucking the apples that grew in the orchards along the way to appease my growling stomach. Grenoble, the main city in the French Alps surrounded by hills and small mountains with the looming presence of the highest section of the Alps including Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe just overlooking the city was also a better place to visit than Lyon.
Any of these places were better than the lock-up in Lyon. Well, what’s done is done. Time to move on…