Paulien’s Story: “I felt forced to thank him”

So I didn’t want to share this story at first because I felt like I would be overreacting by calling this street harassment, but yeah…

In september my first year at university started and during the week I live in an apartment in the city so I can just go to class by foot. Now, there’s a restaurant in the same street and I have to walk past it to get to my class or to get to the park with my dog. When the weather is nice and the place hasn’t opened yet or they’re taking a break or whatever, the guys who own the place sits outside.

As the friendly person I am, eager to befriend my neighbors, I smile at them every time I pass. There’s one of them who sits outside more often than the others and one time he responded to my smile with a ‘ciao bella’ to which I didn’t really react as I was just about to cross the street. One evening, as I had to walk my dog, the guy that sits outside the most often was there again, so I gave him a very quick smile (the ‘ciao bella’ incident had made me a little uneasy) and was planning to walk past quickly but he started talking to me. At first, the conversation went… all right, I guess.

He asked me if I lived in the apartment a little further down the street as he apparently had seen me inside (yes, inside, as in I-saw-you-through-the-window-inside), if I was a student and what I was studying (English – Spanish) so we started talking about languages and he kind of started to switch languages as he spoke, from Dutch to Italian to Spanish to Dutch to French to Dutch to French and so on. Now, In this region in Belgium, you’re supposed to be able to speak Dutch fluently and well, you should understand French as well. As the conversation went on, he told me I was pretty in French a couple of times and how it always lightens up his day when he sees me, which made me feel even less comfortable but I felt forced to thank him for his compliments. He also asked, jokingly I hope but I’m far from sure, if he could go with me to my place for a cup of coffee. (I responded truthfully that my brother was staying over, which was “such a shame” according to him) He also said something in French which I didn’t quite understand, but I thought it was just another “you’re pretty” so I – shudder – thanked him again.

When I got home, I looked it up, because the way he had looked at me when he had said it, had been a bit… predatory? So yeah, I forgot what it was exactly, but I still remember what the website had said: “don’t ever say this to a woman in France as she will (rightfully) slap you and call the police” A couple of days later, I got the courage to tell my brother about it all (though it was a softened version, because I didn’t want him to tell my parents) and he told me about another route to get to the park. So from then on, I have to go through some dark streets and a parking lot a couple of times a day. I haven’t really seen him anymore (he once waved at me from inside the restaurant, but that’s about it I think) but I don’t know what to do or think about the whole case. Honestly, I think he is in fact a rather sweet guy and that he really just doesn’t see any wrong in his ‘compliments’ however sexual and out of bounds they may be. I’m way too scared to teach him about standard etiquette and street harassment though.

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