“Let’s just go,” Maaya said to me, stress audible in her voice.
“We can’t. He’s outside. He’ll see us. Just wait a second..”
The tension was tangible. It was do or die time. My heart was beating in my chest. We had to get out. And we had to do it now. Once we were outside the walls and on the other side of that electric gate, then I could be calm. But until then, I would be on edge.
It was the second day of our stay in Cannes and rather than making a film & meeting plan, as was standard at the Cannes Film Festival, we had spent our first night hatching an escape plan. And this was the moment when that plan had to come together.
Rewind twelve hours…
The trip so far hadn’t gone well. Having had my life flash before my eyes during three or four solid minutes of extreme turbulence on the flight from Heathrow to Nice, I suppose I should have been grateful to be alive. But it can be amazing how quickly we recalibrate what we accept as normal.
The driver on the bus from Nice Airport to Cannes had told us that our stop was not our stop, which had incurred a completely unnecessary twenty-five minute walk to the spot on the map that was to be our accommodation. And as seems to be the way in France, the driver giving us wrong information is completely our problem and not his. As usual, I had booked accommodation on Booking.com. Though, not as usual, I had gone with a bed and breakfast that was a little out of the way; about one and a half miles away from the sea front.
After lugging our suitcases uphill, back up the road the bus driver had unnecessarily driven us down, we finally found the address.
“What? It’s a house?” I said to Maaya, evidently surprised. In all honesty, I don’t know what I had been expecting. We were in a very residential area and had been surrounded by houses for the last ten minutes.
And that’s when we saw a man in the window. The electric gate between him and us began to open to reveal a car. I think it dawned on us both at the same time but Maaya was the one who said it out loud, “Oh my God! We’re not staying WITH him, are we?”
As the next five or so minutes came to pass, it transpired that we were; that the advertised bed and breakfast on the Booking.com page was in fact this man’s own bedroom. This bloke, who as it turned out didn’t speak a word of English, had started the world’s smallest hotel empire, by renting us a room in his house and trying to pass it off as a bed and breakfast. A bed and breakfast in which, at full capacity, we were the only guests.
Now, while not what we’d expected and not what we’d signed up for, I think we potentially might have let that slide, IF there hadn’t been the other problem: there was no lock on our bedroom door. Which meant, in theory, that ‘anybody’ could enter the room at any time. I was to later discover that these were not ideal sleeping conditions as our first night in Cannes turned out to be a largely sleepless affair in which I spent most of the night clutching my selfie-stick (not a euphemism).
We had both been looking forward to a holiday after four months of solid work, so to say Maaya wasn’t pleased is quite an understatement. And I really felt like I’d put my foot in it. I had booked this. And although I had clearly been misled, I still felt responsible for the situation.
My cash flow at the time was poor. I couldn’t really afford to find alternative accommodation. Cannes is expensive during festival season. And yet, if I didn’t, it wouldn’t be much of a holiday for anybody.
What is a man to do?
The easiest thing to do would be to ask the man if there was a key to the bedroom door. But I don’t remember learning how to do that in French class? Must have been ill that week. And without a fluent command of French, it seemed like a very awkward conversation to have with him, “Bonjour monsieur! Je voudrais le key to lock la porte!” In other words, I don’t trust you and I want some privacy. That was probably not a workable solution. Plus, what if there wasn’t a key? Then what?
The only other thing to do, if putting up with it was off the cards, was to find somewhere else and basically run away. It was fair to say that we had been led to believe that we would have our own space, which we really didn’t feel was the case. And during the 14 or so hours we had been in his house, I don’t think either of us had relaxed. So choosing to attempt a stealthy jailbreak the following morning with our suitcases was the only remaining option.
Even though we weren’t doing anything ‘wrong’, it was still a surprisingly stressful thing to do. What is it about people that we will go to such extreme lengths to avoid offending another person? Is causing offence really so bad?
Once we were out, we ran down the street, pulling our suitcases behind us, as if we expected him to chase after us. The getaway car – an Uber – was making the 4 minute waiting time feel like 4 hours.
I began to wonder whether we had overreacted. The media seems to write thousands of column inches about gender inequality, though normally to paint a picture of discrimination against women. But I could not help but think that if the homeowner had not been a chubby man in his fifties and instead, an old lady or even a young woman, the lockless door would not have been such a massive problem. Yet for all we knew, this man was as harmless as an old woman would have been. So it was a very odd situation. It’s fair to say that we didn’t feel safe or comfortable in his house. And yet still felt quite guilty for leaving. He might have been a nice guy.
But we would never know. As we got into the Uber and cruised towards the seafront and along La Croisette, I knew the ‘ordeal’ was over.
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