Monday 12 June 2000 and I was riding the suburban train from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport to Paris Nord, then to switch stations and get the train to Strasbourg where I was to spend the next few days at the European Parliament.
When disaster struck, it was all so natural. About halfway through the journey, a young lad - of Arab appearance, maybe late teens or early twenties – came up to me as we were stopped at a station. He came quite close, asking me in French whether this was the train to Charles de Gaulle.
It took me a time to work out what he was saying but once I understood, I told him he was on the wrong train. In my best pidgin French, with much gesticulating, I told him he wanted one going the other way. The lad dashed for the doors, which were just closing, and the train moved off. Only then did I notice that my computer bag, containing my laptop, was gone. The bastard had nicked it!!
At Gare du Nord I was minded to report the theft to the police, but I could not see a police station or any sign of one. I thus resolved to report it at Gar de l'Est, where I recalled seeing a police post. I found it easily enough but the two policemen and the one policewoman behind the counter – none of whom, incidentally, spoke English - told me that it was outside their jurisdiction.
The crime had occurred "sur le train" so it had to be dealt with by "le bureau chemin de fer". Fortunately, or so I thought, their office was just round the corner, an anonymous door in the wall with only the tiniest of signs alongside. I pressed the entryphone button and was admitted, only to be told by the police there – who also did not speak English - that I had to report it to the police in Gare du Nord. "Forget it!", I told them – I had my train to catch to Strasbourg. I would report it on my way home, that Thursday – which indeed I needed to do in order to claim the insurance.
A mere routine, I thought. It was something I was going to regret.
Come the Thursday, I left Strasbourg on the 2.39 pm train, headed for Paris. A colleague had written me a letter in French, explaining the details of the theft, asking the police to prepare a certificate for the insurance claim. She also had written a letter on European Parliament writing paper, explaining that I was very pressed for time, having to catch an aeroplane at Charles de Gaulle at 8.15 that evening.
The train was due in at Gare de l'Est at 6.40pm and the trip from there to the airport would take an hour. Since I had to check in half an hour before the flight, that gave me only ten to fifteen minutes to make the report and get the certificate. I was going to be pushed.
At Gare de l'Est, I walked across to Gare du Nord – that was the quickest way. I had already found out that the police post was situated on Platform 3, but what I hadn't reckoned on was how big Gare du Nord really was. Needless to say, platform 3 was at the opposite end of the point I entered it. I made my best speed and found the bureau Chemin de Fer halfway down the long platform. There were absolutely no signs directing people to it, and only the tiniest name plaque adjacent the door, when I finally got there. No wonder I couldn't find it on my way out and, if I hadn't known to look for the "bureau Chemin de Fer", I wouldn’t have known what I was looking for anyway.
As with the other bureau – at Gare de l'Est – the door was guarded by an entryphone. I pressed the button and was admitted, to find three policemen. I gave them my colleague's letter and one of them read it, conferring with his own colleague.
As before, none of them spoke English but the first officer explained that this bureau only dealt with immigration matters relating to the Eurostar. In French, he explained to me that there was another "bureau" on the station, and I had to go there.
Here I was, at a major international station, dealing with police whose job was immigration, and none of them spoke English. Nevertheless, they did give me a photocopy of a hand-drawn map. Obviously, this was not the first time they had been confronted with this problem. As an additional clue, one of the policemen told me to look for the "porte bleu".
According to the map, the proper "bureau" was back the way I had come, but fortunately – as I thought – in the direction of the suburban station from where I was to catch my train to Charles de Gaulle. Indeed, as I followed the map, I found myself led into the very part of the station where I wanted to be.
But, for the life of me, I could not see the "bureau Chemin de Fer". In desperation, I asked the assistant of a newspaper kiosk, who pointed beyond the electronic barriers which guarded the entry to the platforms. I had to get a train ticket in order to get to the police station!
Fortunately – or so I thought – I had the return half of my ticket bought earlier in the week to get me to the Gare du Nord, but when I pushed it into the slot to open the barrier, all I got were insistent electronic bleeps. The damn thing refused to open.
By now I was running seriously short of time and, with no railway officials in sight, I resolved that the quickest way to get access was to buy yet another ticket. That cost me ten minutes, working up the interminable queue to the ticket office, and left me 49FF (£5.00) poorer. Nonetheless, I did get past the barrier, into a cavernous hall, with no sign whatsoever of the fabled "bureau Chemin de Fer". On the verge of giving up entirely, I tried walking up what appeared to be a completely unused area of the expanse. Lo and behold, at the very end, I spotted a blue door.
Once I got right up to it, I spotted the tell-tale plaque alongside, announcing the presence of this fabled bureau. I pressed the button on the entryphone – what else did I expect? – and the door clicked open. Inside, I was confronted with… another door and another entryphone.
After the ritual pressing and pushing, I then found myself in an enormous room, an absolute hive of activity with policemen in uniform rushing hither and thither. In the corner was an American-style lock-up cage, housing a very unsavoury-looking character. At the very far end of the room was a small counter, behind which stood a single policeman, with a single chevron on his epaulettes. He looked at me expectantly as I approached, almost quizzically as if to say, "What are you doing here?"
To my complete lack of surprise, he did not speak English. I gave him my colleague’s letters, and made sure he read the one saying I was in a hurry. He read both slowly and deliberately and then asked, "Passport, monsieur?" That was my big mistake. I gave it to him, whereupon he disappeared, with it and my letters. Ten minutes latter, with me still standing at the counter, he reappeared, drinking a cup of coffee from a vending cup, sans passport and letters, completely oblivious to my presence.
As I summoned up the courage to challenge him, I was approached by a sergeant who had my letters – but no passport. Would I look at some photographs, he asked – in French. Like his colleagues, he could not speak English. I demurred, saying a had only seen the thief for a matter of seconds, and in any case, I had a plane to catch.
The sergeant disappeared, only to be replaced by another. Suivez moi, this officer commanded, leading me to a booth in which there was a desk and a computer terminal, and my original sergeant. I was given a chair and told to wait.
Alongside me in the booth, also seated, was a young man. It turned out he was another "victim" who had managed to discover where the police were hidden. He was there – like me as I now discovered – to look at photographs. Once the sergeant returned, it was obvious he did not know how to work to computer, and had to ask for help from his fellow sergeant – who had little more idea.
Once they got the machine working, they turned to my fellow victim. He had fallen foul of a black perpetrator, aged between 35-45. Between them, the sergeants loaded up some rather poor pictures of blacks between 35-45, all of whom looked the same. Despite my letter telling the police my perpetrator was an Arab in his late teens to early twenties, the sergeant thought it a good idea if I looked at each the photographs as well, requiring from me a ritual "non" as each picture came up on the screen.
My fellow victim was dismissed – with equally negative results - and the sergeant then tried to load the "Arab" file. To my horror, the database then kindly reported that there were over 7,000 entries to review. By now I had visions of being there all night.
However, perhaps prompted by my increasingly despairing cries of "l'avion", accompanied by my tapping my watch, the sergeant relented and, with a Gallic shrug, switched off the computer. It was now just gone half-past seven and, a pinch, I could just make Charles de Gaulle. If I was very, very lucky, they might let me on the plane. But I did not have my certificate for the insurance.
The sergeant led me to an interview booth and left me there, where I was joined across the desk by the original sergeant. He had my passport, which he returned to me. I considered making a bolt for it but the man demanded my attention. He was going to fill in a form on the computer.
Working from a type-written instruction sheet, he started asking me questions, in French, the answers to which he laboriously tapped in to the computer, one-finger style. At least I learned the words for "Windows 98", which had been in my bag with the computer: "Windows quatre-vingt dix-huit".
At last, after what seemed an age, but in fact wasn't very long, he finished. There was just an outside possibility I could catch the plane. But it was not to be. With a flourish, my sergeant pressed the button on the keyboard to print out my coveted certificate, but nothing happened. He looked puzzled and called over his fellow sergeant. "Il a disparu", he complained. He had wiped the file from the computer and we had to start all over again.
By the time he had finished, it was five to eight. My flight was 8.15 and the train took at least 25 minutes. You will have to hurry monsieur, said my sergeant, exhausting his English vocabulary. What could I do? I thanked both officers gravely, shook them each by the hand, and departed. I arrived at Charles de Gaulle at 8.35. My flight had long gone.