I don’t know exactly why I noticed her in the first place but I do remember the first time I saw her.
It was past 7 p.m. and Rue d’Orléans, one of Nantes’ shopping streets with a lot of foot traffic, was quiet. All the shops were closed. At this time of the day, it’s a street people take to go places—Cours des 50 otages to catch a bus or the tramway, Place Royale and Place du Commerce to grab a snack or a drink—rather than a destination in itself. There’s absolutely no reason to loiter in this street in the evening. There are no bars, no restaurants, no convenience stores, no hotel and few apartment buildings.
But she was standing there, in front of Petit Bateau, one of these classic, timeless French clothing brands that used to be cheap and popular until a marketing genius decided that from then on, these lovely cotton pieces would be sophisticated, chic and expensive.
Maybe that’s why I noticed her. She was standing alone in the street and she didn’t seem like the kind of person who would stand alone in an empty street.
She didn’t seem to be waiting for someone—the place appointed for the meeting was too random, friends rarely say“okay, I’ll meet you right in front of a closed shop!” Besides, people waiting for someone almost always have their phone in hand and they are scanning the crowd.
She definitely wasn’t one of these gutter punks either. Not only she didn’t fit the profile but she was missing the three key accessories—a bunch of friends, several dogs and cans of beer.
Who was she, then?
She was a full-figured Black woman with cropped hair and colourful clothes. Her left hand was resting on a big suitcase by her side, as if a taxi had just dropped her off right there. She was flashing an engaging smile.
Unlike most people begging in the street, she didn’t look desperate, drunk or tired.
Unlike a regular tourist or a local, she didn’t seem to be going anywhere with her suitcase.
So yes, that’s probably why I noticed her at first, although I didn’t really analyze the situation.
When I took the same street again twenty minutes later, she was still there, chatting with a couple. Again, I noticed her because she didn’t seem to be with the couple and again, she wasn’t going anywhere.
“Maybe she’s waiting for a taxi,” I thought without really believing it myself.
After all, it wasn’t any of my business and she didn’t seem lost or confused.
The following day, she was there again. The suitcase was the same but her clothes were different. Again, she was chatting with a passerby.
Strange. I mean, how many times in a week, let alone over a 48-hour period, would you find yourself waiting at a specific spot in a street with your suitcase?
Most people in Nantes are slightly wary of panhandlers. People are friendly enough if you need help, but it depends on what kind of help you need exactly. Directions? Sure, ask away. Beer money, loose change, a cigarette, donation for a charity or a bus ticket? The tired plea is the same every five minutes when you take the busiest streets downtown and in front of supermarkets, and few locals even slow down when approached.
But this woman was somehow managing to get people to talk to her and presumably help her. Shocking.
Even more shocking, people stopping to chat with her seemed to commiserate.
Clearly, she’s good at her job—presumably scamming people in some way.
I respect her for that.