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Pret A Manger or Pret A Danger

Maddy Bellucci recalls an eerie experience on her year abroad to reflect on the nature of compromise.

Whether I’m on holiday strutting down tiny decadent Italian sideroads, trampling the grey London pavements, or even simply frittering about Oxford like an imposter-syndromed buffoon, it is safe to say that I indefinitely am on the lookout for a laptop-whipped-out-main-character-I’m-too-busy-and-important café moment. Currently, I am in Paris on my year abroad and my hunt was surprisingly not even necessary. 

A week ago, I reached the end of my road and in front of my scavenging eyes lay the humbly brown-lettered PRET – unassuming and resplendent in all her glory. The euphoric vision of me tapping away behind my life’s protective shield of a MacBook magically materialized. I have my Pret, all is well, I am safe. 

This probably slightly disproportionate reaction to finding a “working” café may seem over the top, but I cannot stress enough how much a daily routine acts as the comfort blanket we couldn’t pack in our Ryanair-tailored suitcase. So, there I was for two weeks, tap tap tapping away being busy and important (“Is it true that cats have fewer toes on their backpaws” / “how to not interrupt people so much and be socially at peace with oneself”) when I see a man with a top-hat and long greasy curly hair sat across the room, An interesting anomaly to the perfected messy-bunned, pumpkin-spiced-latte-sipping and white-airforced-oned specimen theme, but I did not give him another thought. However, the next day, again tap tap tapping, I look up from my screen to find him at the table opposite mine, staring at me. But again, my concern remains with his pointy-shoed Rumple Stilt Skin peculiarity. 

In the next few days however, I started noticing a pattern of top-hatted 50-year-old sitting right in front of me – and only ever arriving twenty minutes after I’ve settled in my spot. In the freakish way that things can go from completely ordinary to profoundly creepy in the bat of an eyelid, his lurking, continuous presence made my stomach feel anything but easy. 

One day, top-hat man places himself literally at my table, whips out a tiny notebook, and I can feel his gaze, even from behind my silver shield with my eyes heavily focused on my laptop in 

front of me. I believe that he starts to draw me, looking up and then back down at his freakishly small notepad. This, again, for the next few days. Although, yes, I do want to be the main character of this Maddy-in-Paris life, I would like my experience to gear more towards a sexy-Parisian-waiter rom-com and not a Pret-A-Manger murder mystery. 

Yesterday, with much anger I packed up, abandoned my station, and moved to another table – one without the Paris-people-watching-capacity and perfectly dimmed but bright lighting. And just like that, the perfect café moment was shattered. We now enter the dangerous territory of compromise…  

I am aware that so far this has just been a rather random personal account of a slightly eerie experience, but other versions Rumplestiltskin top-hatted men have permeated many of the daily accounts of my fellow female students. We seldom convene for a weekend’s drink without an “omg, you won’t guess what happened to me on my way here *insert some somewhat entertaining/somewhat worrying story about creepy man*”. 

We are always forced to compromise, and it’s important to realise when we are. Suddenly it occurred to me that I found myself not wearing my favourite low-cut top and going for a turtle -neck jumper instead. Pret is already heavily heated and the coverage was not needed, so, I find myself not sitting in the view of a Paris boulevard feeling fresh, but instead sweating profusely, facing the WC sign. 

My friends have told me to change café. And as simple as this could be in cute-authentic-café-fuelled Paris, this somehow feels like too big a blow. We sway toward the question of safety versus principle. I do not particularly like the idea of having a possible café stalker and wish to avoid this at all costs, but I also do not like the idea of aborting my Pret mission. Girls constantly find themselves compromising without even realising it. The definition of compromise states “an agreement or settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions”. Now, the question remains: where is top-hat man making his concession? He certainly isn’t sitting where he does not want to sit. He certainly is wearing that foul hat and the pointy shoes. And he’s also certainly having his Pret cookie and eating it. So, I – like the fearless Parisian pigeons (and humans) who do not budge in their tracks and would bash straight into you if you’re distracted for a split second – will not abandon my café-moment mission. I owe it to Pret, but I also owe it to my creepy-man-story-fuelled girls. 

Take example from Ms Eiffel, she stands tall and proud and certainly does not compromise.

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