It’s out there, lurking, silently waiting for the opportunity to strike. A silent killer.
We made contact on our very first visit to Paris, but everything was new and different, and we didn’t notice. When we launched into the countryside on rambling road trips all over France we came to grasp its omnipresence and threat. It is everywhere.
It is an architectural “feature” found throughout western Europe‒a feature designed to maim, kill, or at least embarrass the innocent, the unwary, the American Tourist. It is a small change in the level of a floor…only an inch or two, not a full step, something more akin to a little less than half a step.
It will be where you least expect it, and where there is no reason for it to be. Unmarked, with no warning or OSHA-approved signage, it lies in wait.
You will trip if it is raised; you will stumble forward if it drops. You will never see it coming.
We once visited friends in Brussels in an apartment with a long, sweeping stairway full of normal steps, except for the final step, which was one of these man-killers. In the course of three days every visitor and some of the residents were tripped by that final step. We all went down. When I mentioned it to our host, she casually allowed as how, “Oh yes, we all fall there.”
And that was when we named it‒The Belgian Half-Step. BEWARE THE BELGIAN HALF-STEP!
It will be there, in bars and restaurants, in shops, in offices, and in homes. We are now on perpetual guard, calling them out to each other like artillery observers. At a restaurant Karen returns to the table after a trip to the toilet.
“Belgian half-steps. One in the hallway, another inside the bathroom.”
We enter an establishment and I instinctively scan the floor.
“Belgian half-step. Two o’ clock”
“Got it” says wife.
During the Occupation in the Second World War the mysterious deaths of hundreds of Nazi soldiers were erroneously attributed to the Resistance. It was the Belgian half-step. Germans don’t have half-steps. They have goose steps.
Even today, each year hundreds of Americans get up from their restaurant tables to go to the toilet and are never seen again; their crumpled corpses are quickly hauled away in unmarked hearses. It’s not good for business if they’re seen.
You can find dazed tourists walking the streets with pitiful signs and photographs of missing loved ones, “Have You Seen Bob?” they will ask the locals, who give a quick “Je suis désolé, je ne parle pas l’anglais,” then scurry away. They know.
They don’t tell you this stuff in travel brochures.