Last year, I spent Christmas in Toulouse, France, with my son and daughter and their respective partners. It had been six years since I’d last spent the festive season with both my children together, so I was understandably excited in the build-up to the occasion.

And I wasn’t disappointed. I had a wonderful time catching up with everyone, eating French food, drinking French wine, overdosing on Swiss chocolate, and generally doing my utmost to expand my Scottish derrière.

Since returning home, however, I can’t help but think about an incident that took place during my holiday that now fills me with shame.

Let me set the scene: It was late afternoon, and I’d just arrived outside a department store on the main shopping street in Toulouse. Earlier that afternoon, I’d arranged to meet my children there to make dinner plans.

Since I’d arrived early at our meeting place, I passed the time looking at the Christmas display in a showcase window. That’s when I got that odd sensation you get when you feel someone is watching you.

I glanced around discreetly. A short distance away, a man with a shaggy beard and bushy black eyebrows stared at me while inhaling deeply on a cigarette.

His intense scrutiny unnerved me, so I turned and feigned interest in the showcase window. But I could still feel those piercing eyes on the back of my neck. I moved my head slightly in his direction, as if I were looking at something further down the street. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him crush what was left of his cigarette beneath a scuffed boot. Then he began walking in my direction.

Now, I have no idea what I thought this man was going to do to me in broad daylight on a busy street, but my instincts told me it was time for me to make a move.

I hurried into the crowded department store, where I was immediately stopped by a security guard.

He said something in French, which could have translated into “Did you know that Alice in Wonderland has been asking for you?” for all I knew or cared. There was only one thing on my mind at that moment.

As soon as I’d passed the security check, I looked behind me. The Bearded One had stopped just short of the door, where he continued his staring act. But before I had a chance to say or do anything, he turned and walked off down the street. Despite the central heating in the store, I shivered.

Not all men with unruly facial hair are terrorists. And not all terrorists have unruly facial hair.

I’m ashamed to say it occurred to me that the Bearded One might have been a terrorist. France has been subjected to a number of terrorist attacks in recent years, so it’s not an entirely unreasonable thought to entertain.

I know it makes sense to be wary of strangers, but it’s not in the least bit sensible to judge people based on knee-jerk reactions that pander to stereotypes.

Not all men with unruly facial hair are terrorists. And not all terrorists have unruly facial hair. If it were so easy to identify a terrorist based on their appearance, we could just round them all up before they could do any harm. I’m sure we all know this, but what I wasn’t aware of was the impact media has had on me.

Day after day, many of us are inundated with news everywhere we turn. Sometimes, we read full reports, other times we scan articles to get the gist of the story, and yet other times we just look at the pictures and the captions. And once you’ve seen a picture, you can’t un-see it.

Pictures of terrorists usually show the suspects with dark, brooding expressions. After all, the general public don’t want to see pictures of a man playing with his children, having dinner with his friends, or frolicking in the waves while on holiday. That would make him look too, well … too normal.

The man who had been staring at me could have been severely short-sighted. Maybe he was waiting for someone outside the department store too – someone who looks a bit like me from a distance. It’s also possible that I reminded him of an old school friend he hadn’t seen in years. But more logically, it’s possible he just thought I was one hot old chick.

Maybe that last possibility should be my default knee-jerk reaction when I next catch a stranger staring at me.


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