Tuesday, July 26, 2011

40th Anniversary Report: Don't Act Stupidly in Paris

On my Facebook page yesterday, I made the comment that "You WILL be pick pocketed in Paris."  That was overstating the case.  The Wife has been in Paris twice and she has never been  pick pocketed.  And my friend, Ruth, who studied in Paris (with Nadia Boulanger, but who's dropping names?) said she has never been pick pocketed.  Of course Ruth might be a special case because she claims to descend from a line of horse thieves and everyone knows there's honor among thieves.  It's also noteworthy that The Wife and Ruth are women and women are less pick pocket worthy than men because they do not usually carry valuable things in their pockets.  They carry them in their purses and no self-respecting pick pocket is going to stick his hand into a woman's purse and risk coming out with an extra pair of eyelashes or a dried up tube of lipstick.

No, pick pockets are naturally going to pick on someone more dependable about where they stash their valuables, and men are nothing if not dependable about putting their cash in their wallet in their left rear pocket.  (I don't want any flack from women for calling them undependable.  It is a virtue, not a vice, to be an undependable victim for a thief.)

I am paranoid about being pick pocketed because two of my brothers were pick pocketed in Europe, and not having any horse thieves in the family, I figured I could not rely on honor among thieves to escape their fate.  So, the last time I came to Paris, about 10 years ago, I took along a fake wallet.  Actually, a real wallet but with nothing in it.  I would keep my money, passport, etc. elsewhere on my body, the actual location of which I won't disclose in case some Parisian pick pockets are reading my blog.

The last time I was here (and this time, for that matter) I was very careful getting in and out of subways, going up and down stairs (in the city, not in a home, for pete's sake,) being careful to note who was around me, holding back and letting others go first in and out doors, etc.  The plan was perfect.  It still is for that matter.  The problem was, and is in remembering to follow the plan at all times.

The last time I was here, I was on my way to Montmartre, which is well known as a hangout for scam artists and pick pockets, when the announcement came over the subway speakers that there had been some problem in the system and we would all have to get out at the next stop and take a bus the rest of the way.  I got out of the train with everyone else, carefully went up the stairs, stopped to assess the situation, spotted the bus that was to take us the rest of the way, saw that it was crowded and stopped, intending to wait for the next bus.  But a couple of friendly guys at the rear door said, "No, come on, there's room," so like a lamb being led to the slaughter, I got on.  I immediately knew I was going to be pick pocketed.  The guy behind me was leaning into me and I kept my left elbow in his stomach to keep him off.  The guy on the right had a newspaper over his hand, so I figured they were working together.  I kept my right hand tightly around my money in my pocket, and every once in a while broadcast the location of the empty wallet by patting my left rear pocket with my left hand.  Every time I checked the wallet was still there.  Just before the bus stopped, a third person, a young oriental-looking man on my right, shoved a map in front of my face and began asking where we were.  By the time I told him I didn't speak french and didn't know, the bus had stopped, I got off, breathed a sigh of relief, checked my left hip pocket and the flap over the pocket was unbuttoned and my wallet was gone.

Then I got very scared.  I figured if they could get away with taking my wallet, when I knew they were doing it, they could take anything they wanted, including a vital organ without me stopping them.  I was afraid the thieves would be very angry when they realized I had tricked them and would come after me in a dark alley and strip me clean.  I was wearing a distinctive straw hat that would have made it very easy to follow me or to describe me to another confederate, so I took that off and put it in my bag.  I bought another cheap wallet to put in my left pocket and was very careful not to get caught in any crowds nor to become completely isolated until I was well away from Montmartre.

So, this time in Paris, I was still paranoid.  I brought the empty wallet again.  On Monday, we went to Montmartre.  I was very nervous about going there.  I had The Wife take everything valuable out of her purse and leave it in the apartment.  I took nothing but 20 euros and a bank card which I carried in a place inaccessible to anyone not very intimate with me.  We got to Montmartre without any problem.  We looked around, ran into a friend, Kevin (of the JACK Quartet) had lunch with him, lectured him about the dangers of pick pocketing, went to the Arc d'Triomphe, walked the length of the Champs Elysee down past the Place de le Concorde, walked through the Jardin de Tuilleries, took a ride on a giant ferris wheel, then found the metro to go back to the apartment.

By then, it was around 8 o'clock and we were very tired, having walked five or six miles, easily.  No problem on the first metro (the Paris metro system really is fantastic, but I will leave raving about that to some other time.)  We switched trains at Chatelet les Halles, a busy central station where a lot of subway lines connect, and which is a particularly notorious place for pick pockets.  As we got to the track, the train was ready to pull out and was packed to the brim.  In fact, it had trouble leaving because one passenger had a couple of wheels of a baby buggy sticking out and the doors could not close.  No problem, trains on the line come every 3 to 5 minutes, we would wait for the next train.

We waited and waited and waited.  By 8:30, the train still had not come, there was a large crowd waiting and it was obvious that there was going to be a mad scramble to get on the next train.  I patted my empty wallet several times, just in case any thieves were sizing me up as a potential victim.  When the train finally came, I was determined that we were going to be on it.  I was tired and I wasn't about to let those other impolite people push on ahead of me and make me wait another half hour for another train.

We made it, just barely, but people were squashed together like the crackers that had been in the bottom of my bag all day (it's hard to think of a metaphor other than "sardines" in this situation, even though it's way overused.  Try it sometime.)  There was nobody around me that looked or acted particularly suspicious.  I just kept my hands around my wife and her purse, so nobody could snatch them.  The train was so packed that some people farther away from the door than The Wife and I could not get off when their stop came up, because people just would not move.  The man announced that they were getting off at the next stop, no matter what, and did kind of a rugby scrum pushing dive with his giant suitcase that got them off at the next stop.

The next stop was ours, and as we got off, I felt for the fake wallet and it was gone.  I don't know when it happened, but I imagine it was when everyone's attention was diverted by Rugby Man and his Scrum, not that I think he was a confederate.

So, the lesson, my friends is not that everyone WILL get pick pocketed in Paris.  The lesson is that if you do stupid things, like carry your money in a wallet on your left hip, and insist on fighting big crowds because you want to go where you want to go when you want to go, you WILL be pick pocketed.  The other lesson is that you don't mind it so much when you've scammed the scammers.  (The Wife did feel a little sorry for the thwarted pick pocket.  While I was gloating about how I would have liked to see the disappointment on his face when he opened that wallet, she said compassionately, "Well, maybe he got someone else's money.")


Gnightgirl said...

You're like Spy v. Spy in Mad Magazine! Way to thwart the bad guy.

Now. All that pick pocketing and no purse snatching?! I keep my ID and $$ close to me when I'm in any big city/touristy situation, and don't even THINK of looking at my shopping cart when I turn around to thump a watermelon--I've strapped it in with the child-security belt.

Tell Mrs. Crockhead to hold on tight.

JLF said...

I didn't put my wallet in my back pocket when I was in Paris. I wore a jacket and kept it in one of the Jacket pockets. But I also didn't carry much cash and kept my ATM card separate. Didn't get pick pocketed. But we also didn't use the metro at rush hour either. If you really want to put them off, put a few bills in the decoy wallet -- and maybe a few old credit cards that don't work.

forsythia said...

A friend told me his elderly parents were swarmed by a gang of cute Parisian moppets who expertly got their hands into pocket sand purses before the old folks knew what was up.