The Pickpockets Are Not the Problem

Signs to remind the unwary to “beware of pickpockets” are in every Paris metro station, restaurant and museum. Paris bloggers tell you the latest scams such as the dropped gold ring and woven bracelets. Thieves work alone, in pairs or in groups, and as two obvious tourists, Perk and I know that we are wonderful targets!

Sometimes the groups are outrageously overt. A half-dozen schoolgirls dressed in uniforms of dark skirts and white blouses hover at the entrance of a Montmartre metro station each day, miming a request to sign a petition to help the deaf and mute; I know that they are neither because early one morning on my way to the boulangerie, I saw them laughing and talking on their way to “work.” It’s a good ploy: when a sympathetic tourist takes the clipboard in one hand and a pen in the other from one young woman, another girl slips her hand into his pocket or bag.  All of us who use that metro regularly watch out for the more gullible visitors on their way to the Sacre Coeur. Perk and I used to feel quite smug that we were “local” enough to be able to warn other tourists.

Music in the Air, a Hand in Your Pocket

One day we stopped in the Metro passage between train platforms to listen to a group of musicians playing rousing folk songs and selling their CD’s; children skipped through the crowd, adults snapped photos. The music made you want to dance. I took several pictures, tossed a few euros into a basket, and we moved on.  When we reached the platform, a man approached Perk,

“I want to warn you that two Gypsy boys from the music group tried to open your bag and steal from you. Please be more careful.” Sure enough, when Perk looked at the shoulder bag which he had slung over his back, the zipper was partly open.  The “pickings” weren’t good; apparently the kids didn’t need maps or another umbrella. But we were not quite so smug thereafter and we now make sure that our bags are secured!

The Problem?  C’est Nous!

We made our way into the Louvre taking our membership cards from our wallets, stopping by the information desk to pick up some pamphlets about a new exhibit. Hands overflowing with cards, brochures, wallets and cameras, we moved to the side of the madding crowd to organize ourselves. At that point, I realized that my wallet was gone.

A museum employee shook her head mournfully when I asked where to find the Lost and Found. “I will take you there, but I am sure it is of no use.  You need to be more careful about pickpockets, Madame.”  I know, I know…  I have seen them on the streets and in the metro; I can read French signs…

The clerk at the Lost and Found eyed me carefully. She spoke English. “You lost your wallet?” I nodded and started a description. Interrupting me, she held out a pad of paper and said, “Write your name here.” It wasn’t a form to be filled out, but plain notepaper. I printed “Cynthia Perkins”.

She unlocked a drawer and pulled out my red wallet. She looked at me, at the picture on my driver’s license and then held out the wallet — credit cards, driver’s license and euros intact. She stated the obvious. “You are lucky, Madame, that an honest person saw you drop this. A pickpocket would not have returned it.”

***

A few nights later, we chose a sidewalk table for dinner at a nearby restaurant. We carefully put our bags under the table so that no super scooper thief on a skateboard could swing by and grab them. The staff was fun and gregarious; the locals were friendly. We enjoyed the duck, the recommended wine, dessert and coffee.  Like stuffed ducks ourselves, we waddled the half-mile back up the hill to our apartment. Three hours later, Perk decided to check his phone … that was in his bag…that was left under the table.

Midnight on Saturday night in Montmartre is the beginning of the fun, so we knew the restaurant would still be open. We sped back and our waiter greeted us joyously!

“It is here! It is here! You left your bag and I did not know how to find you! No one has opened it, I promise you!”  Telephone, binoculars, camera were all in place! Grateful, Perk tipped the waiter who thanked him and said, “Please, you must be more careful. Not all people are so honest.”

He is right, of course. Not all people in Paris nor in Houston, New York or London are so honest. It’s not the pickpockets of Paris who are the problem; it’s the people like us – the casual, careless, trusting tourists who get themselves into trouble!

Once Bitten…

Sauntering through the Tuilleries, we watched a group of young adults in their school sweatshirts, joking and laughing. They approached us with a clipboard, but the metro petitioners and the Gypsy songsters had made us more careful.  We ignored their requests for “help,” until one young woman explained in careful English,

“We are a group of engineering students from the Ecole Centrale, and we have a series of challenges that we have to do today.” She pointed to a checklist on the clipboard.

“One thing that we have to do is to make a video of some old people saying that our university is the best in all of France.” Seeing our grins, another student intervened, “No, no, she didn’t mean ‘old’ like senile. She meant ‘old’ like ‘mature’ – we can’t ask other students.”  We looked at each other, shrugged and agreed.

Perk donned a Centrale sweatshirt , we made the quick video, then handed over our cameras for them to take a group picture …  no one took my Nikon and ran, no one slipped a hand into my shoulder bag. Sometimes you just have to take a chance!

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Cheers! A Toast to Wine Glasses

Sacre Coeur

Sacre Coeur from Our Apartment

We are ensconced in our apartment in Montmartre, with its incredible view of the Sacre Coeur and the rooftops of Paris. At night music and cigarette smoke drift through the open balcony doors from the Square de Willette seven floors below.  Like Owen Wilson in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, I am quite sure that Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds and Sartre are driving about the streets, and I will run into them around the next corner!

The apartment is everything that it was advertised to be on the Vacation Rentals by Owner Website (VRBO). We have two bedrooms, a separate water closet, a dishwasher, and even a washing machine! But what we didn’t have was an extra supply of wine glasses for entertaining our family. Since the apartment had been recently refurbished with IKEA home design, we decided to buy some matching glassware. The nearest IKEA was in Roissy, at the Parc des Expositions. We felt very global – Americans searching out a Swedish store in France. But getting there without a car was the challenge!

From Hemingway to Hamlet

We consulted the Website for public transport directions: first a Metro, then a train, then a local bus.  We’re Metro pro’s now, so we were soon at Gare du Nord, one of the major train stations. Buying a train ticket presented the first predicament – the automatic machines took only coins, and we had bills. After fierce negotiations with the official at the Bureau de Change whose job, he reiterated emphatically, was to exchange foreign currency NOT Euro’s, we emerged victorious having traded our Euro paper for Euro coins.  We popped our money into the machine, and out popped two tickets.

To Go … or Not to Go?

Looping our way through the throngs, we arrived at the designated platform. A train was waiting … but was it ours?  As we puzzled through the list of stations searching for “Expositions,” the warning bell rang. To go … or not to go… that was the question!

Passengers crowded forward.  The bell rang again, and the doors began to close. We shrugged, and with inches to spare, we leaped aboard. What did we have to lose? If the train wasn’t going where we wanted to go, we could just get a return ticket at the “unknown destination.” Or, if the unknown destination turned out to be fun, perhaps we would buy a toothbrush and stay there for a day or two!

The train interior was utilitarian, with plush seats worn to a hard glaze. Outside, the cinder track beds ran alongside each other; power lines rusted overhead. I thought of black/white movies of troop trains going through a gray and rain-soaked Europe, but the houses along the track had colorful window boxes behind the hedges and shutters thrown wide to catch the afternoon sun. I wondered how they had looked when my uncles were part of the liberation in 1945.

How Do You Say IKEA?

IKEA at Roissy

After screeching stops at various stations, the train surprisingly halted at Parc des Expositions! We scrambled out of our seats and on to the platform. The Website had suggested bus number 640 or 23; each had its own bay and we settled uneasily between the two, ready to board quickly when one or the other arrived. Bus 640 rolled in and I approached the driver, “Est-ce quec’est  l’autobus du magasin …?”  I hesitated.  How do you say “IKEA” in French? I substituted. “…du magasin de la Suede? …Does this bus go to the store from Sweden?” The driver grinned. “Oui, madame. Cet autobus va EYE-KEY’-AH” . It sounded like the IKEA in Minneapolis, Houston, Denver, and probably in Sweden as well! He made sure we got off at the right stop.

Cheers!

Far more confident and many Euro’s less, we returned by bus, train and metro to the apartment … bearing wine glasses and other impulse purchases. We were impressed with ourselves – especially with our spontaneous decision to jump on the train to nowhere at the last minute! If we had ended up on the Riviera or in the Dordogne Valley, we would have bought toothbrushes. We have all the time in the world … or at least six more weeks!

We filled our glasses, stood on the balcony and saluted the Sacre Coeur with a good chardonnay!