The Packing

Packing. A suitcase near ready.

I’m off on another trip tomorrow. Second of the year, and this time for nearly a week. Which is good. I spent far too long not going anywhere. But my gosh, why can I still not manage to pack my bags without sending myself into a tizzy?
I had for a while got quite good at limiting myself to carry-on luggage – learning to travel with my essentials in one small canvas shoulder bag, including my camera, notebooks and the minimum essential toiletries (though one becomes a dab hand at throwing away discount shower gels and shampoos after a while). But lately I’ve started travelling with a suitcase again, a luxury that allows me proper changes of clothes, spare shoes, multiple jackets, abundant underwear (trust me, there’s no such thing as too much underwear on a trip). And room for souvenirs.

But no matter what size the bag, or how much notice I have, I guarantee I’ll be up into the small hours slowly packing, repacking and rethinking and stressing about being over-tired and missing my travel plans the following day. If I get two hours in bed I’ll be doing well. I can’t be the only one like this surely?

A couple of months ago I watched a friend prepare her case for a trip. Jet-setting around Europe, she’s somehow become a dab hand at cramming her case with essentials for each leg of the trip, and discarding anything that didn’t fit. Oh, to be so ruthless. But I’m a natural hoarder too, so not doing that is hard.

I’ve most of my clothes packed as of last night, which is good. But there’s final decisions to be made. My case lies open on a bed. The possible contents strewn over the side. At 2am tonight I’ll still be stressing over it, and wondering why I’m not already in bed, and worried about missing my 4am alarms and my flight. Every. Single. Time.

But this is the moment before the trip springs into life. When the tension is high and potential adventure awaits. Its the moment of excitement building, the transition from the everyday to the voyage. Once the bag is zipped, the suitcase locked, then the journey finally begins.

Pickpockets in Paris

I told myself that I knew better. That I’d had enough experience not to get overly anxious. That the precautions I employed were adequate. But I was wrong. Sunday morning as I walked along the perimeter of Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris I discovered the wallet I’d had not half an hour before as I descended the steps into the Métro, had gone.

A frantic search of my pockets, my bag, concluded in confirmation of what I already knew to be the case – some unknown light-fingered individual(s) had quickly dipped into my bag and lifted my battered black leather wallet, along with my bank card, provisional drivers license, keys to my airbnb lodgings and all the cash I had on me. Fuck.

I still had 48 hours until I was due to set off back for Belfast, had only a couple of Euros sitting in my room across the city in the 13e and absolutely no back-up plan. In quick succession calls went out to my bank, family, friends and my insurers. I made for the nearest police station to report the theft – a futile gesture considering I didn’t have any idea who the thief was. My smattering of GCSE French just about enough to get me through the explanations.

Seldom have I felt so stupid, so cross with myself. I’d been having a particularly positive few days, and a very good morning, and as I crossed town I’d allowed myself to get complacent and comfortable – not paying proper attention to my shoulder bag or my pockets. Too busy fiddling with my phone. Thinking that I wasn’t anywhere particularly crowded. I know better, but still I allowed myself to become vulnerable.

People crowding the Champs-Élysées.
People crowding the Champs-Élysées.

Paris is renowned for its pickpocket problem, and scam artists generally. Gangs of orchestrated thieves work the train network and tourist hotspots. Romanian groups have been getting the blame for a lot of it (and that was very clear from a couple of conversations I had with Parisians), though the truth is, they aren’t the only ones at work.

A couple of nights before I’d been dodging the flower-sellers in the streets near Notre Dame – I’d witnessed their hard sell some years before when one thrust a rose into my then-partner’s hands along the Champs-Élysées and then pursued us for money until the rose was thrown to the pavement (I gather a similar technique is used by the ‘string-men’ outside the Sacré-Cœur, putting string bracelets on the unwitting and demanding cash). Walking through the more touristy bits of the city on Saturday I’d somehow survived several scams and had grown falsely confident.

Alongside Pont Neuf, near the Louvre I’d watched a Romany-type gleefully egging on an English-speaking group as he played a card game, the participants seemingly winning and betting more and more. A classic scam that will only end in huge losses, and I was shocked anyone would be so gullible. I didn’t stick around to watch too much just in case an accomplice was working the pockets of the onlookers.

Moving through the city one finds scores of tat-sellers armed with low-quality Eiffel Tower keyrings, selfie-sticks and what not, and tempting though it may be, one is best to avoid purchasing gifts from these roaming traders, and stick instead to the abundance of fixed retail outlets.

As I moved towards the Champs I noticed a number of people out with petitions. A common enough sight on the streets of Belfast, so I wasn’t too wary. As I baked in the midday sun a young woman suddenly thrust a clipboard and a pen into my hands (its amazing how easy it is to be caught off-guard), pointed to the writing which was in English, and all I picked up on at first was something about being deaf/dumb (she made gestures indicating that she was this way), and she pointed out the names and countries on the form and I found myself signing briefly.

Looking at it again I suddenly saw the donation category, and I noticed the poor photocopying job on the sheet, and even the fact that I was signing in red pen seemed to me to be a no-no (forms back home are no good in red ink as it doesn’t copy/scan properly). I realised there wasn’t any additional badges, or information about the charity – all things I expect when I’m working with organisations here – and so I quickly scored out my details, uttered ‘I can’t’ and walked off. She looked somewhat baffled and annoyed.

I’ve learnt since that the charity collection scam is a common one – the money simply goes into their pockets and not to any organisation, and some of the on artists use it as an opportunity to raid your pockets too.

The Arc de Triomphe
The Arc de Triomphe

Eventually I’d found myself taking photos across from the Arc De Triomphe and witness the one scam I’d disbelievingly read about before making the trip. A slightly stooped and scruffy man was walking along the edge of the road, beside the pavement, when suddenly he dropped down and picked up a shiny object – a gold ring. He tried to make contact with me, but I ignored him and he continued across the road and down the avenue stopping down and picking up this same gold ring every time he thought he had a likely mark.

As I understand the idea is to encourage the greedy punter to offer him a small reward for finding  what they assume to be an expensive piece of jewellry, but which is no better than the rings found in an apple tart. He’s got a stash in his pocket, and the scam itself does seemingly work. My cockiness at surviving this was my undoing on the Sunday morning.

Sitting in the quiet police station I had time to make notes, speak again to my card company, and worried folks back home. And pop off emails to my host, letting them know I no longer possessed keys to the flat. Eventually I got taken into an office with a yellow filter over the windows that gave the room a sickly vibe and did nothing for my confidence. The lady officer took my statement in a mix of English and French and I was supplied with a report and a substitute paper driving license – which was odd, because my provisional doesn’t actually let me drive properly anyway. Tired, hungry, but resigned to fate I stepped back out into the now late afternoon sun and the hour+ walk back to my lodgings.

Along the dusty Boulevard de Bastille a friendly black gentleman in his 30s singled me out as an English speaker and asked me for money. He was pleasant. I might actually have felt generous, but instead I told him that someone had taken all my money from me “quelque person a prendre tout mon argent“, and bless, he seemed genuinely rattled by my misfortune.

Back at the flat my host was fairly understanding, pinning blame on the Romanians as several others had done, and supplying me with a new key once he ascertained I had no record of the flat’s address in my wallet. Visa sent me a cash advance via Western Union which I couldn’t pick up until the following morning, but at least I wouldn’t be stranded. Sitting back at the table in my room I flicked through my notebook, and dined on the luxury of a single strawberry yoghurt and half bottle of vino rouge. The day a write off, but my spirits undiminished.

When: June 2015
Where: Paris, France


A map, pen and notebook… what else awaits?

Everything has a beginning. All books, all blogs, all bodies. Even this gigantic infinite universe has an origin, though no amount of explanation ever gives us a nice clear moment. I digress.

This is the beginning of Don’t Want To Wander, a chronicle of adventures of a man who spent far too much time at home, and wants to spread his wings. It isn’t the beginning of those adventures however, for they began many years ago, and so from time to time I will be reflecting on experiences past as the new narrative is woven.

Some of you know me already. I’m Robert. Native of Northern Ireland. A sometime freelance arts professional. What’s that when its at home? Well, basically I have a couple of arts degrees and stubbornly stick to the idea that my money is earned through whatever vaguely artistic avenue is offered. Whether that be writing, photography, acting,broadcasting or something else entirely. It can be fun, sometimes I get to go places with work and have random experiences that make the whole thing memorable. I blog already, quite a bit, but I wanted to write more about things that didn’t really fit in with my other content. And so we’re here. Somewhere I can talk about the places and people I get to.

Not everything is about foreign adventures. Some of it is much closer to home – days on solo travels, road trips with friends, that sort of thing. But there’s also jaunts further afield. New friendships, relationships, strange encounters. You might enjoy some of that. I’m trying to do it more – I used to travel around a fair bit with work, but then that stopped for a few years, and my appetite has been whetted and is being indulged a little once more. So this may also serve to encourage me to do more things. All part of my Robert 3.0 life. I tend to go everywhere armed with a camera and a notebook, so I’ll be drawing on my images, art and jottings along the way.  Occasionally identities will be obscured to protect the innocent.

Being an arts-type (and sometime artist), I’m always working to micro-budgets too – relying on discounts, freebies, careful planning and the kindness of friends and strangers. I stress that now, because it is both the reason and the limitation behind a fair bit of what happens. If you want to play along, you can join me on my adventures (Twitter or my Facebook page will usually let you know where I’m going to be), or pop me a message if you’d like to put me up for a few days, or better still, combine a visit with work! But I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, the journey begins…

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