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


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