I thought I’d follow up yesterday’s post with a slightly sobering one. With over 42 million tourists a year, the City of Lights is the most visited city in the world. It is so easy to be bedazzled and awestruck by the beauty of Paris, which make us tourists easy prey. And where there is easy prey, there are predators… Their hunting grounds (surprise, surprise) are the highly tourist-populated areas – the métro and practically every tourist site in the city.
As mentioned in earlier posts, the French are very proud of their culture and their language, so it is no surprise that all their public signs are in French. English may be a universal language, but that is not the case in France. So for a tourist, this adds another bewildering element to the mix. (This is why I really think that one should learn some basic French if you are thinking of travelling to France.) So imagine this scenario… You arrive in Paris, giddy with excitement. Everything is so amazing. You are wowed by the beauty of the architecture, the streets, the people… by everything really… You start walking along the streets, or maybe you decide to be adventurous and take the métro. You think to yourself – how hard can it be? I do it all the time at home. You continue on your way, basking in the glory that is Paris when suddenly, you look around and realise that everything is in French. Why aren’t there any signs telling you how to get to the Louvre? Uh-oh… maybe you need some help after all. You look around you and there are endless streams of people walking past. Everyone seems to know where they’re going, except you of course. Then you have a brilliant idea – of course, you packed a map in your bag. That was great foresight! You pull your map out and start scrutinizing it, absent-mindedly leaving your bag open. You my friend, have just posted a sign to your back ‘Easy Prey – Pick Me.’
Think it won’t happen to you? Hmm… I had ample warning from my tutor, read up on all the scams and how to avoid them, I learnt enough French to read the signs, I researched our métro route for all our destinations, I even pored over maps so I would have a rough idea where our destinations were, and we still got caught out once at Champs-Élysées when I was searching for the FNAC outlet. Exiting the métro station, I had no idea which direction we were facing. Feeling hungry, we decided to stop by at one of the sandwich shops for a quick bite. At the counter, the girl who served us spoke good English and she even warned hubby to be careful with his money, indicating to a group of dark-skinned youths loitering around the entrance of the shop. That should have alerted us. We paid for our sandwiches and left the store. Hubby was munching on his sandwich and I decided I needed to get my bearings so I pulled out a map from my bag. I was trying to work out where we were so I took my eyes off hubby for a minute. When I looked up, he was being harassed by a gypsy girl for money for food. He looked stunned as she was getting aggressive and was getting right in his face. I grabbed his hand and turned to her with a stern ‘Non’, and started dragging him away, thinking that would suffice. Imagine my panic when she started following us. (This was during the day, on a street full of people.) We ended up running away from her, before eventually losing her in the crowd. After that experience, I had to give hubby a crash course in how to avoid ‘les mendiants’. He fared much better later on in the trip when we were approached again by a gypsy girl while we were having a picnic lunch at Square Jean XXIII behind Cathédrale Notre-Dame. The point of my post is not to scare you. To be honest, I felt safer walking the streets of Paris than I do when I’m in the centre of Melbourne. But there are things a tourist should do to avoid being targeted as easy prey. A bad experience can really ruin what could be an amazing visit to Paris. (We had no safety issues when we were travelling in the countryside, although again it would be wise to follow prudent security measures like locking your car, being careful with your belongings, etc… Really these are things that you would normally do in your home country anyway.)
Anyway, here are my safety tips for Paris:-
- Know how to spot ‘les mendiants’. These beggars (my tutor calls them gypsies) work in groups. They are generally Romanian gypsy women, some of them even young teenage girls. They are quite easy to spot as they are dark-skinned and ethnic in appearance. These beggar women beg on the side of the street, usually with some sort of sob story about needing money for food. Some of them will approach you directly for money (which is what happened in our case) although it is illegal for beggars approach people and they can get arrested. However, a minor cannot be prosecuted, which is why that didn’t stop the young girl from approaching us.
- Beware of scams. They are rampant at all popular tourist destinations. There is the gold ring scam – The scammer picks up a ‘gold ring’ off the street and gives it to you, telling you it’s your lucky day. They will then ask you for money in exchange for the ring. Sometimes they will even put it in the hand of an unsuspecting tourist and then demand that they be paid for it. Then there’s the friendship bracelet scam – The scammer will reach for your hand (without your permission even), attach a string, make a bracelet with it and then ask you for money. There are also the petition scams – The scammer is usually a young girl (specially designed to make you lower your guard). She shows you a clipboard with a petition in English. The most popular petition at the moment is to help deaf and dumb children. (We had that tried on us too.) Once you sign the petition, she will then ask you for money. If you are heading to Montmatre, my tutor tells me they line the street on rue de Steinkerque as most tourists get off at the Anvers métro stop, thinking rue de Steinkerque offers the most direct route to the top of the hill. You are better off using the Abbesses métro station with a western approach towards Montmartre.
- Beware of aggressive vendors. These street vendors line the streets at popular destinations like the Tour Eiffel, Montmartre, etc. They can sell anything from souvenirs to bottled water. With these vendors, there is no ‘just looking’. If you show any interest in their wares, they will hound you. Their tactic is to intimidate you into buying their stuff.
- Beware of pickpockets. I could write a whole page on this one. Be especially careful on the métro. As mentioned above, the métro can be a little overwhelming for the first time visitor. Keep your wits about you. Pickpockets usually work in groups and their weapon is misdirection. It could be the person next to you who ‘accidentally’ spills something on you, it could two people yelling at each other pretending to have an argument while the well-dressed middle-aged lady sitting next to you relieves you of your wallet, it could be a group of teenage schoolgirls squeezing in next to you, it could even be the well-dressed gentleman standing next to you who ‘drops’ his book. Anything that draws your attention is designed to distract you. While I think secret money belts hidden underneath your clothes are a bit extreme, I do believe that if you carry a bag on the métro, it should be one that can be easily secured and would appear to be too challenging for a would-be thief. My handbag of choice has a zippered opening, with an extra belted clasp going over the top of the bag. It sits snugly under my arm and it is physically impossible for anyone to stick their hand into my bag without me knowing. Hubby carries our camera in a messenger bag which has a clasp on the front, and a zippered compartment on the inside. He always has his hand over the bag, which again makes it physically impossible for anyone to stick their hands into the bag. We don’t carry anything in our pockets. All money and mobile phones are stored safely in the bags. If we know we are going to take the métro, we always take our Navigo pass out while we are still on the streets, before we head into the métro station. In the métro, we usually try to stand facing each other instead of side by side. In the end, the best deterrent is to not appear like an easy prey. Pickpockets roam all the popular tourist destinations. So while you are awed by everything you are seeing and experiencing, always be mindful of your belonging.
- For single travellers, Paris is not an unsafe place. But again, beware of any random flirtation from a complete stranger. See this post for a real-life account.
- Then there’s the usual travel advice – make sure the taxi runs by the meter, check your change at the cashier, secure your belongings, do not set your bag down unattended at any time, do not give money to any stranger no matter how sad their story is, never flash easily-lifted valuable items around – iPhones and iPods are particularly popular with thieves. This is all common sense really…
- Learn these French words – ‘Non’, Allez-vous en’ which means ‘Go away’ and ‘Dégage’ which means ‘Sod off’. You need to say it in a firm tone. The appropriate head shaking and hand gestures would probably help too.
- With scammers it’s best to not even allow them to finish their ‘sales-pitch’. Interrupt them with a firm ‘Non’, look away with disinterest and keep walking. Make sure your steps are purposeful and do not show any hesitation. They see that as a sign of weakness.
- If you think you are being pick-pocketed, do not be afraid to yell ‘Voleur’ which means thief. Drawing attention to yourself may be your best defence.
- Do not feel sorry or bad for being abrupt, rude or unkind. A fellow British traveller we met on our travels in Bourgogne used to work in Paris and he told us that the bands of gypsy beggars are operated by the Russian mafia. That may well be true… The pain of having to cancel credit cards or being stuck without your passport or cash in a foreign country far outweighs the potential help you can offer anyone.
I hope this does not dampen your enthusiasm for this wonderful city. Paris truly is magical and beautiful. If you put a little effort into planning and know how not to stick out like tourists and easy prey, I’m sure you will fall in love with Paris like we have.