It’s June 6th, the sun is shining, the metros are oppressively hot and the city is crawling with tourists. Staging romantic kisses in the middle of the Pont Alexandre III, posing for pictures with the sculptures in the jardin des Tuileries and boosting the French economy buying anything that sparkles with an Eiffel Tower on it. Since tourist season is pretty much year-round most Parisians have learned to co-exist with the constant influx of tour busses and Eiffel Tower print ponchos – either by avoiding the most popular destinations or ignoring the people visiting them. Anyone who actually gets annoyed by the constant stream of tourists is probably relatively new to the city himself.
It’s what follows the tourists that is the problem. Panhandlers and Gypsies from Eastern Europe know non-francophones to be easy marks, and using roughly the same tourist-spotting criteria as I do, their numbers tend to increase proportionally to the number of tourists in the city. During most of the year I know who and what to avoid. The Sénègalese immigrants who lurk around the steps up to Sacre Coeur can have matching string bracelets tied onto the wrists of an unsuspecting tourist couple before they even realize what’s happening. Once the bracelet is on, payment is demanded. These guys are not afraid to get in people’s faces, so it’s generally a better idea to keep an eye on your wrists than to try to refuse them their few euros.
If you’re ever approached by any scruffy or desperate-looking woman asking Speak English?, give a firm NO and head in the opposite direction. Most of these ladies lurk around major tourist destinations, beneath the Tour Eiffel, up and down the Champs Elysées and around the Arc de Triomphe. When some hapless American answers yes, the woman shoves a piece of paper into their hands, usually detailing a sad story about the person’s family back in Eastern Europe or a sick child without access to proper medical care. Once you’re holding the paper, there’s no escaping – at least not without a severe moral beating. R was approached by one of these women a few days after we arrived last August. When she apologized to the woman for having no cash on her, invoked quite the lecture. If I had known you were not a good person, I would not have shared my family’s story with you. I do know there is no place for you in Heaven. Being Jewish, I don’t think she was too concerned, but it was a pretty obnoxious way to treat someone you’re attempting to extract pity from.
There’s a never-ending supply of buskers on the metro, but the worst are found on the RER train lines heading North – especially heading toward Charles de Gaulle airport. When I rode the RER B to the airport to fly home for Christmas, there was a father and son Eastern European busking team. The dad played Christmas music on his fiddle while the son climbed over suitcases and between legs in a sleeves-too-short jacket and a limp and dirty Santa Claus hat collecting coins. The boy was probably 8 or 9 and it was a Friday morning – smack in the middle of the school day. I think most of the travelers were torn between not wanting to support a guy who would take his son out school to demean himself in a Santa hat and wanting to help the kid get a winter coat that fit. I didn’t give money. I had the feeling that even with everyone in the car’s donation the boy wouldn’t have gotten a new jacket – the heartstring-plucking aspect of his forearms poking too far out of the sleeves was just too valuable to give up.
Of all the bizarre scam-money-from-tourists schemes I’ve only really fallen for one. By now I’ve seen this one so many times that I cringe when I see some unsuspecting person about to get suckered. One morning in February I was walking to Sciences Po, listening to music on my iPod and completely in my own world when an older man grabbed my elbow. When I turned toward him, he was brandishing a massive golden ring, so I pulled off my headphones to hear what he had to say. C’est à vous, mademoiselle? (Is this yours?) I shook my head but he pressed on. You didn’t drop it? I just found it on the sidewalk here, it must be yours. I shook my head again but this time he grabbed my right hand and slid the ring onto my finger. For you, mademoiselle, he told me. At this point I still had no clue that I was being played and just gave him a confused look.
Then he asked me for 15 euro. Just to eat, mademoiselle, s’il vous plait. I told him to sell the ring, but he refused to take it back and just got more persistent. I finally managed to shove the ring back into his hand and told him I had no cash (I always have cash, I just don’t hand it out to people who accost me on the street). He was pretty irritated by this so I offered him a pack of Lu cookies I hadn’t opened yet. At this he just shook his head and stomped away, muttering about euros.
I didn’t realize how easily I’d fallen into the trap until I saw the same ploy used again by another panhandler in another part of the city. Always the same clunky golden ring that some impoverished person just happens to find laying at the feet of a well-to-do non-Parisian. Just this afternoon on my way to Sciences Po I saw it twice – once in the jardin des Tuileries and once on the Pont Royal. I didn’t really pay any attention the first time – just kind of chuckled and continued on my way. The second time though, a young woman pulled the trick a middle-aged American couple that looked absolutely lost. The husband was clutching his camera and a guidebook and the wife was poring over a map with a passport pouch dangling around her neck.
When I saw her approach them, I almost went over to intervene. It’s not theirs! They don’t want it!, I envisioned myself yelling. But as touristy as they looked, I wanted to give them a little more credit. The husband will figure it out, I reasoned, so I kept on my way. Once across the street, though, I turned back to look at them and saw the wife holding the ring back toward the woman as the husband fumbled around in his traveler’s money wallet. Oh well, I’m sure I’ll have plenty of tourist-saving opportunities in the next two months.