Paris is home to many wonderful things and some not so good. Blessed with incredible art, food and public monuments, it is the number one tourist destination in the world. But like any urban ecosystem with a substantial food source there will be predators. In this case that means criminals and in particular pickpockets.
Make no mistake about it, Paris, its streets, tourist destinations and the metro are worked by professional pickpockets on a daily basis. No matter what you do or how you dress as a tourist you have a bulls-eye on your back. Let me share my story with you and give you a few pointers on how to avoid becoming a victim. I should know, I broke every rule and paid the price.
Now back to that day. I love taking photos of Paris. When I do I think of the great photographers who came before me. They saw the city in such unique ways and left a spectacular visual legacy. Doisneau, Frank, Kertesz, the list goes on and on. I have a great time doing this. That is just what I was doing that hot summer day, spending hours roaming the 8th and 1st, enjoying a free afternoon in Paris shooting images of dogs,
and anything that strikes my eye as interesting. It was very hot and I was very tired by the end of the day. That is where my problems began.
The next photo is not particularly well shot or interesting but it has a certain meaning to me. It is the last shot I took before I was robbed.
I took it while waiting for the number 8 line from the Champ Elysees back to La Motte Piquet Grenelle, our stop for the Yellow Flat apartment. This is what I did wrong when I got on the train.
1. I stood in the middle of the car. It was a crowded train but not that crowded, plenty of room for pickpockets to work. I should have stood against the door where I could watch what was going on.
2. I did not pay attention to my surroundings. I was tired, it was the end of the day and I stopped looking around at what was going on in the train.
3. I relaxed. I was completely relaxed it was just another metro ride that week.
4. I wore baggy shorts (my son knew immediately which ones) which left plenty of space in my front pocket where my wallet sat, with cash, credit cards and id, just waiting. My hands were by my sides or maybe one on my camera strap.
Ok, now the scene is set, so what happened? Well, I believe this is the most important advice that I can give to you.
If something odd occurs, out of the ordinary, that distracts you, that doesn’t seem quite right, then your spidey sense needs to start tingling because something bad is going down.
It seemed so innocent. The man in front of me dropped his keys on the floor. I looked down and said to him in French, your keys. He picked them up without reply. I never felt his partner’s hand as it reached into my pocket but I did not feel right almost immediately.
Then I heard a voice from my left in French, it was one of the passengers and he said to me “He is over there. The pickpocket is over there”. I reached my hand into my pocket and sure enough my wallet was gone. And I saw him, well dressed in a black sweater and jeans moving down the ailse away from me. I yelled at him, “My wallet.”
He moved more quickly now towards the door, I yelled again, Hey, my wallet. At that point the doors opened and he began to exit the train. I started after him and as he saw me coming he did something completely unexpected. In one fluid graceful motion, he reached his hand into my wallet, pulled out the cash (about 70 euro) and flipped it up into the air. That is right, he threw the wallet back to me. I watched it turning end over end in the air in what seemed to be slow motion and it landed at my feet. By the time I retrieved it he and his partner were long gone. The metro doors shut and there I stood. Only one passenger spoke to me, she asked if I was OK and I told her I was. The rest never looked up from their books, newspapers and phones. Just another day in the big city.
I hope this story helps you to remember that when you travel in Paris you are target. You are being watched. Here are some recommendations:
Keep your guard up all the time, especially when tired.
Watch our for crowds of moving kids in tourist traps and avoid them. Walk away fast.
Only carry what you need and never ever your passport.
Keep an eye on each other, hands in your pockets on your wallets.
Don’t fall for the distraction, whatever it is.
If you sense something is wrong most likely it is.
If something happens don’t be afraid to yell loud for help. These are petty criminals and will often back off. It may or may not work, but it certainly will make you feel better.
I got lucky. I got my wallet back with all of my credit cards and driver’s license, worth a lot more than the cash and my vacation wasn’t ruined. I hope that by sharing this with all of you that you can avoid making the same mistakes.