PARIS — Twenty minutes. That’s how long it took, after checking into a charming Latin Quarter hotel, to travel two stops on the nearby Metro — and look down to see my pocketbook unzipped and my wallet gone.
Welcome to Paris. As I momentarily stood in a daze, thinking here I am in Paris with no cash, credit cards, bank card, or driver’s license (fortunately my passport was not taken), several teens and a young girl had zipped out of the Metro, probably turning the loot over to a waiting adult.
I quickly retraced my steps and spotted my discarded wallet in a crevice near a wall. Credit and bank cards and driver’s license were still there. Gone were the $200 and 150 euros (just under $200) I had gotten from a cash machine at the airport.
I was frustrated and angry, both with the young thieves and myself for not emptying my wallet before leaving the hotel, and it turns out I was experiencing an all-too-typical Parisian tourist experience. The Mona Lisa? Oui. Eiffel Tower? Oui. Pickpockets? Mais oui!
Three days later the Louvre was shut down when some 200 workers, including guards, went on strike to protest the growing problem of pickpockets preying both on them and tourists in the famed museum. Thierry Choquet, a member of the Louvre union, was quoted as saying, “For more than a year, pickpockets have come here every day.” The Louvre reopened the following day after museum officials said they would increase security.
Despite warning signs posted at various spots throughout the museum, which attracted almost 10 million visitors in 2012, it’s not difficult to imagine, with a crush of people about 20 rows deep trying to view the Mona Lisa, how easy it would be for practiced pickpockets to have a field day there.
That night I took a few minutes to Google “pickpockets in Paris.” A US Embassy page popped up almost immediately. “France is a relatively safe country. Most crimes are nonviolent, but pick-pocketing is a significant problem,” according to its Tips for Traveling Abroad.
According to the embassy, pickpockets here are “commonly children under the age of 16 because they are difficult to prosecute.” Crowded tourist areas and the Metro are particularly appealing spots for such grab-and-run schemes.
To avoid becoming a victim, the embassy advises carrying only essential items when going out: one credit or ATM card, one piece of identification, only as much cash as you need for that outing. And keep those items in separate compartments or pockets, so you don’t lose everything.
Being a frequent traveler, a native New Yorker who prides herself on being street smart, and carrying a special travel bag that is not easy to get into didn’t help me much. And even a heightened awareness during the rest of our six-day stay didn’t stop us from almost becoming victims again.
The day after the Louvre strike, my daughter and I were sitting in a cafe between the Marais section of Paris and the Louvre, when two young girls about 10 or 11 walked in. One of them came up to our small round table and held a legal-size yellow sheet over the table that had some kind of writing crammed on it from top to bottom. Not a word or a look, she just stood there with the paper.
I assumed she was begging and the paper had some kind of “help me” story on it. But by now hyper-vigilant about getting ripped off, I loudly said “no” several times and told my daughter to hold on to her purse while I was hugging mine close. The girl finally started to move away when suddenly a young man who recognized the ruse rushed over, grabbed her arm — and pulled my daughter’s iPhone out of the girl’s hand.
We were so focused on holding on to our pocketbooks that we were completely oblivious to the fact that her phone was sitting on the table, just waiting to be taken.
Paris is a beautiful city, with incredible museums, wonderful food, and vibrant, lively streets and neighborhoods made for wandering. But even the foie gras at Josephine Chez Dumonet and the crispy applesauce-filled chaussons de pommes that I ate every morning at Erik Kayser could not quite overcome the bad taste of being robbed almost as soon as we got there, and the feeling that we needed to be vigilant every moment so as not to be victimized again.
Debbie Goldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.