Excuse Me, Is That Your Hand in My Pocket?

by Terry Hogan

Now that's a useful-- perhaps necessary-- sentence to know in French. But try to find it in a phrase book or a traveler's guide. You won't. And the reason is that you won't really need it. The Parisian pickpockets are too good. You'll never find the hand in your pocket. You'll only know that it has been there.

The French phrase you'll need is ''I've been robbed'' or perhaps ''someone has stolen my billfold.'' And then after the initial shock, you'll face the incredibly difficult situation of trying to cancel all the credit cards, bank cards, and phone cards. You will also begin to realize that your cash and most of your identity, as defined by our system, have disappeared. It can be disconcerting.

Perhaps if you're lucky, you'll be robbed at the Louvre in Paris. The Information Desk is multilingual and is very helpful. They had lots of experience and even a three ring binder with the phone numbers for all the major credit card companies in the world. They acknowledged that this is, unfortunately, a frequent event happening several times every day. So off we went, numbers in hand. Of course, some of the U.S. credit cards have no European phone number so calls must be made overseas to get the American toll-free number. At this point, it is discovered that Parisian pay phones don't take money. Pay phones only take a prepaid phone card, available at a French Post Office. Meanwhile, someone has my cash, credit cards and identification and is making the best of it.

I speak with some authority. It was September 1998. I'm an experienced traveler. I've had automatic weapons pointed at me by military types on three continents and several islands. I've been so sick on a small boat in the Amazon that I thought I would have had to improve to have had enough energy to die.

I'd been around. I had my passport, airline tickets, one credit card, some cash, some traveler's checks, and my international driver's license in a pouch underneath my pants. Furthermore, I had my billfold in my left front pocket. I was no neophyte tourist. But perhaps I was an overconfident one.

After canceling the cards, we found a local French police station to file a report. Unlike the perception of the cool, indifferent French, they were very helpful but seemed a little surprised that we'd bother to file a report. We couldn't speak French and it took awhile to find a police officer who was fluent enough in English to take my statement. (I shudder to think of the success that a Frenchman would have in an Illinois police station). She dutifully typed my mournful tale into a computer and then printed a copy out. I signed the statement, in French, wondering to what crime I was confessing. Perhaps I was confessing to all the major crimes that had occurred in the district for the last year. At that point, it seemed like a bearable risk.

Part of the next day (Sunday) was spent getting to the Paris office of American Express to get an emergency cash advance. It was the only credit card I had safely protected in a belt under my pants. The agent was helpful, gave me the cash, and warned me to avoid the subway and tourist spots as the pickpockets were everywhere and were very good. Good advice, bad timing.

The next big blow was to learn that my carefully protected International Driver's license was totally worthless without a valid U.S. license in your possession. Of course, my U.S. version was long gone. So down on money, with only one credit card, no phone cards, and unable to pick up the prepaid rental car, it was time to go home, the rest of the trip unfulfilled.

Back home, I began the long process of re-creating myself-- driver's license, social security card, insurance cards, credit cards, phone cards, company ID, etc.

It was February when I got a letter from the ''American Aid Society of Paris'' that had the U.S. Embassy Consular Section address in Paris as a mailing address. The letter informed me that my billfold, with credit cards, IDs, etc., (minus cash), had been forwarded to this nonprofit agency. For a certified check in the amount of $13, my billfold would be returned to me. Otherwise, it and the contents would be destroyed. It also noted that as it was a nonprofit organization, that donations were tax deductible. I mailed the check, with a small donation, and waited.

By May 1st, I believed that I was probably the only person to have his billfold stolen twice from him without having possession between the two events. However, I can happily report that it showed up in the mail, about three months after I received the letter. I must admit, it is nice to have it back, even though most of the contents have been replaced. A billfold is a personal item. I'm glad to know that some young Parisian pickpocket is not lusting over pictures of my daughters.

Of course, this is my subtle transition to one of my daughter's trips to London and Paris. She, her mother, and a niece decided to make a spring break trip to London this year. On a whim, the daughter and niece decided to take the train, under the channel, to Paris. While in Paris, my daughter carried her stuff in a backpack-- easy picking for the pros of Paris. She noticed that several of the zippers on the backpack were open. She carried no money or critical cards in the backpack. But upon inventory, she did find that some of her underwear was missing. It's gotta make you wonder.

Yes, of course, I could have come up with even a snappier title for this article, relying on my daughter's story, but it is, after all, a family newspaper.

So, what is the ''take home'' message from this rambling? First, carry little of value in backpacks or billfolds when traveling overseas. Second, keep passport, traveler's checks, cash, credit cards, and driver's license secure in a travel pouch worn under clothing. Third, have a safe place for a listing of your credit cards, phone card numbers and the number to call to cancel them. Fourth, don't waste your money on an International Driver's License. It does you no good in Europe. And finally, the pickpockets are really quite good in Paris.

But a little about Paris itself. Yes, it can be expensive. Go off-season. Late September was cool and cloudy but the tourists are mostly gone and the French are friendly then. The city has been returned to them. Of course, see the tourist sites, it is expected, but be very careful. Beyond that, the metro (subway) was easy to use and we only had one time that it was a little weird. An old Parisian woman tried to smash the accordion of a musician who was playing for money on the subway. There was a heated exchange (in French, of course, and I opted not to ask for a translation).

With the help of a good, but small travel agency, we found and booked a small, old hotel. It had a small circular staircase that took us to the fifth floor room that had a small balcony with wrought iron rails. It overlooked a brick street and a similar looking building across the street. A metro stop was directly across the street. A few blocks away, there was an open market for fresh seafood, fruits, baked breads, wine. It was very nice. The deskman spoke about as much English as we spoke French, but he was good humored about it. We never encountered an unfriendly, abrupt or unhelpful Parisian. Another Midwestern preconception was shot down in flames.

Beyond the ability of the pickpockets, I remember several things most clearly. Parisians love their dogs and they go everywhere-- into stores and restaurants. Most dogs are not on a leash but they stay with their masters, don't bark, and seem quite civil to other dogs. The French seemed very gentle with their young children. We walked to a park and watched small rented sailboats in a fountain and families walking, picnicking, and enjoying a sunny day. We never saw a child spanked or heard a child cry. And I should note, that we never encountered anyone who was not willing to stop and help us find our way, even when we didn't share a common language. Once, while lost, we had a stranger ''take us in tow'' and lead us to where we wanted to go, only to watch him backtrack, confirming our suspicion that he had gone out of his way to help two lost Americans.

All in all, it is a beautiful city, with a distinctive soul. We are all a little richer that it was spared from the ravages of WWII. It is worth visiting.

Just be careful: ''Excuse me, is that your hand in my pocket?''

©1999 The Zephyr, Galesburg, IL

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online July 30, 1999

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