Tuesday, July 31, 2007

On the Streets of Paris

Fais attention à ton sac! That was one of the first tidbits of advice from a non-Parisian French friend prior to my move to Paris: beware of pickpockets. In my first months here the imprint of my pocketbook made a permanent crease on the skin of my inner elbow, so tightly did I squeeze the precious bag each time I ventured onto the streets.

Maybe nobody likes me, or maybe I don't look like an apt target, or maybe I'm lucky. In a year and a half in Paris, I've been begged at, I've been scammed by gypsies, but not p**kpock**ed. (I'm too superstitious to say it.) Maybe Paris' petty-thievery reputation is overblown. The only time I've had to foil an attempted purse-snatching was in broad daylight in Brussels. Don't ask.

I've been told that those pesky individuals loitering at place de la Concorde and other tourist locales pleading "Do you speak English?" are out to pickpocket, but I haven't read any statistics. (Ha! Here's an idea. Maybe next time one of them accosts me, instead of ritually ignoring her I'll stop and give a smiley thumbs up and answer,"Yes! I speak Wall Street English!")

Here is what happens most frequently: if I am leaving a shop and haven't yet zipped or buckled my purse post-purchase, the store owner thoughtfully reprimands, "N'oubliez pas de fermer votre sac, Madame." I have overheard total strangers dole out this advice to forgetful fellow passengers on the metro as well.

On Bastille Day morning, when at the Champs Elysées to do some scoop reporting for this here blog, I crossed the broad expanse of cobblestones on avenue Winston Churchill, snapping behind-the-scenes pre-parade shots with my digital camera. A police officer at the barricade beckoned to me. "Madame, votre appareil!" he warned.

Uh-oh. I'm in trouble now, I worried. Something I'm not supposed to be taking pictures of, some French photojournalistic rule I'm unaware of.

The avuncular gendarme smiled as I approached. "S'il vous plait, put your hand through the camera strap. C'est dommage, but in large crowds like this there are des personnes malintentionnées who will try to steal it from you."

I obeyed like a well-trained spaniel. He was so kind. I felt so protected.

Sigh. See why I love Paris?

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