THE BLOG
05/28/2014 12:02 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2014

Paris: Pickpocket Angst and Random Acts of Kindness

There's been a lot written about the pickpocket problems in Paris. Prior to a recent long weekend, I was treated to descriptions of how co-workers, or their friends, had been ripped off.

"We were in the Metro," one explained, her voice rising with indignation, "and had our bags under our arms. There was no way anyone could get near anything -- but Cynthia's wallet vanished."

"Yeah," added another, "and my husband even had his wallet in his front jean pocket, not in back where he usually keeps it. He never felt a thing and it was tucked down right next to his ..."

I could go on, but you get the drift.

OK, I thought, point taken. No Metro, especially at rush hours. Walking is healthier anyway. And you can see more of the sights from buses.

Even so, I took precautions: 1. Downsized from monster wallet to mini-wallets, change purses really, two of them, with euros in each, and just my driver's license, two credit cards and my Medjet Assist card (medical evacuation policy -- a personal must-have) in one, 2. Left the passports, credit cards, other IDs, etc., stashed in a zippered pouch in the suitcase in the locked hotel room, 3. Put one mini-wallet in an inside pocket of my raincoat, the other in an inside zippered compartment of my cross-body purse (no, despite advice, I was not willing to go all day sans purse... this mama needs her stuff.)

I'd also read Rick Steves as far as scams in Paris. Like the gold ring scam.

I told my husband about it: "So these guys drop a gold ring on the street and then pick it up and ask if you dropped it and then engage you in conversation, and sometimes apparent strangers join in, and when it's over your wallet or camera is gone."

"Yeah, right," he said. "Uh-huh."

"No, really," I said. "Rick Steves wrote it so it much be true."

Our first morning, strolling along the Right Bank towards the Tuillarie, I saw a flash out of the corner of my eye. And then a young man appeared next to us, saying, first in French but quickly switching to English, "Did you drop this?" My ever-so-polite husband started to reply, to look at the ring, as I yanked at his arm, my other hand making a "Cut" gesture across my throat.

"Scam," I hissed.

The guy took off at a trot in the other direction, disappearing behind a tree.

Ever trusting, the husband asked, "Are you sure that was a scam?"

Two blocks later, another young man, another gold ring, another "Did you drop this?" Then again. The streets of Paris are littered with gold rings.

On Sunday morning, we grabbed a taxi in front of the hotel to go to Notre Dame. I had about 15 euros in coins, so I perched in the back of the cab and counted out the fare, slipping the mini-wallet back into my ample purse. We exited the cab and crossed the street. I stopped to get organized: put the mini-wallet back in the inside zippered pocket, get the camera out for Notre Dame, brush hair, locate lip gloss. But something was missing.

No wallet. I stood on the sidewalk outside Notre Dame frantically looking over and over in the same empty spaces saying, "Shit, shit, shit, shit." People started to stare. I kept digging.
We borrowed a cell and called the hotel to ask if they had any ideas. They politely asked us for the name of the taxi company, or taxi number, or driver's name.

"It was gray," I said, "and very clean."

We managed to have a decent day. After all, it's Paris. I rationalized like crazy. OK, so we'd lost euros. Not the end of the world. And we could cancel the credit cards. I thought there was another one back in the hotel. I hoped so anyway. And the German police would understand when I explained that the reason I only have an International Driver's License from AAA is because of the French.

But that was the kicker. Nothing was stolen. I was in a hurry. I didn't double check that the wallet was actually in the purse and not on the floor of the taxi. I did it to myself. Most losses when traveling are not from pickpockets but our own haste, forgetfulness, and being out of our habit-driven life.

Late that afternoon, we walked back to the hotel. It is a lovely, elegant treat of a hotel, the InterContinental on Avenue Marceau (another column -- on how you get more bang for your IHG points overseas -- coming soon). The plan was to grab our luggage and head over to Gare de'Est for the return train to Frankfurt.

As we entered the hotel, the man at the front desk beamed at us.

"Ah, Madame Kraus," he said. "We have been waiting for you." And he held up my wallet.

It seems that another passenger spied the wallet on the floor of the cab. He did not keep it but gave it to the driver. The driver looked at the photo ID and remembered the Americans (we are a chatty bunch) and the hotel where he'd picked us up. So he drove across Paris to return the wallet. Not a single euro was missing.

Here is one lesson: Yes, Paris, as with many immense cities, has pickpockets and scams. But you can, by taking minimal precautions, by being alert, and by avoiding the Metro at rush hours, protect yourself.

Paris is too, too beautiful to be scared off.

But the bigger lesson is this: For every pickpocket, there are a thousand honest and decent men and women who will go out of their way to provide directions, to assist you, and to drive across the city to return your lost wallet. Just start every conversation by telling them how much you like their city: "C'est une ville maginfique!"

And, if you ever want an honest taxi driver in Paris, who knows his city well, who will be prompt and courteous, call Fernand at 06 09 24 09 63 for a Transfert de Personnes.

And tell him I said thanks.

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