The Pickpocket Diaries

IMAGO / Becker&Bredel Montmartre Street With Tourists

Despite being one of the largest cities in the world, Paris is a very safe city, with negligible violent crime considering its size. However, one thing has not changed since the days of Dickens. Fagin and his pals are nimbler and more active than ever. Aggression is rare. Instead of a shout of “stop thief” following their passage (if their presence was realized at all), one is more likely to hear a bemused, “I think I’ve just been pick-pocketed.”

Mom, David, Frank & Paul    
Photo ©2001 Ann James Massey
Mom, David, Frank & Paul
Photo ©2001 Ann James Massey

My brother Frank James, his two grown sons (David and Paul) and our mom were visiting me in Paris. I had already given them my lecture about no wallets in the back pockets etc., but I forgot to say specifically: don’t pull out a money clip to pay for your metro tickets. The first time we boarded the metro as a group, I was helping my mother find a seat when I heard my brother’s voice saying the dreaded words. In the few seconds before the doors snapped shut, a man, while pretending to tie his shoe, was jostling my brother’s leg. Irritated, Frank, leaned down to brush the man off, thereby giving access to his front pockets. In the confusion, Frank didn’t notice his wallet and passport were lifted by an accomplice. Luckily, they had chosen the wrong pocket and missed the money clip. The pair then leapt off the metro just as the horn sounded for the closing of the doors. As usual, they were so dexterous that Frank had the hope that the items were just left behind in the hotel room. It was only the men’s sudden departure that made him suspect he had joined the ranks of street welfare supporters. Leaving the others to enjoy Paris, Frank and I went back to his hotel to confirm that he had indeed been pick-pocketed and to cancel his credit cards.

After stopping to make a police report (which can be done at any of the numerous police stations), we went back into the metro to first go to the US Consulate and then to rejoin Mom and the boys. Frank was nervous so he pulled out his money clip to make sure all was well and then stuck it in the other pocket. You guessed it… at the top of the escalator as we were leaving the metro, a man suspiciously dropped a phone card as he was getting off. He leaned down and placed his arm across the escalator, blocking us and forcing his accomplice riding behind us into us. We were ready this time, and I yelled “no” and pushed the man as Frank kicked the man’s arm blocking our exit. I confronted them, but they feigned innocence and held the phone card up as evidence. There was no doubt about their intentions; but unfortunately, there was no proof since their deed was foiled.

Frank joined the legion of visitors who have had similar experiences. Still, after two attempts in one day, both the only times he rode the metro, you can guess well he insisted on only walking or taking taxis after that.

Frank James in the Luxembourg Gardens 
Photo ©2001 Ann James Massey
Frank in the Luxembourg Gardens
Photo ©2001 Ann James Massey
Frank James and his son Paul in the Luxembourg Gardens / walking everywhere takes it's toll.
Photo ©2001 Ann James Massey
Frank and his son Paul in the Luxembourg Gardens / walking everywhere takes it’s toll.
Photo ©2001 Ann James Massey

The American Consulate certainly has plenty of practice, and it only took about an hour for Frank to have his new permanent passport in hand (this was the summer of 2001). Our fellow victims were a handsome lot and one looked especially familiar. I played the cool Parisian and waited until the man’s departure before I reverted to my early American training in questioning. “Was that John Malkovich?” I asked the consulate employee. “Yes. He was pick-pocketed in Spain.” Frank was in good company.

Even I joined him sixteen years later, despite my experience and wise warnings to others. Because I carry a lot of items back and forth from my apartment to my art studio, I have the habit of having my faithful “Médor” (a business bag on wheels) at my heel. On Sundays after church and on my way to the easel, I would sometimes stop to eat at a marvelous inexpensive Chinese buffet restaurant on the square of Petit Ivry, a few blocks from my atelier. As I finished my meal and paid in cash (sound familiar), I noticed a man watching me intently, so I greeted him pleasantly, then put my wallet in the outside (!) pocket of my roll bag. I was after all in a quiet safe suburb of Paris; and I walk so briskly, there is no question of anyone getting access to Médor unnoticed. However, that day I was stopped in my tracks as I left the restaurant by the breathtaking sight of the Japanese Magnolia trees in full bloom on the square. I stood there in awe, lost in contemplation, unaware of the gentleman directly behind me. Momentarily oblivious to anything else, I was no different than a tourist overwhelmed in front of the Tour Eiffel. When I arrived at the studio five minutes later, I discovered my wallet had gone the way of so many others.

Petit Ivry in Ivry-sur-Seine, France
Photo © 2022 Ann James Massey
Petit Ivry in Ivry-sur-Seine, France
Photo © 2022 Ann James Massey

I did not blame the man, who just took advantage of my laxity. Nonetheless, my politeness of saying “bonjour” engendered a courtesy in return…in a way. Normally, pickpockets toss the stripped-down wallets in the trash. To my joy and relief, a couple of weeks later I received a phone call from a student who had found my wallet with everything intact (except the cash of course) under a bush in the area. I found myself saying a silent thank you to the considerate thief who left my wallet with my Texas driver’s license, carte de sejour, passport, credit cards and irreplaceable notes and cards in a place where it would not be destroyed or picked up by just anyone, but could still be found by someone.

Now in early 2022, with the pandemic, the tourists are still coming but their numbers are fewer…leading to meager fodder for the foraging pilferers. As a result, they are searching beyond the usual fertile grounds. My better half, Henri Bérenger, was walking home from church on a Sunday evening in our quiet district when he felt a tug on the strap of the small leather bag he was carrying. He turned around expecting to see a playful parishioner trying to get his attention, but instead saw a young man running away. No doubt this Artful Dodger spied a well-dressed elderly gentleman walking slowly with his oxygen unit and thought, “This is my lucky day.”  But Henri is Parisian and has a quick amazingly strong reflex to hang on. Plus, even if the little chappie had been successful, he would have snagged only an outdated leather bag, a small umbrella and a Mass book.  You already know where Henri keeps his money and important documents…safely in his front pants pocket with his turtle-neck pullover, jacket and coat covering it. If a man in his nineties can thwart a would-be pickpocket just by being careful, so can you!

Likely places to get pick-pocketed are crowded areas or where you are the most distracted: in the metro, in Notre Dame, in front of the Mona Lisa, going up the elevator of the Tour Eiffel, walking the packed narrow streets of Montmartre, watching street entertainers, et. al. Even if you are strolling alone, a group of youngsters might suddenly surround and fluster you while one of the group reaches into the nearest pocket or an open purse and boom…they are gone.

IMAGO / agefotostock
Mona Lisa painting surrounded by hundreds of visitors in the Louvre

Be suspicious of any pushing or jostling and just put your hands in your pockets or keep your purse under your arm if you are in a crowd. Don’t be afraid, just firm. Remember that physical aggression is rare since it can lead to being caught with more serious consequences.

Don’t put your wallet or other valuables in your back pockets. Velcro closures on pockets are particularly useful. Purses should have the valuables buried deep, be zipped up and never flung over the back. Undergarment pouches are handy. Absolutely do not put valuables within easy reach in backpacks.

In Europe, by law, you must have your ID with you at all times, but leave your passport at the hotel and carry a color copy of it with you.

Try not to stand out too much. Don’t flash your money or credit cards. Tourists are primary targets because they almost always carry cash.

Don’t leave any bags or items unattended. Inattention is one of the surest ways to tempt even a budding thief.

Be assured that Paris is a safe city. The metro, trams and buses are marvelous and make it amazingly easy to get around Paris. Just stay aware and show common sense.

Jardin des Tuileries 
Photo ©  Ann James Massey
Jardin des Tuileries
Photo © Ann James Massey

And if you do fall prey to a pickpocket, do not let it color your vacation. Instead, think of it as helping the local economy and a reminder not to be tied to earthly possessions.

Note: Things have changed since 2001 and getting a replacement US passport in an hour is unlikely; but at present, one can still walk-in from 8:20 – 2:45 Monday through Friday and receive an emergency passport the same day. The information you need is to be found here.
U.S. Embassy Paris, 2 avenue Gabriel, 75008 Paris, Phone: [33] (0)143122222

Adapted from “A Slice of Parisian Life” in the “Massey Fine Arts” newsletter Vol. 9 No. 1, Winter ©2001 – 2002, 2022 by Ann James Massey, SWA, CPSA, UKCPS, AAPL

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