Cashless and walletless in Paris

Part I: a shakedown on the Paris Metro

New year new something or other– whatever, this isn’t one of those pieces. If you want one, check every paper and every other blog. Every single one.

In other news, I was mugged last year. Well, pickpocketed really – is ‘pickpocket’ a verb? I had my pocket picked? Either way, the conventional image of a pocket being picked is of sleight of hand and artful guile. But in my case, it was surprisingly physical: I was barged and manhandled at chest height on the Paris Metro while something more subtle took place around my front shorts pocket.

Malheureusement, my French isn’t good but after just three repetitions, I was able make out what the elderly man was saying to me as I disembarked, especially as my wife, who speaks no French at all, was translating loudly: ‘They have taken your wallet!’ Like an overweight middle-aged man woken from a trance, I was off and running, chasing the gang along the platform and up the escalier mécanique like Gene Hackman in the French Connection or Christophe Lambert in Subway, closely followed by my teenage children and my wife, now relegated from interpreter to bag carrier.

And we caught them. In fact, my daughter literally collared the big guy and demanded that he turn out his pockets and bag. Feeling the need to reassert my starring role in the drama, I panted and mimed being robbed. Two of the gang members smiled politely and demonstrated the absence of evidence. The third one just walked away, presumably with my wallet.

A crowd gathered but with no police in sight and no means to force compliance, we were playing out a scene entirely at the indulgence of two men who we were accusing of theft. I’m no expert but do criminal gangs normally meekly hand back stolen goods when apprehended by their victims? C’est un flic juste? (thanks Google). In fact, most people would probably object to being searched in the street by strangers, especially those with something to hide so, as my stress levels rose, so did my awareness that this was a lost cause.

A woman emerged from the crowd and advised us that there was a police station around the corner. My wife maintains that she must have been in on it and was sending us away while the gang divided up the booty. I’m not convinced.Anyway, two things struck me about our visit to the police station. The first was that we were able to simply walk in – an officer even held the door open for us – while all of the black and middle-eastern men who attempted to come in while we were there were stopped and searched. Ironically, although clearly distressed and sweating profusely, it was me who was armed. I was carrying two knives – we had been on our way for a picnic at Sacré-Coeur in Montmartre and I was equipped for fruit and cheese slicing. The second, was that the French officers couldn’t have been more pleasant or less interested in our plight. We filled out a form, they stamped it and gave it back to us suggesting we take it to our local police station. Needless to say, our village PCSO, although pursuing enquiries vigorously, has yet to come up with any solid leads and the case remains unsolved.

I should, at this point, also mention the enduring feeling of vulnerability and even inadequacy that hit me at the time and that has dogged me ever since. As a largish former rugby player – albeit not a very good one – I had always imagined that my size and presence offered me some small degree of insulation from the mundanities of street crime that other, lesser mortals have to endure. Apparently not. When you’re travelling with your family, being so easily compromised neuters any silverback complex you may have pretty quickly. I was left as the dad with no money or cards who couldn’t stop sweating or swearing. Our plan to holiday without cash ‘just got real’.

Incidentally, weeks later, while camping with an old friend and replaying the drama, I opined that maybe I should have taken their picture with my phone, which was in the other pocket. He suggested that that would have been a very bad idea and that such an action could quickly have resulted in someone else producing a knife, but not for fruit or cheese slicing. I hadn’t thought of it like that.

But how did the rest of our trip go? Check out part II, in which we are compelled, sort of, to survive with just our wits and phones. What I will say now is that we still had a nice picnic at the Sacré Coeur – even if I regarded every other person there as a potential thief.

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