Monday, July 25, 2011

Down and Out in Paris*

*with apologies to George Orwell

Which one of these thieves is responsible for such knavery?

Yes, I was incredibly stupid.  Yes, I knew better.  Yes, fatigue and headache are lousy excuses for my momentary lapse of attention.  But how could I have expected any other result under those conditions riding the rush hour Metro in Paris.

I had to see the last Harry Potter movie.  I needed to be in on the opening week hoopla and Paris held the closest theater showing it in English.  Even better, it was near my much-loved Jardin du Luxembourg and this would finally give me an excuse to visit some of the Paris embroidery/needlework shops I had longed to tour leisurely on my own.  All only a 90-minute train ride away.  With rain definitely a prospect I transferred everything from my crossbody bag to the small sac à dos or backpack I had bought to protect my camera during the first week in rainy Dijon.  I slung it over my shoulders and headed off on my mission.

Paris is too large for me to live in or visit for long.  It takes effort I don’t want to apply too often to withstand the constant horn honking, the motorcycles roaring dangerously close to the sidewalk, the jostling at all pedestrian crossings, the smell of urine (dog and human) as you enter and leave each Metro stop.  If you pause in your stride down Boulevard Saint-Germain you are quickly flattened by the wave of humanity coming up behind you.  But it offers too much to completely abandon it.

By the time I escaped the lure of Le Bonheur des Dames and all the cross stitch bounty it offered, I had only a little over an hour to get from the right bank of the Seine near Gare de Lyon to my theater on the left bank near Jardin du Luxembourg.  Difficulties interpreting the Metro map and a ticking clock made me decide I could walk the distance faster.  On my small pocket map of Paris it really didn’t seem that far.  The longer I walked, however, the more persistent the day’s unseasonable rain became.  With each step I grew more tired, with a hint of a migraine coming on.  Along Blvd. Saint-Germain I passed the tourists and locals settling in for lunch at café after enticing café.  But I ignored them all because I had no time anymore to eat or even duck into a metro stop to see if I could figure out again my line and station.
Finally, with all of Paris café life and food tantalizing me just outside the door of the cinema, I slipped into my seat with a box of popcorn (yay! for the smell of popcorn in Paris) and bottle of water just as the movie started.  Certainly before I hit the train at seven that evening I’d have time for a bite of food and a bit of café time.

With Harry Potter behind me I headed back onto the streets and strolled through Paris up the hills of the 6th arrondissement to my garden.  Most of the town was there, chatting in the iconic Luxembourg chairs or walking the gravel paths.  On entering the gates, a full orchestra greeted me with the theme from the Pink Panther movies on the nearby bandstand.  Moments after settling in to listen to the music and contemplate the main fountain, the skies blackened again and the clouds quickly began spitting on me.  To avoid a potential downfall I hustled back toward the Seine, seeking refuge in the English-language bookstore Shakespeare & Co.
Most of Paris relaxing at Jardin du Luxembourg before the sky opens again
Even after just a few brief visits to Paris I could find my garden and my bookstore without even consulting a map.  There is such a feeling of triumph when I feel comfortable in a strange land.  My brain had even untangled itself from its morning muddle to figure out which line to take first to another needlework shop and then back to the train station where I could grab dinner before heading home. 

Simple.  Line  4 with a transfer to the Olympiades line would return me from the left bank back to the right bank of the river and the station.  My stomach started a serious conversation with me because I hadn’t eaten a meal since breakfast in Dijon and movie popcorn.  But a needlework shop I knew that sat at the transfer point of my two lines would only take a few extra minutes.  Then I’d eat.  I went down, down into the bowels of the Metro tunnels, with half of Paris pushing into the car with me.  We were the proverbial cattle as more humanity came on at each stop and none got off.  Eventually, when the doors opened those on the platform took one step forward but then didn’t even attempt to squeeze in.  In the steamy heat of the crowd all I could think was I was hungry, my feet were tired, and a headache was just around the corner.

At Les Halles station I wormed my way out of the car and popped up to the surface and relatively fresh air.  The colorful sign of La Droguerie called to me.  Loose skeins of yarn – mohair, cashmere, cotton, organic – in a rainbow of teal, deep marine, cherry, wheat, sunflower hung in looping bundles from pegs against ancient walnut-stained walls.  I tried to compute prices (4,50€/50 gr – how much is in 50 gr?) while other women crowded 2-ft aisles consulting in that whisper-quiet French manner over grosgrain and fleur-de-lis appliqués. Wooden shelves of glass jars lined the walls of the second room.

I wandered in a reverie until I realized a quiet “Madame, madame . . .” was directed at me.  She asked if I spoke French (what – do I look like a tourist?) and then in English on par with my French pointed to my sac à dos and said “Madame, your pouch it is open.”  I pulled my pack around to the front and . . . crap.  Yes, the small outer pocket where I had put my wallet was completely unzipped.  With a merci I zip it back up and nonchalantly made my way out of the shop.

On the steps of Saint Eustache church I sat and took inventory.  My daylong metro pass was still in my pants pocket.  My phone was safe.  My change purse still nestled in a corner of that unzipped backpack pocket, but with only 2.50€ and a few centimes it wasn’t much help.  Wouldn’t even buy me a bottle of water in Paris.  My train ticket home sat firmly in the deep pocket that protected my camera and my passport and should have held my wallet.  But money, driver’s license, pictures of my family, my health insurance cards and my Missouri Botanical Gardens membership card that had been in the large zippered change purse that came with my crossbody bag – all gone.  And my Burt’s Bee strawberry lip balm!  They took my Burt’s I had dropped in the wallet for easy access.  Stupid.  Stupid.  Stupid me.  I knew better to hold my purse in front during metro rides.  Stupid.  Stupid.

I dragged myself back into the maze of the metro to catch my train home.  At Gare de Lyon I found an out of the way spot in the giant passageway between the Great Hall and the tracks and slid down to the floor, legs sprawled, to dejectedly wait the ninety minutes for my ride.  My mind first went to my practically empty stomach.  But then I started praying I didn’t have to go to the bathroom because I didn’t want to waste my money on a French public toilette in case another disaster befell me and I needed my meager sum.

Momentarily, just momentarily, I felt kinship with the dozens of homeless I had passed on the city sidewalks and metro station stairs.  It doesn’t take much to fall so low.  My sinuses still smelled the mélange of sweat and urine I had met so often that day.  But I still had a train ticket to somewhere warm and dry and a phone number of a friend in Paris if I really needed it. 

On the way home I read about Joan Didion’s real grief in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking that I had bought at Shakespeare & Co.  As the train tracks click-clicked off the kilometers to food and bed I began to forget about my own imagined grief at being down and out in Paris.  The next day in Dijon the sun made a brief appearance, so all the sweets shops rolled out their ice cream carts.  A cone with menthe chocolat and a short stroll through the Friday street market made it easier to adjust to the fact that no driver’s license meant I couldn’t get to the music festival I had planned to attend with my Paris friend, Martine, at the end of July.

C’est la vie.

 Two French cats

Here are a few things I learned (or really relearned, duh) for your benefit when traveling:
1) Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, i.e., don’t carry all money or bank cards in the same place.
2) Don’t place your wallet or passport where it’s most convenient.  Put it where it’s safest.
3) When leaving home base while traveling, don’t take your driver’s license (unless you’re driving) or all bank cards with you.  Leave some in a secure place where you’re staying.

I don’t believe in those neck wallets as the answer to everything; most are uncomfortable and all are inconvenient if you need something out of them .  I believe in thinking like the locals (do you wear a neck wallet when going to the grocery store or the movies?).  And have photocopies of everything in case the unwanted happens and you have to spend the night making half a dozen long distance calls to rectify things.
Do you have handy traveling hints for averting disaster to add?  Have you been laid down low and out when traveling?  Let us commiserate with you in the comments box.


Muriel said...

I am sorry that your purse was stolen. Did you declare it to the police? It might be worth it as usually, thieves take the money and leave the rest on the street, and someone will find it and send it back or give it to the "objets trouves".
My top tip would be to avoid Chatelet Les Halles on the Tube, as pickpockets are often operating there. They work in teams and are very hard to spot. Oh, and having a"sac a dos" in Paris is just like having a big "I am a tourist" sign. Sad but true.

Julie Farrar said...

Hi Muriel. I didn't think about the backpack as an issue because it was small and fashionable (not a hiking packpack) like 75% of the women in Dijon use every day. I didn't realize it was different in Paris. Thanks for the heads up about Les Halles, but at the time it was the quickest route for me and I had not heard anything about that particular line. But like I said -- I knew better anyway.

Nadine Feldman said...

We were in Italy recently. In Naples, as we switched trains, my husband was pickpocketed. We had our goodies in different spots, but they made off with a credit card and an iPhone. By the time we realized what had happened about an hour later, the thieves had charged several thousand dollars' worth of goods.

We travel extensively and are not inexperienced, but it still happens. We were jostled around as we got on the train--I think they had one guy to set up the distraction while someone else did the looting. We were also tired and jet-lagged, so not as alert as we normally like to be.

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