How to avoid pickpockets in Paris (and Europe generally)

A shady pickpocket in Paris.

I have lived in Paris for almost two years now, and I like to think that I’ve acquired a local’s knowledge of pickpocketing practices here in the City of Light. Even if you’ve lived in big cities in the U.S., the Parisian pickpocket is of a different breed, with different techniques and a different modus operandi. What’s more,  you are also different here. You are a tourist. You speak another language, loudly. The accent that got you an “A” in high school French is barely comprehensible. Not to mention the fact that you are probably wearing a giant backpack, kaki pants, and running sneakers…an ensemble most Parisians wouldn’t be caught dead in. In short, you stick out like a sore thumb. There are some things you can do, however, to avoid been targeted by pickpockets.

  1. Buy the right kind of travel gear. You don’t have to buy the fancy slash-resistant bags, although it can’t hurt. Generally, you will want bags or clothing that zip and have hidden pockets.  I, for instance, wouldn’t be caught dead with a purse without a zipper on the metro.  It makes you a huge target, as it is easy for any seasoned pickpocket to dip his or her hand into your purse without your knowledge. If you are carrying luggage or big backpacks, luggage locks won’t hurt either.
  2. Place your belongings strategically within your luggage. This means you should not be leaving valuable items out on tables in restaurants. Make use of hidden pockets, separate your money and credit cards in the event that you do get robbed, and for goodness sake: keep your valuable items with you in your carry-on luggage to avoid having things stolen in the airport!
  3.  Place your luggage strategically on your person. If you’re wearing a purse or messenger bag, keep it to the front of you, rather than behind you or to your side. If you’re wearing a backpack, move it to the front of your person when you are in a crowded place, such as an elevator or escalator.  Never wear handbags or clutches – make sure the bag had straps and you keep it securely around your shoulder, it is much harder to have it snatched in this position. Keep large suitcases where you can see them, and always hold onto them when in the metro or bus. Lastly, don’t put your purse or bag on the ground or hang it on the back of a chair – keep it in your lap, or, if the bag is too large, put it between your legs in front of you, with the straps wrapped around your leg.
  4. Place yourself strategically in public. In other words, don’t let people get too close to you, if you can help it. Wait for the next metro (there is usually one in the next 2-5 minutes during the daytime), or move elsewhere in the car. Also, try to avoid being too close to the door on the metro – people have been known to snatch bags just as the doors as closing.  One trick I use to avoid crowded situations or unseemly characters is to take the stairs rather than the escalator, as they are inevitably less crowded. If you must take the escalator, place your back toward the railing instead of facing forward. This way you have a clear view of the people behind and in front of you, which is especially important if you are wearing a backpack.
  5. Don’t put valuable things in your outer pockets. No exceptions.
  6. Always zip your bag. Don’t get distracted by a purchase or phone call.
  7. Try not to look like a tourist. In other words, be conspicuous. Don’t wear your camera around your neck. Don’t take out your map or travel guide in public places. Don’t wear expensive shit, buy expensive shit, or start using your expensive shit (laptops, ipods) in public places – if you do, be extra careful. Place your freshly-bought Hermès bag in a reusable shopper, as much as it might pain you.
  8. Be vigilant.  Be mindful of people wearing strange, overly baggy clothes, such as ponchos. Be mindful of people shielding their hands and arms. Look behind you often, to make sure no one is following you. If you think you’re being targeted, stop, and let them pass you. This may sound crazy, but I have done it more than once. And once again, don’t let people get too close to you, if you can help it.
  9.  Know your opponents strategy. Understanding their techniques is half the battle. One common misunderstanding is that pickpockets work alone. This is not the always case. More often than not, they work in pairs or groups. Bearing this in mind, they get to your goods using a variety of methods. Below is a short list based on internet research and personal experience:
    • Standard techniques: involve opening bags, reaching into open bags, or bag or pocket slashing. This is often accomplished by creating a shield for the arms or hands (as with ponchos, a newspaper, or a folded coat)  in order that they might go unseen.
    • Distraction techniques: almost always involve more than one person. Generally, it starts with a “distraction, ” which can be any number of things, including: street games, aggressive begging, spilling something on you, hitting you, hitting on you, bumping into you, or creating some sort of scene, such as a fight or loud argument. While the distraction is happening,  other pickpockets are going through the victim’s bags or clothing, taking his or her valuables.
      Note: The most common distraction technique I’ve seen in Paris is used by single pickpockets and involves placing a piece of paper on a table over a phone or other electronic device, and asking the victim to read it. The pickpocket lifts the phone when he or she lifts the paper, makes his way toward the exist, and starts running as soon as he is out the door. It takes a few seconds for the victim to understand that he or she has been robbed and, by then, the thief has gotten enough of a head start to outrun the victim. Another similar distraction technique, which is apparently popular in Italy, involve pickpockets who prey on tourists in bathroom stalls. Avoid placing your bag on the hooks in bathroom stalls if you don’t want to, quite literally, be caught with your pants down.
    • Compassion techniques: often involve using the people you would least expect to rob you, such as children, handicapped, or the elderly. I once heard a story of a friend who was standing not too far front the Eiffel Tower when an old lady punched him. He looked over, startled, and felt something rustling in his pocket. On his other side, there was a little boy. Luckily, he was smart enough to have kept his valuables elsewhere. Other compassion techniques might involve pretending to have fallen or pretending to be hurt.  There are also a large number of “petitioners” (mainly young girls) with clipboards pretending to be deaf/mute near the Centre Pompidou, Louvre, and Eiffel Tower. Ignore them,  they are not really deaf/mute, and they will ask you for money. I can’t confirm if they work with pickpockets, but I wouldn’t put it past them given their lack of scruples about pretending to be handicapped.
  10. Don’t take hotel safes for granted, especially if it is a seedy establishment. A report by USA Today shows that  entering all zeros can often open a digital safe quite easily.  Other youtube videos provide instructions on how to open safes using paperclips. This may not relate to pickpockets specifically, but it can avoid a nightmare scenario while travelling just about anywhere in Europe.
  11. Lastly, be paranoid. Those backpackers you were drinking with last night in the hostel are not your friends. Lock your things up or bring them with you, even if you are leaving the room for two minutes. If there is not a lockable drawer or closet, or if the lock seems weak, sleep with your arms around your valuables. Place things where people won’t expect it. I wore my passport in a neck wallet, tucked inside my shirt, for the first two weeks I was here (in a hostel) and kept my money in a moleskin notebook, which had a hidden pocket in the back.  This may sound extreme, but I have never been robbed in Paris, or anywhere in Europe for that matter, which is something a lot of my friends can’t say…

Best things to do in Paris

Enough people have asked about what to do in Paris that I’ve decided to make a list…mostly so I don’t have to write it out anymore. So, if you’re searching for a mix of authentic Parisian living and tourist hot spots, here is the (short) list:

1. Eat crêpes! They are quintessentially French cuisine, and for good reason.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad ones out there. If you want exceptional crêpes, our personal favorite is Breizh Café (but make sure you make a reservation first).

2. Try gourmet Berthillion ice cream. It will be the best ice cream of your life (seriously, I was in Italy for 8 days and I couldn’t find gelato that beats it).

3. Get pastries from Pierre Hermé (or macaroons if you’re into that sort of thing).  I had a vanilla flavored Paris brest there that gave me a mouth-gasm. It was totally an accident, because I went there late in the day and there wasn’t much left, but I’ve never been so excited by vanilla flavored anything. Ever.

4. Do things other than eat! I know it’s hard, but you can, for instance, visit Montmartre. Even if you’re not religious and/or not into seeing famous churches, you should go, because it is the highest elevation (and subsequently provides one of the best views) of the city. There is apparently a small garden behind it which is also cute.

5.  Have a picnic in the sunshine on a Sunday. The Jardin du Luxembourg is fantastic, as is the Jardin Tuileries, which happens to be right next to the Louvre. Or, if you want to go to the edge of the city (and possibly spot some prostitutes, if you’re into that sort of thing), there is the Bois de Boulogne. No, but really, there aren’t that many prostitutes. People take their families all the time because there’s a cute park, a lake, and long paths for walking.

6. Go to the catacombs. I haven’t been, but I want to, because it’s totally creepy. Basically, they are underground tunnels lined with the bones of dead Parisians. Why? Because after centuries of the plague, starvation, influenza and other epidemics,  Paris’ 200 cemeteries ran out of room.

7. Enjoy art! Pompidou is the big museum for modern art. The Louvre is the Louvre, and all art lovers are obliged to go (but don’t expect to do it in one day…or even three). Also, this photo gallery/exhibition center is supposed to be good. It is also free Wednesdays after 5.

8. Take a day trip to Chateau de Versailles, the decadent palace commissioned by Louis XIV. It’s only 45 minutes outside of Paris on the RER (the metro lines that go to the suburbs), and the gardens alone are worth it.

9. Take a walk along the Promenade Plantee. It’s an old railway bridge that was converted into a walkway, planted with trees and flowers.

10. Listen to the sound of your bank account emptying at the most famous shopping district of Paris, the Champs Elysees, where you can check out Louis Vuitton’s latest fashions, go to a movie, or sample perfume at Sephora’s  flagship store. Don’t forget to check out the famous Arc de Triumphe while you’re over there.

11. Do I have to tell you to go see the Eiffel Tower? You will probably pass by it, even if unintentionally. What you didn’t know is that there is a restaurant up there that’s impossible to get a reservation for. If you have connections, though, how would you feel about inviting me?

That’s my list of best things to do in Paris. Of course, there are a zillion other things you can do, like go to one of the hundred other museums I haven’t mentioned, swing by Notre Dame cathedral, or enjoy a ferry ride along the Seine.  I’m sure I’ll be coming up with a Part II one of these days.

Tourists Hide your Falafel

I’ve been in Paris for 4 days.  The wine is cheap, the coffee is thick, and in the mornings I wake up to a view of the Seine. Right now, I’m staying at St. Christopher’s hostel in the 19th arrondissement of Paris while I look for a place to live. I chose this hostel because it was the cheapest I could find that didn’t have complaints of bedbugs. Cheap was important, sans-bedbugs was essential. I even signed up to stay in a 10-person male-female mixed dorm to save a few bucks, which is a decision I’m beginning to question due to the Scottish retiree, who can be found in our dorm at all hours of the day without a shirt on, ardently cultivating his beer gut.

This extreme budgeting has extended into my eating habits as well. I eat the continental breakfast provided by the hostel, and buy a baguette later in the day, which I split between lunch and dinner. If I really feel like splurging, I might buy a can of mystery pâte for €1.50 at Monoprix (CVS meets SuperWalmart, but not as cheap). In other words, I exercise an enormous self control every time I pass a café, crêpe stand, or pâtisserie. This isn’t easy: if you’ve ever visited Paris, you know there is literally one on every block. And boy do those pastries look good.

Anyway, as well behaved as I’ve been, I am still me. When I want something, I want it now, and I won’t be happy until I get it. That being said, I’ve had a hankering for falafel since Monday, when I caught a whiff from a vendor I passed whilst half-starved and lugging the equivalent of my bodyweight in broken luggage. Since that moment, falafel has been the ambrosia of hungry Virginias: a golden, fried chickpea-ball gleaming in the center of my mind. I know I should rejoice that I am eating fresh baguettes in the country of their origin, but instead I spend most of my meals wishing my baguette was falafel, and my chèvre was tzatziki sauce.

Well, today, around lunchtime, I broke down. I was quite pleased with myself for having held out for as long as four days, and decided, quite naturally, that it was time I rewarded myself for exercising such monumnetal self-control. So, around 1:00, I stuck my head into the computer lab office at my University (where I’ve been spending most of my days apartment hunting) and inquired about falafel. The technology geeks took a break from arguing about wifi configuration, and instead began arguing about where I could find the best falafel in the Eiffel Tower district.

Ten minutes later, I found myself at Apollon, a hole-in-the-wall Greek restaurant, standing in a line which had extended itself out the door, onto the sidewalk. As I caught the scent of moussaka and garlic in the air, my heart began singing the praises of my Mediterranean ancestors.  I was soon planning a trip to Greece during my school break, imagining all the cheap food I could eat in Athens, the economy being the way it is…

It took everything I had not to start eating the pita once I got out the door. Since I hadn’t yet seen anyone walking and eating at the same time, I took this as an indication that it was probably not acceptable to do so. I scanned the sidewalk, and then it occurred to me: Paris did not have benches on it’s sidewalks, save for a few select bus stops.

I was downtrodden, but not completely discouraged. I decided to find the nearest park, which was, as it so happened, the lawn in front of the Eiffel Tower. I walked a good 15 minutes West, navigating through traffic, tour busses, and street vendors sprouting Eiffel Tower keychains from every imaginable appendage.

There, on the lawn, I found an open spot with a good view of the Eiffel Tower immediately behind me, and plopped myself down, taking one tiny bite of my sandwich before pulling out my laptop. I was just about to adjust the webcam so that I could take a picture of myself eating lunch in front of the Eiffel Tower (which I would post on facebook and use to brag to my friends about how it was no big deal that I was eating lunch in front of one of the world’s most recognized architectural structures, ‘cause, you know, I live here now) when a hefty, olive-skinned woman wearing a head wrap and circle skirt approached me.  She was everything you’d imagine a gypsy looked like, right down to her furrowed brow.

“English?” she asked me.

Before my mind could process what she was most likely going to ask after that, I said, “Yes.”

She immediately handed me a piece of paper, which was a 2-sentence statement about how she was a Bosnian refugee with 2 children and needed money. I glanced up at her, giving her a suspicious  look, and told her I didn’t have any money, at which point she glanced down at my laptop and gave me an equally suspicious “oh please” look.

I shrugged, expecting her to move on to the next person. Instead, she pointed to my sandwich, and then pointed to herself.

I looked at her incredulously. “You…you want my sandwich??”

She nodded.

“You’re hungry?”

She nodded again. Despite the fact that the woman was mammoth, and I was likely hungrier than she is, I began having visions of her two starving Bosnian children, sleeping under a bush somewhere near the Eiffel Tower. At this point I sighed, cursed my Catholic upbringing, and handed her the sandwich.

She snatched it up, and walked away as though it was hers to begin with. I hadn’t even gotten a picture, let alone a “thank you.” A minute later, I glanced back to see if by some marvel she was telling the truth, and had made her way toward two starving Bosnian children. Unfortunately, she’d only made her way over to a trash can, where she was picking off the onions as though she had a right to be choosy.

I let my anger stew for a minute before I marched right back to Apollon and ordered the same thing. I may be eating my baguettes plain for the next few days, but boy, was it worth it…

Falafel...finally

Virginia catiously scans the area for gypsies as she eats her second falafel