I had so looked forward to my first trip to Paris, the city of lights.
I pictured myself sitting at a cafe on Champs de Elysees, watching life go by…shop at the world’s biggest LV store on the fashionable street and saunter around the city.
Two hours later, the Eurostar rolls smoothly into Gard du Nord. I can’t wait to experience the City of Lights. Yet as we step out of Eurostar, the platforms of Gard du Nord, the main railway station in Paris, is nothing like the St Pancras we left behind in London – busy but clean- it hits me soon that Gard du Nord is dirty and not very tourist friendly. Many immigrants parade here with boards written in bad English asking for financial help. They literally walk into you, bold and unafraid. My husband, our two kids and I try to walk out of the station as fast as we can.
Outside, on the taxi line, we hail our first cab in Paris and are promptly charged 45 Euro to get us to our Air bnb apartment. Our host Didier is mortified to learn the amount – robbery, he says and quite rightly so. It seems the usual fare is only about 15 Euros. Our cab driver was an Arab looking immigrant and we didn’t ask any questions.
Having settled in, my husband and I take a walk – the street we are on is lovely, very Parisian – plenty of cafes where people sit and sip coffee, delicatessens where we buy delightfully French pates to go with fresh bread from the near by patisserie..so far, so good.
The next day, we go to Champs Elysees. Triumph de Arc looms over us majestically at one end – we walk leisurely along the tree lined road known famously throughout the world. We reach the world’s biggest Louis Vuitton store soon enough and I am feeling enthralled by the sights and the sounds.
Inside LV, shop assistants clad in chic black LV outfits present LV bags with gloved hands to eager customers, staring in awe at the world’s most coveted hand bag. It is a moment most cherish – one in which you can lose your bearings and for a moment frozen in time, forget all the warnings about the pickpockets and the street hustlers of Paris.
No one inside LV’s shiny store, knows that outside the luxury goods store, pickpockets wait, clad in finery themselves. And that they can swiftly, surely, unknowingly open your hand bag and flick your wallet in no time.
The unfamiliar lump in my throat grows by the minute when I discover, to my horror, that my wallet, with money and credit cards, is missing. We had just sat down for our dose of a Parisian cafe on the great street itself. It was such a powerless moment that is etched, almost frozen in my mind. Even now, I can close my eyes and feel the panic.
Push becomes a shove when my iPhone starts receiving texts of purchases amounting to over 1000 Euros on my stolen cards. I clam up and for a spilt second, cannot comprehend anything. My husband takes over and urges me to call the banks – I do and the cards are blocked. But not before one purchase goes through -albeit for a small amount – on a debit card. Increasingly, the thieves bring down the amounts they are trying to charge on the cards.
Finally, after what seemed like eons, the attempted charges stop.
I walk on, fazed. Being robbed on the world’s most elegant boulevard brings me back to earth with a thud.
I have seen the French police fully armed and ready to confront any would-be terrorist, patrol the streets of Paris. They’ll get the pickpockets, I tell myself.
At the police station on Champs de Elysees, I sit down and try to explain my predicament to the policewoman on duty. She is not impressed – I’m but one of the many tourists crowding the police with complaints of being pick pocketed. One Korean lay sits down, tears in her eyes ; they robbed her money and her passport.
The Parisian police is so laid back you want to do something but you just sit there and pretend you are ok when you are not. Suddenly, the police we grumble about back home seems very efficient to me. This is Pink Panther true to form; departing and arriving policemen and women kiss each other on the cheek in true Parisian fashion, armed to the teeth. This is Paris ; get used to it, I tell myself.
Finally, a policeman is ready to take my complaint. I explain what I lost and in halting English, he nods his head as he types on the keyboard. The French keyboard can be challenging to English speakers.
But wait – the best part in the whole drama is when he pulls out a speaker from a drawer and starts playing classical music. Right there, as he takes my complaint down. He hums and sounds like he is enjoying it all.
I will always remember the singing policeman in Paris. I had never, ever heard a policeman in full uniform, taking down the complaint of someone in distress sing as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
He hands me the complaint in French – and I leave.
Outside, the City of Lights was still the same.
Afterwards, we are hesitant to finish the rest of our touristy visits but no, I tell myself, we came for this, we’ve got to do the rest of it.
Later, the Frenchmen and Frenchwomen I meet in the local butchery, the patisserie and the pharmacie apologise profusely for the shame of being pick-pocketed- even the cab driver. He shakes his head and says ‘ That’s Paris of today”.
The French are not bad to tourists at all – those who live in Paris have much to do deal with. Roma gangs bother tourists at places where people gather such as Champs Elysees and Notra Dame. The pickpockets, the refugees who hustle for money and the belly of the ugly Paris still exists.
Benjamin turns out gourmet desserts as only a Frenchman can ; as the sun goes down on a hot summer’s day, the cafe fills up and people eat, drink vine and have great conversations. It’s all very French. And very elegant too. No one wolfs down food – everyone eats slowly, digesting it well, while having the conversations with the ease that only the French can. Laughter and the sweet aroma of Benjamin’s desserts fill the room.
Taking the Eurostar back to London, I miss my cream coloured wallet. And my ID. And my driving licence. And whatever else that was in my wallet, a lot of things that people usually put in their wallets and forget.