Julie Lyles Carr: The French Lesson

Monday, July 4, 2011

The French Lesson

tour effiel cinema scope
1 of 8 yelled at me.
Okay, maybe more like barked at me.

"Mom, NO!"

Let me back up.

We were at Arc de Triomphe in a crush of tourists from all over the world. From the Arc, you can use an under-road pedestrian tunnel to reach the Champs Elysees, the famous shopping/dining/uber-cool avenue leading up to the Arc. We were about to descend into the tunnel when a woman approached me, asking if I spoke English. She was dressed in what made me think of someone living in an agrarian community in Russia or Serbia~~long shapeless dress out of a dark calico, kerchief on her head. She was holding some kind of list and was handing a pencil to me, again asking if I spoke English. I smiled at her and said yes and instinctively reached for the pencil, not exactly sure what she needed but wanting to help.

And that's when 1 of 8 barked 'No!' at me, grabbed my arm and pulled me away, the woman spitting angry French at our backs. We went down the stairs to the tunnel, me looking at 1 of 8 in confusion.

"I'm sorry, Mom," she said. "But it's a scam. While one of those women tries to engage you in conversation in broken English and seems to ask you to sign something, another one will try to pickpocket you while you're distracted."

(a group of bike riders, gathered on the Champs Elysees, part of the Tour de France route)


Thank goodness for a kid with some street smarts.

Ultimately, I was approached in the same manner a few more times while I was in Paris, usually by women, one time by a man, all with the same M.O~~a query as to whether I spoke English with an outstretched pencil and a list. It's a street scam that's sad, really. These women are part of a network that sends them out to pickpocket with expectations of how much they will 'earn' while they are out. 1 of 8 has learned to be very cautious. During one outing a few months ago, 1 of 8 saw some Americans being approached and went to them, explaining that this was part of a scam and that they should get away from these women. The 'leader' of the women came sprinting across and grabbed 1 of 8 by the arm, screaming at her in French to not interfere. 1 of 8 screamed right back and the woman finally let her go, her nail prints in 1 of 8's arm.

And as far as 1 of 8 and I could tell, French law enforcement is doing nothing about it. There were police officers strolling at the Arc de Triomphe, right by where I was approached.

So I'm doing my little part here, stateside. Just be aware. Very aware. Part of what makes America great is our innate sense of wanting to help, of being friendly. And that's the very thing this sort of scam traffics in.

No harm was done through it all. I so admired 1 of 8's acumen in handling the situation. Mainly what hurt was my pride: I was determined to not come off as a clueless tourist. I had aspirations of blending in with Parisians. I didn't wear obnoxious t-shirts or Birkenstocks. I didn't wear a visor or a fanny pack. And within about 10 minutes, I was already outed as a friendly, good Samaritan Texas American, ripe for picking.

Lesson learned.

We strolled down the Champs Elysees and then headed for a place I adore. Adore. Adore. Where I was able to see some familiar faces, some people whom I hadn't seen in a quarter century since my last visit but who were still as I remembered them....

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