Paris thieves – prettier than you would expect

Gare de Lyon Paris train station on a slow day.

The girl was wide-eyed, frantic. About 20 years old, fresh complexion, dressed in clean, crisp spring colours, with her hair pulled back into a girlish pony tail; her words spilled over themselves as she rolled a smart-looking suitcase up to the cafe table just behind us.

We were at Paris’s Gare de Lyon train station, which sees something like a 10 million passengers a year. I could have made that figure up, but actually, I read it somewhere, but cannot remember where at the moment, so cannot vouch for its accuracy.

She hoisted an expensive-looking camel-and-turquoise-beaded leather handbag over to the man seated at the table behind us. She spoke French but it was clear she was asking him to watch her baggage, while she accomplished some errand. At that moment, it did not occur to us the errand was to escape capture.

Gare de Lyon train station, Paris. The launch site of many exciting travels as well as thefts.

He said no as he passed the handbag back at her. It was then that her purpose became clear. She punted the suitcase to the next table, but instead of beseeching anyone else’s help, she took flight, the handbag under her arm, and the suitcase abandoned.

Even then, we were too baffled to shout “Stop thief,” although I’ve wanted to do that all my life. The man she had approached got up and rolled the suitcase away, presumably to security. Later, we realized how dangerous this situation could have been – a girl fleeing luggage – the case could have held a bomb.

As it was, we lamented some poor woman who would likely get her suitcase back, but not her purse and whatever possessions or passport were inside it.

European thieves – who knew that in addition to being conniving and criminal, they’d also be cute.

And now for a few well-worn travel tips:

  1. The money belt is your friend, even if it makes you look like you’ve put on a pound or two: Could a pickpocket worm his/her way through your shirt, belt, pant-waistband to get at your money belt (which is where you should keep your passport)? I don’t know, but it would be interesting to see them try.
  2. Spread the cards around: Carry credit/identity cards in different spots, so that if you do get robbed, you will still have some resources.
  3. Do not carry valuables in a knapsack on your back. Those are just open store shelves to thieves.
  4. For those who are live in a world dominated by Murphy’s Law: If you’re travelling as a couple/group, both/all should wear money belts (there’s no reason why only one person should look plump). While one of us carries the passports, the other carries photocopies of the passports, just to make life easier when we show up at the embassy, in the event we do get robbed.
  5. Be cautious of any attention-grabbing event, however innocuous it may seem. Dave’s work-colleagues put their luggage up on an overhead compartment on a Swiss train from Geneva. A person came down the aisle and “accidentally” sprayed coins all over the floor. Dave’s colleagues, nice guys both of them, obligingly helped the person retrieve the coins. Later they discovered their baggage had been pilfered. In another more gripping incident, a woman faked throwing a baby off a bridge, after which she disappeared and so did the wallets and valuables of the onlookers/rescuers. The “baby” was a bundle of rags.
  6. Don’t stand on the street when opening a map: Find a seat in a cafe or a bench.
  7. This is not the time to exhibit your hugginess. Anyone coming close to you is suspect, but it is almost impossible to avoid physical contact while getting on or off a train/subway, which is why those are prime pick-pocketing times, so the best you can do then is be aware of your surroundings and make sure your valuables are not in easy-to-access spots.

Packing day

It takes me two hours to  leave the house, ergo with a little application of mathematical principles (multiplication, the most complex math I know), it would appear it will take me three weeks to leave the country. We fly on Tuesday, so I’m already behind schedule.

Quasi-moving packing is not the same as three-week excursion packing, but with nowhere else to go, I turned to Rick Steves, American travel guru to Europe http://www.ricksteves.com/plan/tips/packlight.htm. Steves recommends packing no more than 20 lbs. in a carry-on bag and to prove it can be done, his website has a video tape of him unpacking his stuff.

It looks like a bit of a magic trick – he puts the suitcase on the bed, opens up the top and like a magician pulling rabbits out of hats, pulls out a stream of clothes and travel gear. I suspect there was a hole in the bottom of the suitcase  and all that stuff really had been hidden in the mattress below.

When we moved to Spain in 1999, we were each allowed two pieces of luggage weighing in at 75 lbs. each, if my memory is correct. We packed to maximum capacity, dragging our aggregate body weight overseas. Occasionally, we were upgraded to executive class, allowing us to pack three bags – or was it four?

Our luggage-weight ballooned to the point that when our younger son and I landed in Chicago we had to hire a porter. I felt like Elizabeth Taylor, minus the striking beauty and wealth.  Nevertheless, the porters’ expressions when they saw us coming down the ramp at O’Hare was a sight to behold. We may have had to hire two, but I can’t remember for sure, mostly because I couldn’t see above the luggage, which included a large crate with an 80 lb. dog.

On that round-the-world excursion, we landed in Australia with a baggage-load  so extreme, we had to mail several hockey-bags worth of stuff back to Canada at a cost exceeding $400 (in 2000 dollars – which would probably be about $408 now). That’s a lot of postage stamps.

I’m trying to avoid all that by sticking to the strict dietary-packing guidelines Air Canada is forcing on me now, but packing for four seasons and more than a year overseas is tricky business. I managed to get everything into one suitcase, except for my winter gear. I’ll still be able to do it, but it will take two trips (one suitcase apiece) instead of one.

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And now for the serious middle-age traveler who is mildly curious about real luggage advice:

  1. Expensive versus cheap luggage: Go with cheap. We’ve hauled Wal-Mart-issue suitcases around the globe without any seam-ripping, zipper-splitting, contents-bursting effects.
  2. But what if the cheap stuff breaks anyway: It is more fun replacing a $40 suitcase than a $697 suitcase.
  3. What if I’m still nervous about my luggage’s durability? Luggage shops sell luggage straps for about $4 that you can secure around your bag just in case the zipper does give way. Airlines usually provide giant heavy-duty plastic bags with postage-standard tape at no cost so at check-in you can bag and seal your goods.
  4. Hard-case or softshell luggage: Go with soft-shell. In a non-scientific survey of two (my cheap luggage versus my friends’ high-end/status luggage, my soft (hockey bag or fabric suitcase with frame) luggage was able to take the squeeze of the luggage compartment.  Hers cracked, spraying blueberry jam over all their clothes.
  5. Who carries blueberry jam on a trip to the tropics? Despite what North America’s eastern Maple Syrup lobby tells you, it is blueberry jam, not maple syrup, that sets us apart from other countries, therefore, all North American cottagers carry wild blueberry jam on out-of-country trips. It is currency in foreign lands.
  6. Carry-on luggage: Wheeled suitcase or backpack: If possible, take a hybrid that does both. Touring calls for stair-climbing (think of all those beautiful hilltop villages in Spain) and pulling a wheeled case is like sightseeing with a stroller, ie. it’s work.
  7. What to pack: As little as possible. It’s better to pack light and buy whatever else you need at your destination, even if you have to discard it or give it away to strangers before boarding the flight home, or do what I do, which is
  8. Pack heavy: But engage in a year-long weight-training program to bulk up so you can sling 50 lb. suitcases with ease.