59: The Perils of Politeness or When a Walker Attracts a Stalker

Someone watching the woman closely could see that she favored her left leg as she sauntered along the canal and into the town square. She drew a plumb-line through the crush of office workers hurrying home, and as she passed the cafe at the far end, she lifted her head at the cigarette smoke drifting up from the tables.

The square fell away behind her so that she was alone again. To her left stood wrought-iron fences guarding deep canal walls that plunged down to rumbling waters. To her right were more cement walls, low and topped with ornate iron stakes that rose protectively around the small coiffed gardens of the town’s grand stone apartments. Heavy fists of lilac leaned over the garden walls and drenched the air in perfume, pushing back the tobacco odour.

Ahead, two men came into view, ambling in the same direction as her; their heads slightly turned in her direction. One man paused to examine a shoebox left by the curb. Almost imperceptibly, the woman hesitated, then stepped off the sidewalk and onto the street, picking up her pace as she drew a large crescent-shaped berth around the men. Her eyes followed the tall spiked gates of the small gardens and down the empty road ahead.

The shoebox man stayed on the sidewalk, but his companion, young and lean, skipped onto the road until he was beside the woman. He spoke a few words in German, and when she only glanced at him, he tested French, moving in closer all the while, right to the point where another inch in and she would have had to stop to keep from walking into him, but he held back just that one inch. Without altering her stride, the woman looked the man full in the face for the first time. She said something.

They reached a road crossing and she stopped. The man continued to prattle at her as she looked down the canal, then past the man where a block away people herded through a retail district. Where the man and woman stood, however, there was only the scent of the lilacs and the sound of the canal. The shoebox man could no longer be seen.

She turned left, almost bumping into the man who stepped back just in time to avoid her, but then he continued on at her side, his face rearranged to convey bewilderment. He hunched his shoulders forward and turned at the waist, forming an umbrella over her. He smiled as he talked, to reveal large white teeth against plum-coloured gums. She moved away from him, stepping off the curb and crossing the street without checking for cars. As though their ankles were cuffed, he held his position beside her. To an onlooker, they walked so close and he talked so intently, they looked like friends.

At the store doors, she turned as though to go in but paused as he begged intently for her phone number. When that did not succeed, he begged for her to take his number. She scraped a foot backward, the store door’s motion sensor blinked, the glass doors parted, and voices from inside wafted around her. She should go in inside. Why doesn’t she go inside, but the man has her fixed in his stare, his dark skin smooth and glinting in copper where it catches the late-afternoon light.

He reaches his hand out and for a moment his intention is unclear, but as if by reflex, she grabs his hand, shakes it and then disappears into the store.

 

This is more true story than fiction, my account of a quiet, polite and terrifying encounter on the quiet seemingly safe streets of a small Swiss town. 

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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.