58: Je suis un idiot! Plus some stranger-danger tips.

Here’s the way stalkers look on the inside, but on the outside they can look normal.

I hate to get serious in a blog, but it’s time someone introduced a Stranger Danger course for adults.

I acquired two stalkers this week on my afternoon stroll. I wrote the bare-bones of it with a detached viewpoint yesterday (click here to read it).

With that experience in mind, and with a few tips I’ve gleaned over the years, here’s something you can do if you sense you’ve picked up unwanted attention:

  1. Never walk alone: What’s good for grade-schoolers is good for grown-ups, but sometimes you will walk alone, even for just a block or two, in which case, be aware of your surroundings.
  2. Don’t be a talker with your stalker: When someone chats you up for no obvious reason, do not acknowledge them and do not stop. It gives bystanders the impression you are acquaintances and they will then be less inclined to intervene. No one wants to get in the middle of a private or a domestic squabble.
  3. Keep your wallet/purse closed: It’s obvious that you don’t want to reveal the location of your valuables, but many people are robbed right at the moment they are fumbling around in their purse because thieves know that is when you are least likely to notice their approach.
  4. It’s only money, honey: If someone demands your stuff; give it to him.
  5. Don’t follow the leader: If someone demands you go with him, he plans to take you somewhere that no one can hear your cries for help. Don’t go with him. Where you stand right now could be your last chance to get away. Take it.
  6. Talk the talk: Learn how to ask for help in the language of the country you are in. I was in a particularly bad spot because my stalker spoke German, French and English, giving him a decided advantage over me. If, for example, I had seen a bystander and asked for help, there’s no sure bet the bystander would have understood English, and there’s every chance my stalker could still control the situation by “translating” for me.
  7. Break from the script: In sociology, we learn that even criminals expect matters to unfold in a certain way. If you break from that script, you might unsettle them enough to make them ‘break their stride.’ My stalker peppered me with personal questions to keep my eyes on him and away from his partner. I broke his script by firing questions at him, not going in the direction he was herding me, and not hiding the fact that I was surveying the area (although, I still couldn’t see his friend, which made me very uneasy).
  8. If you are being followed, that makes you the leader: Take your stalker to a busy store. They’ll stop at the door. If you have to walk into someone’s yard or house to evade your shadow, just do it.
  9. Stay out of the strike zone: Standing well back of a stranger makes it harder for them to lunge out and grab you while giving you a better chance at escape. It isn’t possible in every country to maintain a safe distance because cultural interpretations of personal space vary, but give it a try.
  10. Are you just being paranoid or is that guy watching you? I’ve heard police say again and again that if you think something might be wrong, something is wrong. Act on your intuition. It’s probably right, and if it is wrong, the worst thing to happen to you will be that you are mildly embarrassed in front of a stranger. So what?

I wish I could say this week’s stalker incident was my first, but it is the fourth time in Switzerland that I have had freaky men get way too close. That is a lot in the course of one year of day-time walking. I somehow managed to go the half-century before this with only about six or seven scary encounters.

Be careful out there.

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.