Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Sounds of the City

Street Music [Click on PLAY button to see video]

Paris is justifiably famous for being an eye-candy kind of city. So much charm it can make your teeth ache. Sometimes you have to close your eyes to give it a rest. And when you do, you discover another city.

After a few months I began realizing there is a distinctively sonic Paris. It began shortly after we moved by noticing the irritating NEE-naah, NEE-naah, of sirens cutting through the hum. At night, before the trains shut down, there was the low rumble of the Metro passing beneath our toes on to, I assume, the Rue du Bac stop.

And then subtler sounds. We lived on the first floor, around the corner from a grammar school at the end of Rue de St. Simon. You could set your watch by their students' comings and goings. Around 8 a.m. there would be the bird-like chirping of little children passing by and later in the afternoon the whooping, cheering and sometimes crying, after another long exhausting day in a French ecole, as they trooped in the other direction.

Around the corner from our place, directly across the street from our front door in fact, was a valet-serviced restaurant with an expense account crowd in the day and after midnight a jolly, well-oiled tourist clientele rolling out the door shouting good-nights to each other as they staggered down the street. Not surprisingly the Americans were the loudest.

Whistling. I have never heard so much whistling, from the straight ahead pucker up and blowing kind to the more virtuosic trilling, sometimes making notes for the sake of it. Hearing a particularly musical warble one day I went to the window to see who it was. Walking down the street with his market bag in hand was a dour looking old guy about my age trilling away. He looked like he didn't have a joyful bone in his body but that was belied by his saucy tunesmithing.

And finally music. Yes there is the government mandated spontaneity of the Fete de la Musique every June, and the calculated charm of the hurdy gurdy man outside the gate of the Jardin Luxembourg. And no street performer can perform on the street without getting a license. But it's always fun. Like the crowd of music students (above), performing near the garish and goofy Palais Royal Metro entrance with a lot of toe tapping verve.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Parisian Scams and Misdemeanors

The Scam

A little less than a year ago my sister Susan came to visit us in Paris and had a truly magical time right up until the day before she left, when she was robbed. In front of me.

By Parisian standards it was a routine crime: pickpocket. She was wearing a small backpack as a purse and somewhere around Bastille, I'm convinced, some creep deftly and quickly zipped it open and grabbed her wallet without me seeing it happen. Later that afternoon, while walking on the Promenade des Plantes that I noticed the bag was unzipped and we made the depressing discovery.

After first having a stiff drink in a cafe, Susan spent the rest of the day on the phone canceling credit cards and going through the dismal exercise of reconstructing her identity. Fortunately she left her passport back at our apartment so that escaped intact and now her experience as a victim of crime in the City of Light has morphed into a cautionary traveler's tale.

That experience got me thinking about how quaint crime is in Paris. It's Dickensian. Very 19th Century. Things can be so quiet that if a pistol is fired, it is front page news. Granted they do have a form of vandalism that is Third Worldish. While car vandalism, say in New York, might be keying the side of it or even smashing a window, here they burn the vehicle. Last year some of the boyz in one hood were not thrilled about the John Travolta movie, From Paris with Love being filmed in their neighborhood and to express their displeasure they set fire to some of the cars used in the movie.

But generally it is a city with a low violence threshold and crime is committed with flair. An American acquaintance who lived off and on in the city for years was telling me how one night he and his wife were having friends for dinner in their third floor apartment. After his guests left he went into the bedroom.

"I noticed my wallet was missing from the dresser. And so was my father's gold pocket watch. And, my wife noticed, so were her pearls. And the window was open. Police determined that a burglar had gotten over an eight-foot wall from an adjacent yard into our courtyard, climbed up the outside of our building - three stories, mind you - into our bedroom, cleaned us out, then left - all while we were in the next room having dinner."

"Impressive," I said. I'm afraid of heights.

"Yes, it is," he agreed, suddenly appreciating the burglar's feat.


Fortunately I have never been the victim of a crime. Mostly because I am too dumb.

Case in point: One day this very charming young woman was walking towards me along the Seine. It was across the street from the Louvre. She paused, squeaked a little squeak of delight, reached down and picked something off the sidewalk. Then she came over to me holding a wedding ring that could have fit King Kong. She offered it to me saying she couldn't use it.

I thought, "What the hell am I going to do with this?" and handed it back, saying. "You keep it. A gift." She kept insisting but I demurred. In so doing I had witlessly dodged one of the oldest scams in Paris.

The way it is supposed to work is when the scammer offers to give the found ring to you and if you are foolish enough to accept, they then say something like, "Hey I just gave you a gold ring, could you spare me some money. Say, 10 Euros." And if you are greedy or too slow witted you give them the money and are left with a yellow metal ring made of brass which is worth a few centimes.

I know this because I was suspicious of her sweet generosity and Googled wedding ring scam Paris out of curiosity. I found small library of citations about mentally challenged/greedy tourists getting taken.

After that the scales fell from my eyes. Wherever tourists walked I noticed there were bad actors picking up brass rings off the ground, sometimes with limited success. One inept guy by the Place de la Concorde was so wretched at this no one noticed him picking up the ring. He could not get his scam started. Another overactor took so long with the astonishment part of her performance that my wife and I had walked way past her before she got to the look-what-I-found part and had to chase us down.

I felt personally insulted one rainy Sunday morning when I was heading out to an Eric Kayser for a baguette when some guy across the street - how lazy is that - held up a ring and shouted for me to look at what he just found. There was no one else out that early so I guess he was desperate. Still, I was really annoyed.

"Do I look that stupid?" I called out, then felt bad because he looked hurt.


The scammer gods punished me not long afterwards. I was walking along the Blvd. Raspail heading for the Luxembourg Gardens to do my daily run. I was wearing a waterproof windshirt because it was raining lightly and it was cool out.

My fingers shrink in cool weather and my loose fitting wedding ring sometimes slips off. So I decided to tuck it in the breast pocket of my windshirt to keep it safe. Halfway up Blvd. Raspail it stopped raining, so I took off the shirt and tied it around my waist. I had walked maybe another two blocks when a bad feeling crept over me. I checked the breast pocket. It was empty. The wedding ring must had fallen out, on one of the busiest boulevards in Paris no less. The noise of the traffic probably masked the clink of the ring hitting the pavement. It could have rolled anywhere. Merde.

Inch by inch I retraced my steps down those last two blocks scanning every inch of the very wide sidewalk. Nothing. I re-retraced them still with no results.

Like someone afflicted with OCD I kept going up and down, up and down those two blocks. It started misting. Then pouring rain. I kept looking. Nothing.

Maybe the ring rolled under a car, I thought. I got down on my stomach and looked under every vehicle. More nothing. This went on for close to an hour.

Finally I stopped and stood on a corner, soaking wet and sick with the realization that the wedding ring I had for nearly 40 was gone forever.

I was about to step off the curb when I looked down in the gutter. There was what appeared to be a circle of gold. I got down on my knees and peered closer. It was a ring. The ring.

With, I'm sure, an astonished and delighted look, I picked it up. At that moment a very attractive French woman came walking by and seeing this rain-drenched wretch of an old man, hunched over a gutter on the Boulevard Raspail in the classic ring-scammer pose, gave me the kind of withering look that only French women can give.

I was going to say, "No. Hey. I'm not . . ." but thought: Forget it, Doug. It's Paris.