I know there’s no need to over-react. I wasn’t attacked, I’m not injured, and everything that needed to get taken care of got taken care of. In fact, the instant that I realized my wallet was no longer in my bag, there was nothing for me to do but smile. Smile at my own carelessness and the lesson that I had to learn the hard way.
After finishing up six weeks of memorable travel on three tours (two in France and one that took me to Italy, Austria, Germany, Lichtenstein, Switzerland and back to France), I was pretty pumped to get in one day of book research in Le Havre and spend two days helping Rick and his stellar production crew with filming in Paris. Both tasks were demanding but so rewarding. After the work in Paris, the crew headed to London and I had two days to kill in Paris until Rick and I would fly back home to Seattle.
There was the last-minute souvenir shopping to do, attempts to exercise off six weeks of eating like someone on vacation, meeting up with friends, and one-last look at favorite places in the city. On my second-to-last night in Paris, I hit up the ATM for some cash to tide me over till my departure. Then I headed off to a sushi restaurant in the Marais because sometimes a girl just needs some Asian food. The food was plentiful and tasty, and I got to meet a darling Italian couple enjoying their honeymoon in Paris. After bidding them buona notte, I headed out with my leftover sushi and veggie tempura, feeling completely overstuffed and surprised that to-go boxes are becoming less of a taboo in Paris. Knowing that I’d never finish my leftovers, I planned on giving them to a homeless person who I knew would be along my walking route.
Since I needed to walk off dinner, I figured I’d take a circuitous route from the Marais to the Louvre, cross over the Pont des Arts, along the river to Pont Alexandre III, and back over the river to catch the metro at Concorde for a straight shot back to my hotel. It was also a great chance to do a nighttime urban photo safari. For nearly two hours, I was so engrossed in the nightlife and night urbanscapes that typify Parisian summer nights.
As I criss-crossed my way through Paris, I felt so happy about all the experiences I’d had over the summer and so proud of myself for making the most out of my last moments in the city: engaging in conversation with strangers, getting in exercise by walking off my dinner, giving my leftovers to a man who was grateful for the food, getting some winning shots on my camera. Oh, what a night! With a smile on my face, I headed down the steps of the metro, reached in my purse for my wallet to grab my metro ticket, and suddenly my heart sank. It was then that I realized my wallet was not in my purse. I unzipped it completely and looked feverishly for it. Nope, not there. And that’s when all I could do was smile, realizing that somewhere between sushi and Concorde, someone had pickpocketed me.
It was my own fault. I thought back to how my purse zipper was open just enough for a deft hand to slip in, how the purse was swung behind my back every time I had to lean over to get a good shot, how completely unaware of my environment I was because I was focused on something else.
So, without my recently withdrawn cash, my debit card and my credit card, I walked the longest walk of shame I’ve ever had to walk all the way back to my hotel. Forty minutes later, I Skype-called Bank of America around 12:30 a.m. It took two hours, four phone calls and six different agents for them to cancel my debit card and to authorize Visa to wire me some emergency cash. So irritating. But the thing is, I can’t get upset about that. Had I been more careful or worn a money belt, this wouldn’t have happened. And I know better. For years this is what I preached to my students when we traveled to Europe, and we emphasize it on our tours. In thirteen years of traveling to Europe, I had never before been pickpocketed, but this time, my over-confidence in thinking I was such a savvy traveler was my downfall.
Imagine the shame I felt when I told Rick what happened. Thankfully, he reassured me and reminded me that it could happen to anyone. Sometimes our number comes up, and mine did. I just needed to put it behind me and learn from it.
Of course, he’s right. When I had to explain to the front desk staff at my hotel what happened, all three of them told me about their own pickpocketing experience. In fact, the assistant manager comforted me by telling me that even the former French Presidential candidate Ségolène Royal had her wallet stolen just one month earlier in the neighborhood where I was staying. Well, at least I’m in good company.
So, what lessons have I learned about how to avoid being pickpocketed and what to do if you are? Here’s the list:
- Before you leave for your trip, print out the phone numbers of your bank and CC companies (along with other emergency info) and email them to yourself. When you’re in a frazzled state of mind, you’ll be thankful you’re not having to waste time looking up these numbers online.
- Don’t carry all your debit/credit cards in one place. If it’s feasible, keep extra cash hidden elsewhere, too (hotel room safe, hidden pockets in your luggage). All my stuff was in my wallet and I had no backup. Thankfully, I wasn’t carrying my passport.
- Use a money belt. It works. Period.
- Be aware of your surroundings. It’s easy to get distracted when you’re looking at cool sights, taking photos, or even enjoying lunch at a café. Pickpockets know what to look for – distracted people with easily accessible bags or pockets. You don’t need to be paranoid, just be alert.
- If you do get pickpocketed, call your bank and credit card companies right away. Even if it’s well past your bedtime, prevent further theft by cancelling your cards so no one else has access to them.
- If the agent isn’t giving you the answers or help you need, ask to speak with a supervisor right away. He/she may know of and can authorize better options for you.
- Some hotels still charge you for any phone calls, even if you’re calling a toll-free international number to your bank. Skype does not allow calls to international toll-free numbers (or at least it doesn’t recognize how to call them without a country code). So, you need to have the standard 1-800 number (1 is the US country code) to call your bank via Skype.
- Money will generally be wired to you via Western Union, often located in post offices in Europe. Find out the nearest Western Union location before you call your bank or CC company. Your hotelier can help you with this.
- Don’t panic. While getting pickpocketed is frustrating and a major inconvenience, remember that it is not a violent crime and that you can get financial help through your bank or CC company.
The next morning, I got €200 without any glitches via Western Union at the post office just one block from my hotel. I made it through the last day of my trip without any more inconvenient incidents. And now, three days later, I’m back in the USA, with my new cards were on their way. So, the thief got €120 and two worthless debit/credit cards, and I learned a valuable lesson. They won’t get me again.
By the way, here are some awesome photos I took while getting pick-pocketed (click on thumbnails to enlarge and launch slideshow).