French Precautions: Considering Your Safety in Paris
I am by no means a city girl. Born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, college student in a residential neighborhood of Atlanta, you can bet that my first few weeks living in the heart of a major city were a bit overwhelming. Now, after three months abroad, I’ve come to love the city lifestyle and feel at home walking the streets of many of my new Parisian neighborhoods. However, there was A LOT of learning to do along the way. From my personal experiences, my friends’ encounters, and the advice of my host parents, I have gained invaluable knowledge on how to stay safe in Paris, knowledge that I will share with you now.
A mere week after my arrival in Paris, I had a particularly frightening encounter, one that made me question my level of safety in this new city, and illustrated what I now find to be the necessary precautions taken when living or traveling in Paris.
A friend and I were exiting the metro near the Louvre museum, about to embark on an afternoon of typical tourist fun, when I was bombarded by a group of teenagers and their clipboards. One of the girls cornered me in the stairwell, and silently begged me to fill out her form by making a signing motion with her hand and pointing to the top of the clipboard. The paper read something along the lines of “For the deaf and mute,” which explained her silence. I reluctantly agreed to fill out her form, only to discover at the bottom of the page that this required a donation. I wrote that I would donate only one euro, and pulled out my wallet to hand her the coin.
In a matter of milliseconds, her entire group surrounded me, mumbling to each other and me about making change. I watched in shock as they ripped bills and coins out of my wallet, a blur of pink, blue and gold before my eyes. I snatched back my wallet but it was seconds too late, I had no idea how much money had been lost. My friend and I screamed at the kids to return the Euros, but received no response. They were suddenly deaf and mute once again. Finally, one of the boys threw me a five Euro bill, and the girl I’d originally encountered blew me disgusting kisses, as if to thank me for the donation she stole out of my wallet.
My friend and I eventually retreated to the other side of the street, the rest of my money never to be seen again. I walked away embarrassed, scared and skeptical of why I’d chosen to spend three months in this city. Now looking back on this experience, the multiple red flags are exceedingly evident:
1) I pulled out a full wallet, with a significant sum of money, both in Euros and American dollars. My advice is to keep some loose small bills or change in a separate pocket of your bag or coat. This way you can avoid taking out your wallet every time you make a purchase or donation, and will be less likely to lose all of your money at once. Additionally, always carry the minimum amount of cash possible. If you can leave some at home, or in the hotel room safe, that’s definitely a wise choice.
2) I was speaking English. Unfortunately, the second you identify yourself as a foreigner, you become instantly more vulnerable. As my host dad always says, “They look for the tourists. Me, I never have a problem.” It’s obviously unrealistic to go your entire trip without speaking your native language, but if you’re ever in a situation where you feel uncomfortable, try to avoid chatting loudly with your friends in a language other than French.
3) I was right near the Louvre, a major tourist attraction. In line with number 2, pickpockets and frauds target the areas where they are likely to find large groups of tourists. They probably won’t approach you when you’re part of a large tour group, but take caution as soon as you break away from the herd.
This is one of many common scams to look out for when visiting Paris. I have now seen groups of “deaf” and “mute” petitioners on countless occasions, sometimes being chased by the police. Also be sure to look out for people handing out coupon catalogs or newspapers, or making and selling string bracelets. They’ll grab your wrist, tie a bracelet around it and force you to pay for this unwanted gift.
I’ll wrap it up with a few additional words of advice:
1) Don’t walk around with your cell phone in plain sight unless you need to use it.
2) Always carry a bag with a zipper and hold the bag so that the zipper is in your field of vision. For this reason, try to steer clear of backpacks, and go for a messenger bag or a zippered tote instead.
3) When going out at night, feel free to get dressed up, but keep in mind that French women often dress more conservatively than American women. Wearing your tightest little black dress and four inch heels will probably gain you a lot of unwanted attention from the Parisians, especially the men.
4) Finally, in the event that you are approached by any of these men on the streets, avoid getting angry or overly defensive. Chances are they’re just looking to flirt, so replying with a simple “hello” or a polite smile as you casually walk away will probably leave everyone happier in the end, and help you avoid the risk of it turning into a more dangerous encounter.
So, this concludes safety 101, your key guidelines to follow when visiting Paris, or any other European city. Now, you can avoid learning these lessons the hard way as I did and enjoy a comfortable, safe and enriching stay in Paris!