It was only an hour an a half train ride from Brussels to Paris, but that small distance was enough to tear us forcibly from the imagined safety and naivety of travel we’d been experiencing so far. Ireland and Belgium had spoiled us. The people were friendly and we trusted they meant us no harm. It was the all-important traveler’s mistake of letting our guard down, even for a second.
As we exited the RER B at the Denfert-Rochereau station, I struggled through the head-high, tight turnstile, backpack on shoulders and daypack in tow. I was barely through, when I heard Cheryl shout, “Hey, stop it. Hey!” and then a second later she appeared through the turnstile beside me.
“He took my wallet!” She yelled and tried without success to get back through. In mere seconds, this man had come up behind her and shoved her tight against the gate. Her first thought was that he was trying to crowd in behind her to avoid paying, but she felt him reach into the Velcro pocket of her pants leg and pull out her wallet, then shove her forward.
She was shouldering her own backpack, so the momentum carried her through the gates and when she turned around, he was running back and disappearing through the crowds coming down the stairs from the arriving trains.
Shouting after him in English did no good and neither did trying to call Metro security on the phones provided by the tracks. Our French wasn’t good enough to communicate the urgency and the deafening sound of rushing trains drowned out what little could be understood from the conversation.
Doing a quick, shaky assessment, we determined Cheryl’s wallet contained two credit cards, $25 in US bills, 40 Euro, her US drivers license, a phone card, and some e-mail addresses from folks we’d met in Ireland. Her passport was safe in another spot and I had other cash and credit cards we could use. “It could have been worse,” we both kept repeating, as if trying to convince ourselves it was really true, as well as to help ease the feeling of violation we had just encountered.
Cheryl blamed herself for letting her guard down, for putting the train ticket back into her wallet in plain view, for letting someone crowd her into the turnstile – all normal things that anyone would do. By the time we reached the hotel, we were both pretty shaken up. At the hotel, beginning the process to cancel the cards, another shock was waiting.
“No, the last charges I made on the card were in Brussels, not in Paris. I’ve only just arrived in Paris.” It seems our sticky-fingered friend was quite a pro. In the time it had taken us to get to our hotel (about thirty minutes), he had racked up over $3000 dollars worth of purchases. I had to laugh as I heard Cheryl say, “Clothes? He bought $3000 in clothes? I don’t spend that much on my wardrobe in a year!”
While sharing a carafe of wine that same afternoon, we came upon the perfect plan. A giant old-fashioned mousetrap (the kind that would break the neck of a good-sized woodchuck), set in the same pocket of Cheryl’s pack, half-zip it up, and wander through the station absentmindedly reading a map. It took a bit of the edge off imagining a loud “SNAP” followed by an even louder yelp. Of course we didn’t get a chance to put our brilliant plan in action as we’d had enough of public transportation for a while, it was time to rent a car!