Today was unseasonably warm for Paris, with blue skies and even a little sunshine. With Connor safely installed in school and Avery napping, Dave and I took advantage of our quiet morning to stroll around the Eiffel Tower, the Champs de Mars, and a few of Paris’ prettiest museums. We ended our morning walk, as we do on Wednesdays, at the street market a few blocks from Connor’s school, picking up cheese and bread and ingredients for dinner, before we pick him up for lunch.
There was nothing unusual about our morning – except maybe the sunshine – nothing alerting about our shopping trip. We scooped up Connor, waiting for us just inside the door of his classroom, carrying him and a few market bags of groceries to the train station.
We metro home every day, crossing the (currently overflowing) Seine, admiring the Parisian skyline from our lofty perch on line six, rattling across the bridge towards home. And so, just like every day, we approached the ticket dispensing machine – it’s two euros for a one-way trip.
And this is where our story gets decidedly unusual. There was a boy there, a teenager, warmly dressed, lounging nonchalantly against the ticket machines. He watched us, juggling our grocery bags and our toddler, who insisted on being held. He watched me take my wallet out, looking for change. He approached us, speaking in French.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t speak French.” It’s my go-to phrase to avoid interacting with strangers, and it works almost every time.”Money,” he said. He was standing right next to me, looking at my bag. “Money. Food.”
We are almost the same size, I remember thinking. “No,” I said, a little surprised by how aggressive he was. “I’m sorry.” We walked away then, our discomfort already fading, the interaction already forgotten, as I followed Dave through the turnstiles. I was through, almost, Dave already heading to the platform, when I felt a hand on my purse. I half-turned, pulling my bag towards me, expecting to see a fellow commuter who had gotten too close in their rush to board the train.
It was him though, already pulling his hand back, moving away, muttering “pardon,” strolling casually to the opposite platform, as though all this time he was just hoping to head west, into the city, and I had gotten in his way.
I froze, of course, silent, caught somewhere between shock and horror, wondering what had just happened. I stood in the middle of the stairwell, hands shaking, rifling through my purse. Wallet? check. Phone? check. Nothing was missing. “I think that guy tried to steal my wallet,” I said to Dave, who had come back to see if I was okay. Focused on Connor and groceries and train-riding, he had missed the interaction. It had been so brief, less than a second, I had already begun to doubt my recollection of it. Probably it was a mistake. A misunderstanding. He’s just a kid. You’re over-reacting, a voice was whispering. You imagined it. You’re not the victim here.
I had mostly convinced myself that it was all a giant, confusing, messy series of unfortunate events, when I saw him for the third time. Walking back the way he had come, he exited the turnstiles (forfeiting his ride and his ticket, if he had ever intended to board the train) and resumed his post, next to the ticket machine. Waiting.
We left then, eager to get home and struggling to process everything that had happened. The utter brazen-ness of the pick-pocketing attempt defied logic – to speak to us first, follow us, try to steal from us, and, when I caught him with his hand on my purse, to brush me off so effortlessly that I wondered if I had been mistaken.
Looking back, it’s easy to see why he might have chosen us. We were distracted, carrying a kid and an armload of groceries. We were foreigners; he discovered that when I told him I didn’t speak French. He could assume, then, that we were new to the metro system, new to the environment, that navigating the train station, our attention might be elsewhere.
There are other things, too. I was carrying a canvas bag as a purse, mostly because it holds everything I might need, plus a bunch of diapers and related baby paraphernalia. The only downside is that it doesn’t close. He had watched me take out my wallet and put it away again, laying it on top of the ten million other things in there. In my defense, there’s no money in there – mostly out of a crippling inability to keep cash on hand and an over-reliance on credit cards rather than any security practices – but he didn’t know that.
He may have noticed us, but we noticed him, too, standing too close, speaking too aggressively. Things felt wrong during our conversation, a little bit off. We haven’t talked to Connor about what happened, but someday we will, when he’s a little older. It’s been an important reminder for us, and will be an important lesson for him – that when things feel wrong, they usually are.
It was a gentle reminder, too, that Paris is a real city with real people, not just a dreamy vacation destination or a romantic collection of wine shops and bakeries – as much as we may wish it to be. It’s the real Paris that brought us here, though. So we’ll take your pick-pockets, and your flooded Seine, and your flu season, and your unpredictably closed metro stations, Paris, in exchange for your wine and your baguettes, your cobblestone streets and your weekly markets. We’re still coming out on top.