December 2010

The French don't say cheese

By David Feela

I admit I’m no professional, but my compact digital camera captures such perfect pictures — even without smiling — and Paris is filled with such perfect scenes. The most photogenic city in the world. Just point and click. The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Luxembourg Gardens, Arc de Triomphe, Versailles, the list goes on.

Did I mention my French crimescene photo? Ah, so now you’re interested. Our guidebook advised tourists about a scam where a stranger appears to pick up a gold ring from the ground, almost from under your feet, then politely asks if you dropped it. You didn’t, but as the ring is held up and more closely examined, it reveals a 24-carat stamp inside the band. The stranger even asks your help in translating what the marking says. Of course, he or she has no use for the ring, circumstances being somewhat dire at the time, and offers to let you have it for a small finder’s fee.

The first time the scam happened to us, Pam and I were passing through Luxembourg Gardens. I nearly tripped over the person who reached toward my feet. In his hand, a gold ring! I stared at it, the sun glinting off its surface, wide as the palace gates at Versailles. He asked if I dropped it. I shook my head, no. He wondered what kind of marking was inside. I unfolded my reading glasses.

“24-carat,” I said.

His eyes widened to the size of two dinner plates. I stood there, so mesmerized as the drama unfolded he could have unbuckled my belt and asked me to step out of my pants. Then I felt Pam’s hand at my elbow, nudging me away. No thank you, she was saying, no thank you.

“Did you see that? Exactly as the guide book described it,” I said, as we hurried away.

“Yes, and you played the part of a victim so well,” she replied, a compliment that I felt lacked a certain authenticity.

The second time, we were outside the Louvre, strolling through Louie’s gardens. While the next finder scrutinized the ring to locate the engraving, I pulled out my camera. “Just hold out your hand,” I urged. The camera flashed. She closed her fist and hurried away with the ring.

It happened two more times. By then I was getting the hang of it, felt I could almost help train the crime ring. “Don’t speak English” would be my first piece of advice, or practice speaking very poor English. And let’s not everyone use rings. How about a 24-carat crucifix on a chain? Or a pocket knife? Tourists want variety, I’d preach. That’s why they don’t stay home.

By the fifth time I was getting frustrated, being taken for such an easy mark. The streets were full of tourists. Did someone stick a sign on my back: Pick me! Was I the tourist equivalent of a dodo, so obviously at the edge of extinction?

I had this idea, the next time I encountered a “ringer.” Right away, quick as lightning, when he or she asked if I’d dropped it, I’d snatch the ring up and say, “Yeah, thanks, I was wondering where that went,” and then disappear into the crowd.

Sadly, five times was the charm, as the French optimists say. All the way through Charles de Gaulle Airport, I tarried and tried to look pathetic. Nobody approached. Nobody offered me a chance at redemption.

I smiled as I filed through customs in Denver, declaring to the officer in charge a small package of Jalesburg cheese and one gold ring. Surprisingly, he let me through.

David Feela writes from rural Montezuma County, Colo.