Our hotel in Naples was on the second floor (they call it the first floor). We didn’t notice it had an elevator until the day we left. We usually take stairs when we can and, when we arrived, we were luggageless anyway. Two days later our suitcases joined us and at the end of our stay, we dragged them all to the elevator. It was the first time we’d seen an elevator meter. It required ten euro cents to operate.
“Horn OK Please,” in one form or another, is written prominently on the back of almost every truck—large or small—in Mumbai. The signs intrigued me. Why is the horn okay? What’s the point of the invitation? Mumbai is a constant cacophony of honking without additional encouragement—or maybe because of it.
What I learned, finally, after years of silent, befuddled amusement, is that “horn ok please” actually means “please do not use your horn.”
You know: yes means no.
Even the chicken truck says “Horn OK Please.” Only the free mortuary van lacks the sign, due to its protruding casket.
Sounds good, but it’s not what you think if you’re imagining a fragrant, wood-smoked Margherita pie.
Back in Naples, lunching at the tiniest pizza joint in the hillside Quartieri Spagnoli district. The “restaurant” is just an itsy-bitsy kitchen in a narrow building, with standing space for two men. It has one table—outside—with two chairs. We’re three. We try two on one chair, but it’s too hard to eat pizza that way. Pizza requires elbow room. So one of us stands.
The table is actually in the street, on a three-way corner. And though the street is narrow, it buzzes with disorderly traffic like a major thoroughfare. A steady stream of cars, motorbikes, and delivery trucks maneuver around us with only inches to spare.
The carbon monoxide fumes mingle with the vehicular honking and motorbike beeping to relegate this meal to the “fuel” category. And by that I mean the fuel-flavored pizza soothes our hunger pangs and provides energy. The “delicious” factor would be found later, over the unique coffee of Naples, and sfogliatella.
Not to disparage the thin- and chewy-crusted pizza or the quality of its tomato, mozzarella, and olive oil. But it was impossible to appreciate under the circumstances.
As take-out, though, this pizza place might really rank.
Just a little reminder to women…
A thief needs only a few seconds to assume ownership of unattended riches. Those few seconds are easily found when a woman leaves her handbag in a shopping cart or baby stroller. In the time it takes to select a ripe avocado, the bag is gone and out the door.
Joyce Lerner of Miami Beach had her wallet filched from her bag while shopping in her neighborhood supermarket. It was half an hour before she got to the checkstand and realized it—an obvious window of opportunity for the thief to use her credit cards. When she reported the incident, police told her they were well-aware of gangs that came to Miami Beach every winter and worked many different supermarkets.
Shoe stores in strip malls along the Las Vegas Strip are prime locales for larcenists looking for ignored bags. In fact shoe shops everywhere beckon to the opportunist. Shoe shopping is serious business, I know, and requires intense focus. Selecting, fitting, walking across the shop, admiring, and—where’s your purse?
And, victims tell me that beauty and nail salons are targeted by thieves. Some women become relaxed and distracted, and neglect their belongings inside, or leave their purses in their cars so they won’t ruin their newly done nails. Leave it to an opportunist to exploit a loophole.
Chapter Five: Rip-Offs: Introducing…the Opportunist
ANOTHER hotel getting personal, just trying to help. This one’s in Berlin. The sign’s in the shower, where we’re exhorted to pay attention to our tension.
In a dim, smoky opium den, we faced the backlit profile of the Moroccan pickpocket. He barely looked at us, concentrating instead on our interpreter. Steaming glasses of sweet mint tea sat before us, packed with fresh leaves of brilliant green. Bob waited to sip his tea until I was half finished with mine—to see if I keeled over, I imagined.
We had come to the medina in Tangier in search of a pickpocket, and our hired guide had found him. Al’alla was hunched over a newspaper at the front table in the cave-like café, the only spot within bright enough for reading. After ushering us into chairs and ordering our tea, our guide and translator, Ma’halla, spoke in rapid Arabic to Al’alla: “Don’t say a word of English, my friend. Let me do all the talking. Just answer my questions in Arabic and we’ll both have money for the smoke tonight.” Well, he could have said that; but it soon became clear that Al’alla had been a skilled pickpocket in his day.
Questions tumbled eagerly from Bob, but Al’alla was no easy subject. Perhaps embarrassed by his miscreant days, he skittered and skirted the core of his story. Bob prodded, encouraged, and teased until he finally found the appropriate tool for extraction. With the glibness of a talk-show host and the sincerity of a confidence man, he proffered the camaraderie and respect of a colleague. Bob’s disingenuous smile and elegant canards came effortlessly, as if from a spurious rogue. Al’alla relaxed and, perhaps followed suit.
Al’alla had honed his talent as a child in Tangier, then traveled to Barcelona for the big time. It was the sixties, and while Tangier reveled in flower power and hippie freedom, its drugs were routed to Europe through Spain. Al’alla found picking pockets far more lucrative and infinitely safer than drug trafficking. People carried cash then, not plastic, and naiveté in travelers was more prevalent than sophistication.
On La Rambla, Barcelona’s broad and proud promenade, people strolled like clots through an artery. Kiosks of birds, flowers, and newspapers crowded the avenue. Parrots squawked, pigeons cooed, fragrances of cut lilies and hot paella wafted on the air—it’s still like that today. No one suspected the darting figure of a well-dressed gentleman, so obviously in a hurry, as he ricocheted off the moving mob.
Al’alla in his 50s still had a handsome face, though its several scars suggested a rough past. He was small and wiry with delicate hands. His soft-spoken manner and gentle composure alluded to the pretender’s persona he got away with in his furtive past. Today he worked as an electrician, and his handful of tools lay on the table as we spoke.
I’d been more than a little worried when Ma’halla first led us through the bewildering high-walled alleys of the old city. It wasn’t long before I realized we’d never find our way out alone. Was the medina really this big, or was Ma’halla confusing us with tricky detours? We lost all sense of direction.
The busy souk, with its colorful stalls of spices, brass pots, and rugs, gave way to vegetable sellers who sat on the ground shelling peas, defeathering hens, stripping mint leaves. Then there were only blind alleys, closed doors, and the occasional Arab hurrying past in his long, sweeping djellabah.
Ma’halla was not particularly savory: his face, too, was scarred, and the few teeth he possessed were red with rot. Big and muscular, he wore a cap pulled low over his bloodshot eyes. His English was good though, and he exuded a wary confidence that suited his mission.
The unnamed café was a hang-out for small-time crooks and drug addicts. A few strung-out characters packed their pipes behind us as Continue reading
On the heels of the Louvre pickpocket debacle, here’s a profile of two exuberant Roma women pickpockets who tell us how they do it, who their favorite victims are, and why. They also told us how they accomplish a quick-change on the run after a theft: “I take out my ponytail,” Gemila said, “and put on lipstick.”
In Chapter One of my book, I describe how Maritza and Ravenna, children in Rome, pretend to beg under a sheet of newspaper. In Barcelona, Nezira and Gamila carry big slabs of cardboard, roughly torn from a carton. On it, scrawled in Spanish, is “No work. No money. No eat. Thank you for some money.”
The women, 31 and 28 years old, shove the cardboard horizontally into the waist area of their target and look up with enormous eyes. Under the cardboard their nimble fingers open fanny packs and rummage through pockets, unseen by their owners.
“These two are this city’s most prolific pickpocket pair,” Police officer Giorgio Pontetti told us when he sat in on our interview of them.
How is one to know desperation from deception, mendicants from impostors? One begs to eat, another begs to steal. The impostors, those who steal under the pretense of begging, can be found all across southern Europe. Some attempt to tug at heartstrings with scribbled claims of being refugees, and perhaps they are. Others have given up pretenses altogether, keeping the cardboard but omitting the written request for money. For them, any prop will do: a map, a section of old newspaper, an infant.
Yes, even an infant. A sleepy baby in a sling on the chest well communicates hunger and need. And if the woman with the baby comes close enough, the baby will act as a shield for her hands. It’s not uncommon for these babies to be in the midst of nursing at their mothers’ bare breast: all the more distracting to the victim. Irreverent? Perhaps. Deceitful? Absolutely.
Finally, it is frequently claimed that these women will sometimes toss their babies at their victims, which distracts the victims to an extreme and occupies their hands at the same time. Although we’ve heard it said many times, we cannot substantiate the assertion.
Beggar-thieves Nezira and Gamila had it all figured out. They had plopped their slender bodies into childlike positions on the ground, cross-legged, and dropped their jackets into a heap beside them. They were both pretty, with long dark hair and teenage faces. They squirmed restlessly, fidgeted, and repeatedly glanced up to Officer Pontetti for encouragement and approval.
“I go up to people,” Gamila explained. “If they say go away because they know I am going to steal from them, we just go away.” She shook her bangs out of her eyes. “But if they seem to be innocent, then I will go for them. They have no idea that I’m a bad person and want to steal money.”
Gamila grinned, hideously transforming her pretty face into a week-old jack-o’lantern’s as she revealed her rotten teeth. She lit a cigarette.
“Japanese are hardest to steal from because they always throw up their hands and step aside,” Nezira said. “They don’t want to have anything to do with us, so it’s hard to get close. They don’t want to get involved.”
“Germans are so-so. Americans are difficult, but they have so many dollars!” Gamila laughed with embarrassment at her own daring, dipped her head, and looked at Nezira. Nezira giggled, then both fell apart, as if they couldn’t maintain seriousness for more than a few minutes at a time.
They’re serious on the job, though. Bob used a lipstick camera which, as its name implies is the size of a lipstick, to film a similar duo. We put money-sized cut paper into an envelope, put the envelope in a fanny pack, and zipped the pouch closed. Bob wore it. Soon enough, a pair of women approached us making kissing faces, an odd combination of worried eyebrows, pursed lips, and pleading eyes. One’s cupped, begging hand steadied the cardboard balanced on her other arm. Bob held his little wide-angle lens at hip height. Under the cardboard, the film showed, the beggar-thief opened the fanny pack, removed the envelope, and closed the zipper. With a final mimed kiss and the envelope hidden beneath their cardboard, the pair wandered away.
Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief. Was this M.O. used in the mid-1700s when the Mother Goose rhyme was written? Perhaps it was originally “beggar man-thief.”
When the two women saw us again half an hour later, they gave us the finger.
Excerpt from Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams
Chapter Five: Rip Offs: Introducing…The Opportunist
Pickpockets running rife in the Louvre—nothing new there. Pickpockets acting aggressively: in our 20 years of active street crime research, we’ve been flipped off, hit, spit upon, and mooned.
I hate to say this because it’s bound to be taken wrong, but the flipping off, hitting, spitting, and mooning has all been committed by Roma whom we were following and/or filming as they pickpocketed or attempted to do so. Though they are certainly not the only pickpockets in Paris or in Europe, they’re a particularly visible group. Other nationals have learned to better blend into their host cities.
The Louvre pickpockets’ M.O. is already familiar to me. They employ minors—their own or other children from the clan. The children are not in school. (The parents allow them to attend until they can read and write; then they’re yanked out so they aren’t sucked into the Gadjo (non-gypsy) ways.) The children may get caught, but must be released to their parents because they are underage. The parents yell at these children, not because they were pickpocketing—but because they were caught. The adults, when arrested, are usually held only a day or two, if at all, and then go right back to work—usually back to their favorite territories.
Roma immigrants from Romania are fleeing real persecution, abominable conditions, and pauper’s wages. They arrive in France and other European countries claiming to seek a better life for themselves and better opportunities for their children. Their vocal representatives beg for integration assistance and national governments develop programs with that intention. Yet the Roma remain outsiders. By choice, it seems.
Many (or most) are illiterate, which seriously compromises their job options. What else are they to do?
One document from a current investigation against three Romanian women illuminates the trend [crime spike]. “For at least a year, observations in Duisburg (but also nationally) show that Romanian groups (apparently family clans) are committing organized crimes on an alarming scale,” it reads. Most of the crimes involve pickpocketing or shoplifting, but there have also been cases of fraud whereby perpetrators pretend to be deaf or disabled while panhandling, then snatch wallets and mobile phones from their distracted victims. Clan leaders send out mainly young women on a “regional” basis for these activities.
Poverty and Crime: Conditions Little Better for Roma Immigrants in Germany, Spiegel Online International, 10/19/12.
The police Bob Arno and I communicate with constantly express frustration over the Roma crime wave, which is not new, but is getting worse. Criminal Roma are regularly given €300 and escorted to the border. After their paid vacations in Romania, they return to pick up where they left off.
It is difficult or impossible to discuss this issue, let alone solve it, without being politically incorrect. Perpetrators, good Roma citizens, and the press all blame a prejudiced stereotypical image. The word gypsy is all but outlawed. My 250 page book on pickpockets and street crime does not use the word once (well, once—but in a string of general references to many cultures).
Yet, despite all the denials and euphemisms, Bob and I have observed and interviewed Roma—yes, Gypsy—pickpockets all across Europe. Police we meet and police we know well struggle to dial back crime levels perpetrated by their communities. Now, Roma begging has gotten out of hand.
There is evidence that much of the begging is organised and controlled by men. The women are expected to bring in at least 50 euros a day. Some, like outside the Gare Du Nord, operate in groups of up to 15. The police believed that invalids and children, who are used to gain sympathy, are shared out between the groups.
The Roma Repatriation, BBC News, 8/19/10
Countries experiencing Roma criminal gang activity are calling for the European Union to find a solution better than evictions, better than abuse, better than handouts, better than relegating the Roma to the barren fringes where they have little chance to integrate into society. But I wonder: do the Roma want to integrate into society?
As a very frequent traveler, I can’t let myself focus on the nightmare of hotel bedbug infestations. I’m queasily aware of the increasing problem, but trick myself into considering all the press merely FUD. Otherwise, how could I deal with 200+ nights in hotels each year?
Kidney bean leaves to the rescue! An ancient practice from Eastern Europe has just been verified, documented, and filmed under a microscope. The bean leaves trap the little bedbug buggers via tiny hooks that catch their achilles heel: thin spots in their exoskeletons at their leg joints.
“Spread bean leaves in a bedbug-infested room.” It sounds like an old wives’ tale, but it’s now proven: the bedbugs get stuck the moment they step onto the kidney bean leaves. See the video.
And if you don’t think bedbugs are super-creepy, read about their alt-lifestyle sexual practice called traumatic insemination.
I’ve suddenly got an idea for my vegetable garden.
Built into the wall, this spotlit treasure on display in a glass box with an oval opening. Found in our room in Cologne’s lovely Dorint Hotel.
If I’d had a long string of pearls, I’d have rested them in the bowl overnight.
If I’d had false teeth, I might have showcased them here.
If I’d had some udon, I’d have had an elegant bowl to eat it from.
If I’d had a pet mouse, it would have had a home and water source.
If I had a hammer…
But alas… I came unprepared.
Pickpockets, thieves, and con artists aren’t to be blamed for all losses. When you travel, don’t rip yourself off due to ignorance or naiveté.
So you’ve done your research, studied up on foreign currency, and made the long-awaited journey to elsewhere. After touchdown, you trudge through immigration with no surprises. You have whatever visas are required, perhaps your yellow immunization card, onwards tickets, proof of transfer tax or visa fees paid, whatever foreign officials can throw at you. Now you need a taxi.
Who knows if you’ll find an organized taxi queue or a pack of hustlers? Chances are, your research has suggested that you only use official taxis and agree on a rate before stepping in. Taxis can be a traveler’s first rip-off. Try to get a vague idea of what the charge should be, airport to hotel. Your hotel may be able to tell you via email before you leave home, or your travel agent; at the least, ask at an information booth in the airport when you arrive. Still, you can’t always protect yourself from unscrupulous practices.
For example: the tired traveler flies into flower-filled Changi Airport and instantly feels at ease. It’s neat, clean, functional, and aesthetic. Rules are adhered to in Singapore. The streets are as safe to walk as the tap water is to drink. What sort of thief can operate in such an ostensive utopia?
The traveler collects his luggage and changes a little money at the airport booth, then jumps into a taxi to his hotel. “Fifteen dollars,” the driver might say as he pulls up to Raffles or the Regent or the Mandarin; and in most cases, the visitor pays and that is that.
Many American tourists’ first sense of Singapore is not at all that of an exotic Oriental land, but rather, that the place resembles the modern city in which they live. Therefore, a surprising number of American tourists happily, ignorantly, accidentally pay their taxi fare in U.S. dollars. What taxi driver will refuse an instant bonus of thirty percent? That tourist has been self-ripped, so to say, and the driver is hardly to blame.
More cunning, though, is the driver or shop clerk who recognizes your naiveté and slips some worthless or worth-less money into your change. This happened to me once in Singapore. A taxi driver put a few Malaysian bills into the stack of Singapore bills he gave me as change. The pink Malaysian bills look remarkably similar to the pink Singaporean ten-dollar notes. So similar, in fact, that the passing of them could have been just an accident. But the ten-ringgit Malaysian notes were worth less than half the value of the Singaporean tens.
Other self-rips include pavement wagers, which I’ll discuss later. These include the three-shell game and three-card-monte. Like casino games, you bet against a house advantage. Unlike casino games, you cannot win.
I’ve already described a prevalent, greed-based self-rip called the bait-and-switch scam. This one occurs when you’re offered a deal too good to be true, a camera, for example, at such an irresistible price. You think it might be stolen, but that’s a detail you just don’t want to know. You test and scrutinize the item, you hem and haw, you buy it, and you get self-ripped. Read more on bait-and-switch.
What about tipping policies—are you prepared? Do taxis and waiters expect a hefty twenty percent? Do locals simply round up to the whole number? Are tips considered an insult? Are they included in the bill? Are they included in the bill with a blank total on the credit card slip, encouraging you to not notice and add more (or, to be fair, allowing you to lessen the included tip)? Tipping ignorance may lead you to self-rips. The State Department travel site won’t help you here, but internet research, travel guidebooks, and some great apps will.
Bob Arno and I are travel enthusiasts. We adore the variety of London one day, the next Johannesburg, Mumbai, New York, Florence, Sydney, Cairo, Buenos Aires… all in a year’s work. The last thing we want is to frighten travelers.
We believe that awareness and forewarning put a serious dent in the number of needless thefts that occur. One wallet stolen: it’s a small crime, not devastating, and its likelihood and consequences do not spontaneously occur to people traveling to unfamiliar destinations for business or pleasure. Since the threat never enters their minds, they are not prepared to protect themselves.
Yet, the after-effect is annoying at the least, troublesome and humiliating at worst, with the added potential of identity theft, which begins with stolen information.
Bob and I say awareness is your best weapon. We say do your research, raise your antennas, and go forth: explore and savor the natural and cultural differences that make each country and city unique. Rejoice in your fortune to be able to travel. Bon voyage and travel safe!
For more self-rips, read Cash or Credit Card?.
Chapter Two: Research Before You Go
Film options for The Impersonator, by Ann Mann, are sure to be promptly snapped up. I’ve seen the film in my mind, so richly drawn and fully developed are the novel’s characters. Not that a film requires such depth when its action moves so quickly…
Double duplicity, innocence, and intrigue rush the story forward, while heavy doses of eroticism heat it up to an X rating—and I’m not sure it could be toned down. A family film this won’t be.
The story takes place in 1960s London, within the entertainment industry. If you’ve never been backstage, in the darkened wings of live theater, in the star’s dressing room, or in an agent’s back office, this book will have you wiping the greasepaint from your fingertips, sweating from the dressing table lightbulbs, and waving away the cigarette smoke and whisky fumes. Having worked in the entertainment world for twenty-five years, I can verify that the competitive atmosphere, individual insecurities, and artist anxiety that Ann Mann has evoked is authentic and exists today.
The book’s two protagonists are intensely likable. One is Jack Merrick, a hard-working, principled entertainment agent whose company has grown to be respected and powerful. Jack inhabits a parallel secret existence that complicates his life; a secret that today would hardly be worthy of a whisper, but in his era, carried moral and criminal repercussions.
The other protagonist is his 15-year-old Rhodesian niece, suddenly and traumatically orphaned and sent to live with Jack, her only kin. Elizabeth is a sharp cookie but, having been raised on a farm in a remote corner of Africa, is woefully naive compared to London teenagers—or any teen raised in a developed nation. With hormones raging and emotions in a delicate state, she’s thrust into a milieu so far outside her realm—actually so far outside most people’s realm—that only her backbone and fortitude see her through. Her coming-of-age is sudden, muddled by her wide-eyed gullibility and bolstered by her pluckiness.
There’s an antagonist, of course. A magnetic Machiavellian who employs his universal charisma to manipulate those who love him—or think they love him—toward his egocentric goal. A magnetic Machiavellian might be a loathsome bore drawn by another author, but Laurie Christian, a physical beauty, is fascinating in a sort of feak-show way: you can’t quite take your eyes off him, waiting to see what he’ll do next, how far he’ll go, how many suckers he can string along. Today we’d label him a consummate social engineer, but back in the 60s his type were simply called con artists.
Finally, a strong supporting role is filled by Sylvia, Jack’s competent partner and confidante. She’s a fully-fleshed character whose vivid past drives her principles today. A character who, I hope, will spin off to feature in this future film’s sequel. (I’m looking very far ahead!) Sylvia is the omniscient glue between the others: their conscience and voice of reason. Reticent, yet brave and stalwart, she grits her teeth and does what needs to be done, through tears, exhaustion, or cold sweat.
Three of the main characters are achingly, palpably lonely, and carry secrets like needy pets. While Jack is weighed down by his, Elizabeth giddily collects her secrets, confiding to her diary then reveling in the grown-up feeling of safeguarding them. Sylvia’s are repressed until events force them to surface and give her the strength to take dramatic action for the sake of those she loves.
Few of us have previously glimpsed the theater and cabaret underworld we inhabit while reading The Impersonator. Ann Mann escorts us like a practiced guide or a trusted friend. And, as if that isn’t a fascinating enough setting for a story, she gives us a peek—then thrusts us inside—even more alien territory (at least to me) when we slip behind the bedroom door to witness the homosexual intimacies between men. The door clicks shut behind us and our eyes are wide open.
Notice I haven’t revealed a word about plot? I can’t bear to give away the slightest hint. Let me just say it’s a page-turner, replete with cheating, lies, deceit, inappropriate intimacies, surprises, rough sex, plot twists, a delightful reference to pickpocketing, drunken orgies, gratifying vengeance, illnesses, injuries, backstage secrets revealed, and a very satisfying ending.
I can’t wait for the film, even though I know that books are always better. I really enjoyed The Impersonator.