Palma de Mallorca, Spain— She looks like your grandmother—possibly even your great-grandmother. With a gap-toothed smile, she offers you a single red carnation. Wordlessly, she pokes its short stem through your buttonhole. Is the old woman an unofficial ambassador of this island resort town?
“One peseta,” she pleads, or “one cent.”
Her black skirt and apron make you think of “the old country,” wherever it was your family began. Her simple cardigan sweater, dingy and pilled, gives her plump body a cozy look, a familiar look. Wisps of gray hair have escaped from the babushka tied tight beneath her chins. She is the image of trust.
The foreign coin she asks for is less than nothing to a tourist. Why not? You smile. You open your wallet, extract a small note.
Grandmother springs to action. “No, no, no,” she says urgently, as if you’re giving too much. Is the flower a gift, then? Or does she want a donation? What is she trying to communicate with such concern creasing her forehead?
She reaches for your wallet, points to your money, touches it. Whatever language you speak, she doesn’t. The international symbol for “this one” must do. Sign language and monosyllabic utterances.
Without words, grandmother is trying to convey something. Her hands are fluttering around yours, pointing, tapping, hovering. A small bunch of red carnations is in her left fist and their spicy fragrance is intoxicating as she waves them around.
You’re focused on your wallet, your money, the old woman’s hands. What is she trying to tell you? If you’d look at grandmother’s pallid face, you’d be surprised to see such fierce concentration, such tension and determination. But you don’t look. She’s pointing, tapping. What is she trying to say?
She gives the bill back to you and you put it away. “Altra,” she insists. Finally, she taps a bill half exposed in your wallet. It’s the same one you offered in the first place! Her eyes flick up to yours for an instant. Permission sought and granted. With thumb and forefinger, the old woman removes the bill, nods her thanks, and pushes on the wallet with the bouquet. Put the wallet away now, is her implication. We’re finished.
Her last glance lacks grace, lacks the kindness you’d expect from a welcome-woman. Oh well… it was a small donation.
Or was it? It may be hours before you realize the old woman’s expertise.
With incredible skill and speed, she has dipped into your cash, snagged most of the bills, and folded them into her hand. She never takes all the notes—you’d notice. But most of them have been hooked around her third or fourth finger, expertly manipulated under the flowers, and hidden in her fleshy palm.
She’s a one-trick magician, a walk-around performer who needs an audience of one. And her audience participation act leaves many a disbelieving assistant in her wake. I need a volunteer, she may as well have said. Hold out your wallet and I’ll show you a trick. She needs no applause; her reward goes into her apron pocket.
This was only part one. Read Part 2.
Excerpt from Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams
Chapter Seven: Scams—By the Devious Strategist