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Friday, August 6, 2010

Getting Robbed (in Paris)

I am often asked if Paris is a safe city. The quick answer is, yes, it is. Most of the crime tends to stay outside the city in the banlieues, or suburbs of Paris, quite the opposite of many cities in the United States. And even then, some of the suburbs are really nice, akin to Beverly HIlls or the Hamptons. However, sometimes some petty theft, street fighting, and the occasional riot seeps its way past the Périphérique and into Paris proper.

A week from yesterday, I was out at a picnic on the water at the Eastern end of Île St Louis with Julie's colleagues, as well as a few friends of mine from work. It was a good mix of people from all over the world, and it was fun jumping back and forth between French and English. I had a French friend who was en route but unfortunately couldn't find where we were, so I offered to come up onto the bridge above the tip of the island and see if I could find him.

Once on the bridge, I started to walk the length of it alone to see if I could see where he was. I noticed a few guys walking the opposite way on the same side of the sidewalk, but thought nothing of it. Though it was 12:45am, I have never felt the least bit threatened in this city.

One of the guys in the group asked me if I had a lighter, to which I replied no and tried to keep walking. The guys surrounded me in a half circle, with my back to the back of the bridge, just over the Seine. Another asked, "Well, what else do you have in your pockets?" I showed them my metro pass, and even offered it to them, which they gladly took. I even said "I have a shitty cell phone if you want it." I was hoping that distracting them away from my wallet might help, but of course, it just delayed the inevitable.

Two guys fished into my pockets and took out my wallet and my camera, which for some reason, I thought to bring with me that night. One started sorting through all the cards in my wallet and cried out every time he found something that looked like a credit card. I pointed out that a couple of them weren't credit cards (which they were), but I believe they were just happy they had something that they could get money from. "Walk with us this way," one of them said.

During this process of being escorted, I started to think to myself that I had already prepped myself for this. In April, I took the oral exam for the U.S. Department of State. If I had passed, I would have had an almost guaranteed position working in embassies and consulates around the world, occasionally in countries that few would ever dream of visiting, nor perhaps even knew existed. I figured if I had passed the exam, that I would be mugged somewhere in the world, and if I just kept my cool, the guys would get what they want and get on with their evenings. I felt lucky that these guys were so calm during the whole process and that they were not some 16 year old novices waving their switchblades in my face as I frantically try to empty my pockets.

I imagine they were expecting a fuss or someone to get angry with them, but internally, I felt nothing. They asked if they could run with my card to the ATM and withdraw some money with my code, and I told them (though I have no idea why I said this) that I preferred to walk with them and do it myself.

It was around this point, I got the impression that these guys started to feel bad about the whole incident. One of them even offered me a cigarette, to which I replied that I don't smoke. "Oh, that's good for your health," he replied. They said they would give me my phone and camera back, so not to stress too much.

We finally arrived at an ATM, and they handed me back my wallet, with everything still inside except 25 euros cash, and also my metro pass. Four of the guys stood with their backs to me, while the fifth stationed himself next to me while I typed in my PIN at the ATM. He started to turn around to see the screen, and suddenly jumped back, saying "Oh, pardon" when he saw that I was still entering my PIN. As far as muggers go, this had to be one of the more polite bands out there. It was almost respectful, except that they took 200, 200, and 400 euros out of my account on three consecutive withdrawals. After the third, the guys slowly walked away all together, turning around to see if I was following them. In all, they made off with 825 euros, my camera, and my phone.

When I got back down to the picnic spot a few minutes later, I found that a couple people had been frantically searching for me, since I had not answered my phone and the friends I was searching for had been at the picnic for about 10 minutes already. After telling a little of the story, Julie called the police, who were nice enough to drive Julie and I around while we looked at random groups standing around the Bastille area to see if I could identify the muggers. We even stopped a public bus so I could take a look at some guys that were being arrested inside to see if they were my friends from earlier. I felt a little embarrassed getting out of the police car with so many people staring at me both on the bus, and on the street, as a crowd had started gathering around the scene. It didn't look like them, so we got back in the car and went to go chase some more bad guys. After an hour or so, they dropped us off, said sorry, and wished us luck.

So in the aftermath, the guys have not been caught, and it doesn't look like the bank is going to refund me. Apparently since I entered my pin, they are saying that I could have prevented it and so on. I'm not too bummed about it. First, I wasn't hurt. Second, it gives me a pretty good story to tell my readers.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at


  1. I think you could have took'em JP!

  2. Dear John-Paul,

    very sorry about what happened to you. So happy that you did not get hurt. We all are very impressed because you were so calm, self controled. It is incredible that your insurance won't work, you should ask around to get some advice, i am sure you should be able to get some refund.

    Very best wishes to you and Julie and take care.

    Didier + Claudine and François, Aude, Valerie, Julien enjoying summer in Montpellier

  3. Hi ;) Very sad story however I am amazed that you were calm the whole time. Did you get robbed close to the central of Paris?

  4. Hello Anonymous!

    Unfortunately it happened, but at the same time, I have recovered and am doing just fine. In retrospect I'm amazed that the whole even happened. During it, I wasn't really thinking about what was happening, my only thought was getting it over with as quick as possible.

    And yes it was not just in Paris, it was about as central as one can get. Apparently places like the 16th arrondissement and Ile St Louis (where this occurred) have been hit with problems like this because

    1. They are wealthy neighborhoods
    2. They are very close to public transportation that can take people in and out of that quarter quickly. The Ile St Louis is very close to the Bastille area, which has tons of buses that connect to some of the rougher suburbs of Paris, and the 16th has a couple of connections for the RER, which takes people to the same areas.

    Nonetheless, what I got out of it is that one never knows what/if the others possess weapon-wise, and that they really have no desire to hurt you, so just give them what they want and try and rebuild from there.

    Thanks for writing!