Aside from one or two pre-agreed must-dos I travel on a pretty tight budget most of the time. In eagerness to visit as many places as possible, I sacrifice that extra spending money and opt to fill the time sheet with free activities. But there are only so many museums one can visit. In Paris, Jack and I ended up spending the better part of our last day people watching.
the action or practice of spending time idly observing people in a public place.
People watching was not the plan we started out with when we packed our bottles of water and ham & cheese sandwiches into my backpack. Jack and I set off in the morning on a long looped walk from Père Lachaise Cemetery to the Sacré-Cœur. The walk took most of the morning. Eventually, we crested the top of the hill where the Sacré-Cœur is perched.
I don’t think the idea of laying your jacket on a damp bench appealed to many people. The tourists walking up from the metro were only stopping for the requisite photograph of the steps. After traversing the steps for a while, Jack and I decided to take a damp bench, unwrap our sandwiches and watch.
What we saw was both hilarious and disturbing in equal measure. When we had arrived there had been three bike mounted police at the landmark which meant that the hawkers and scammers had all fled to the top of the hill. Not long after we arrived, they hopped on their bikes and left.
Their place was taken by three people, two men and a woman, navy blue ‘surveillance’ jackets. We tried to work out who they were and what their actual point was. They yelled at a Japanese man who tried to set up a tripod at the base of the steps. The man was startled but complied and he and his very Vogue team of film makers continued on up the steps. At the same time, the hawkers were descending. A small group of men of African descent were gathering around a tourist whose hand was completely entwined in string. This is a so-called ‘African friendship bracelet.’ They didn’t let the man go before a €50 note was exchanged (a €5 having been refused). Yet the blue-jacketed crowed watched, approached but ultimately did nothing.
After the tourist escaped – pockets significantly lighter – the jackets had some kind of conversation with the hawkers. They then moved to the balustrade near where we were seated and remained there. Jack and I then took up a solid 15 minutes of watching people trying, and failing, to avoid being accosted by the men with string. Some people hand their hands in their pockets. Those who did not were grabbed, groped and harassed. And the string me weaseled big note after big note from their victims.
We tried to work out the hierarchy. It was mesmerising and terrifying. Was no one else seriously observing this as we were? The man speaking in an American accent having some serious business conversation on the next bench over seemed to give precisely zero cares. A man skipped passed a string man but his less wary girlfriend was snatched by the arm and it took all of her nervous laughter and wriggling to get away (We were a bit disappointed Mr Boyfriend didn’t grow a bigger set and help her). Another Asian tourist, travelling on his own, was not so lucky. He was cornered by several men at the base of the stairs, arm tied in string, and was not released without money being exchanged. These guys basically had their hands in his wallet.
And then they were running. The string men. They dashed up the stairs and scattered as the police returned on their bicycles. Jack and I found ourselves laughing out loud at the sight. One of the police caught our eye and smiled. Jack gave him a thumbs up. We were discussing the hilariousness of this when something unexpected happened. The police were talking to the blue-jacket guys. Voices started to get raised. A female cop looked at her companion and they got off the bikes. Then it descended into blows! One of the blue jackets and one of the cops trading punches. The female cop was on the radio and within literal seconds an undercover car had arrived and men in civilians were carting off this ‘surveillance’ lad.
If there were ever a time I sincerely wished I spoke French, it was then.
After the excitement of the Sacré-Cœur the weather started to clear. I begged Jack to go back to the Eiffel Tower for one last photo attempt. He agreed and we hopped back on the metro to Trocadero station.
It did not disappoint. I finally got my blue-skied photo – even if there was construction work that meant I couldn’t stand dead centre. After a million photographs, we decided to have another go a people watching and took up a place on a bench near the fountain.
The ethnic hold over this spot was completely different to the Sacré-Cœur. European hawkers and scammers were set up at regular intervals around the fountain in groups of about five or six. The game here was a ‘find the ball’-type of game. A ball is hidden under one of three cups, they bet a couple of €50 amongst themselves and try to get tourists to watch, think they can win, place a bet and ultimately lose all their money. I named this game ‘Flip Cup’.
Our bunch comprised of an older man flipping the cups, a slightly thicker blonde-died woman, a younger woman in black pig tales and three other men all in jeans. They looked utterly ambivalent going through the motions of the game. That was until a tourist passed. Then they would all applaud to try and draw attention to their game.
They were reasonably successful, too. Umbrella man, teal puffer jacket, asian girls, and couple-now-headed-for-divorce, all lost fifties to this little syndicate.
We were in a bit of an awkward position. We knew these unsuspecting victims were getting drawn into a well-established hustle. Although we would audibly cry, “No, don’t do it!” to each other, it was out of earshot of the circle of cup-switchers. I don’t think those groups of six or more hustlers, scammers and lookouts would let us affect such a juicy spot as the Trocadero. If we caused any real damage to their game we would have been putting ourselves in a dangerous position.
We even identified their pimp or lookout or whatever he was. The man who would indicate for the group to split up or return (we tried to keep track of them as they all walked off in different directions only to reassemble a few minutes later).
There were plenty of other dodgey people at the Effiel Tower it was hard to tell who was genuine. There was a group of three men who asked me to take their photo, which I did with my lookout Jack on guard. That seemed harmless enough, only they spent the better part of twenty minutes taking photos of the tower and asking passers by to take their photo. I began to doubt myself with them. It was too weird.
Even after we called it a day, we left with renewed wits after watching so much money being so easily taken from tourists. Thank goodness we kept up our A game as the Malaysian woman beside us on the metro got pick-pocketed of her passport. A fellow traveller saw it in action, called it out and I think they got everything back.
The strangest moment of all was Jack and I saying to each other how much we were looking forward to going back to Belfast so we could feel safe again. I don’t know if that’s something we would have said thirty years ago.