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To Be Safe Abroad--Keep Money in Your Mouth

February 14, 1988|BOB O'SULLIVAN | O'Sullivan is a travel writer based in Canoga Park

The mother was sitting on a sidewalk in Paris, a sleeping child across her lap. There was a small, weather-beaten sign next to her, explaining that she had no money and that the child was seriously ill. There was also a hat by the sign with a few coins in it.

My wife and I, then fairly new to the travel scene, were about to put some money in the hat when we heard the voice of Kurt, our tour director. He was watching from a nearby doorway.

"Don't do it, missis. That woman will probably go home in a Mercedes, if she gets away before the police arrive."

The woman looked daggers at Kurt, flicked her front teeth with her thumbnail and said something loud and guttural in his direction. The child on her lap awoke, looked around, checked the position of the sun and then pulled up the sleeve of his ragged sweater, to look at his wristwatch.

The woman quickly pulled the sleeve down to cover the watch, cuffed the boy on the head and gathered up her things. Together they scuttled off down the street, the woman muttering loudly and the boy rubbing his head.

"A miracle, eh?" Kurt said. "The boy is suddenly well, except for maybe a little headache."

Kurt invited us to join him at a nearby sidewalk cafe.

Wonders and Pitfalls

"On this tour," he said, "I show you the wonders of the world, but I would be a poor friend if I did not also point out the pitfalls, eh?"

"Surely," Joyce said, "you couldn't call the police because some woman is begging in the street."

"No, missis, not for that. You see, the tourists believe the sign and they stop and put money in the woman's hat. As this happens, the people working with her note from which pocket the money comes and how fat the wallet is. Which pocket to pick, which handbag to steal."

"Now that's really mean," I said.

"To be truly safe, anywhere in the world," said Kurt, "keep your money in your mouth and don't talk to anyone. Ha ha, I make a little joke, eh?"

We ordered wine and the three of us sat there and talked, as the late afternoon sun filtered through the trees.

"First," he said, "the little children--you will see them everywhere. They are not evil but they are taught by evil people, whose whole life is stealing. The little ones will come to you in groups, looking like sad angels.

Team of Thieves

"They will all speak to you at the same time, and while you try to listen, four or five little pairs of hands go through your bags and pockets. And then when you are empty or have started to fight back, they will each run off in a different direction.

"They take what they steal to the evil people who send them out, who take your money, jewelry, passports and credit cards, which they sell. They throw the rest away."

"And the children?"

"They get their food, a place to sleep and, maybe, a few coins. And some grow to like the business."

We talked till it got dark.

Maybe it was the wine, maybe the fact that none of us really wanted to talk about unpleasant things while the City of Lights was putting on her makeup. We strayed from the subject.

But we made a few notes. Being alerted to the pitfalls helps.

At Cologne Cathedral

A year later, in the cathedral at Cologne, four children--two girls with shawls over their heads and two small boys--approached my wife.

The smaller girl was holding a towel across her arms, and all the children were saying something that sounded like "baby, baby."

Joyce said later that at first, she felt a tug at her heart, but when it was almost immediately replaced by a tug at her purse, she realized what was happening.

The smallest child, holding the towel, had covered her handbag, while the others were trying to get into it.

She immediately threw the towel and the girls' shawls up in the air and backed away, pulling small empty hands out of her purse and coat pockets, and shouted, "What are you doing? Get away from me!"

The children, who had been taught that people will almost never make a scene inside a church, were so startled that they screamed and ran off.

"They tried to rob me," said Joyce, a bit shaken. "Oh, if I could only get my hands on the people who make them do that."

Many of the onlookers agreed. A couple actually applauded.

Policeman's Story

A policeman friend of mine still gets a little red around the ears remembering what an easy, almost anxious mark he was.

He was on vacation, waiting on a Paris Metro platform, when he saw some demonstrators coming, carrying signs and chanting slogans.

"To tell you the truth," he said, "I was a little excited. 'Boy,' I thought, 'here comes a new experience.' "

He was right. But instead of veering to one side, the "demonstrators" swarmed around him.

"Next thing I knew," he said, "I was being moved along, then I was down and it felt like 20 people were all tugging at me. My wallet, keys, glasses, everything. When they took my belt and started to pull at my cuffs, all I could think of was keeping my pants. Then a train came into the station, the doors opened and the demonstrators were gone.

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