You know this can’t end well.
Midnight. Paris. I’m perched on a plastic chair, twisting my scarf and silly beret in my hands as I try my best to answer the questions this 20-year-old French police man is asking me. Mrs. Frye’s French class back in the early 90s didn’t prepare me for this. Restaurant reservations I can manage. Describing a crime is a little more advanced.
I guess I’ll start at the beginning. Tuesday night, after my day bike-riding around Paris and Tracy’s visit to Versailles, we met back up for dinner. So Tracy didn’t have to stop at an ATM I handed her the 60 euros I had lying on the table. As we left our apartment, a little late to make our 8:00 reservations, we hastily conferred. “Do I need to take my phone?” Tracy asked? “Nah, I’ve got mine,” I said. I didn’t ask if she had her key, I just locked the door with mine.
We made our way by metro to Montmartre and climbed from our stop to Rue de Trois Freres in search of Le Refuges des Fondus where we planned to stuff ourselves on cheese fondue and drink wine from baby bottles.
I pushed my way through the long narrow room packed with rowdy diners to announce we were here. At 20 past 8 I feared we may have lost our reservation. They sent us back outside with a curt “dix minuit” (ten minutes). We waited out on the chilly street staring through the steamy windows while the people inside dipped and swirled chunks of bread in their pots of melted cheese. At last we were summoned in. Tracy, in first, clambered over the table to sit on the long bench lining the wall. We arranged our coats and purses next to her for safekeeping. She decided to visit the toilets before our meal started and while she was gone I grabbed my purse (my friend Holly’s purse actually, the one she bought when we visited the Prada outlet in Italy two years ago) to retrieve my camera. I knew it would be a tight squeeze with Tracy and all our things when the next diners were seated at the table two inches from ours, so I broke all my own rules about safety when traveling and draped the purse across the back of my chair. When Tracy came back she handed me her coat to make more room in her seat and I tossed that over the purse.
Fast forward two hours of eating, talking, laughing, drinking our baby-bottle wine and chatting with the couple from Spain on my right and from France on my left. I needed something from my purse (don’t recall what it was) and reached behind to get it. My stomach lurched. “I”m trying not to panic, Tracy, but my purse is not here,” I said tremulously. Increasingly frantic, I tore the coats off the chair, looked under the table, all around, helped my the man on my left who we’d learned the proper pronunciation of monsiur from earlier (Moo like the cow, then shyur).
It was gone. That was it. Just gone. My panic grew as I realized what the losses included.
Rental cell phone.
Most significant at this point, the key to our apartment.
Each item that dawns on me is a kick in the gut anew.
And as I would continue to realize over the next few hours, assorted items like my sunglasses, metro pass, umbrella, compact, lipstick, lip balm, drivers license.and who knows what else.
The room was already very warm and as the kind Italian lady two tables down handed me Kleenex, I asked Tracy to deal with the bill, I had to get outside before I smothered. The waiter helping us look, the French man who patted my head and hugged me, everyone around just made me feel like I couldn’t get enough air and had to go.
Tracy came out after what felt like forever and we walked to a nearby payphone. I knew only one thing — I had to file a police report in order to get a replacement passport in time for our Thursday morning flight. I dialed the number for the police listed on the phone. It was a recording in French that I think told me to call another number. I have to hear numbers spoken slowly to translate them in my head, and despite listening three times I couldn’t understand it.
Next I tried to call Brian and my parents collect. Evidently my home phone won’t accept collect calls, and my parents didn’t answer. Thank goodness Tracy had a credit card, so I used that to call Brian’s cell. No answer. Tracy tried her dad. No answer. I called Brian again and got him this time. “I need you to help me,”I said, and told him what had happened. I walked him through finding the documentation for our apartment with the emergency contact info and left him to track down someone who could help us while we went in search of a police station.
We went back into the restaurant to ask where the station was. They gave us the address but when I asked to use the phone they walked away and wouldn’t look at me or listen. Granted, I looked beastly by then from the tears, but I was appalled that they refused to help. We left and I called Brian again to check in. He’d had no luck yet. Tracy went into a bar to get directions. My wonderful detailed Paris map was also in my purse. Montrmartre is confusing to walk around at the best of times. We were going in circles now. We asked passers by, went into another bar to ask, and finally stumbled upon the station.
A kind woman officer was stationed outside and I threw myself at her, explaining in Frenglish that I needed to report a stolen passport. She took us inside, sat us down in a waiting room, coming back to ask a few more questions. As can happen sometimes in highly stressful situations, Tracy had a laughing fit and couldn’t stop her peals of laughter. I was afraid they wouldn’t take us seriously but the officer returned and directed us to a small room with no windows where we sat down to file the report.
This officer, a very young man, very methodically asked me question after question, noting my answers, and writing his questions when I couldn’t understand his spoken French and requested, “ecrivez.” They seemed unduly interested in the details of the phone. I knew at least that the color was “gris” — I had learned the word for grey when I bought my beret that day. We seemed to sit there for ever. I asked for a glass of water, but none was to be had. He left periodically for seemingly no reason, and would come back and pick back up again.
At last we finished and went to the desk to collect the reports. Then, then, an officer who spoke fluent English showed up. I asked if we could use their phone. No. I asked if they could call us a taxi if we left to use the phone and came back. No. So I signed my papers (six batches) and back out we went.
We found a phone in a couple of blocks and I called Brian. I won’t go into the exchange we had here, suffice it to say he was worried hat I hadn’t called in over an hour. He had worked wonders. The apartment manager would meet us the next morning to let us in, my debit and credit cards were cancelled, and we had a reservation at the Marriott Champs Elysees with a cobbled-together points and payment. The staff at the Marriott knew the whole story and would help me solve the passport problems in the morning. With the first good luck of the evening a taxi drove by. I quickly hung up and we hailed the cab. Bizarrely, I remembered the address from our stay there in 2004.”Champs Elysees, soixante dix,” I said. He offered me two choices of routes, neither of which I understood. “Rapidement,” I answered and off we went.
I found the 30 euros I had stashed in my pocket, and Tracy had some coins, so we were able to pay the 14 euro fare. We trudged into the Marriott at nearly 2 a.m., and I announced, “I am Madame McMahan and my purse was stolen. And can I have a glass of water?” Within seconds a bottle of Evian and two wine glasses were brought to me. I signed my name, got out keys and we went to our room. Exhausted as I was, I only wanted a shower. You always hear people say they feel violated when they’re robbed. I completely understood. As much as they were only *things,* they were mine, and they were taken from me. It was a horrible feeling, and fear that I couldn’t get a passport to come home (which was where I wanted to be more than anything at that moment) competed with dismay that I had lost Holly’s purse — the purse that had a lot of trip sentimental value to her.
Tracy and I crawled into our beds and she promptly went to sleep, lucky girl. I lay in the bed for hours, running through the night over and over, desperately tired but completely unable to sleep. I prayed for sleep and finally at around 5 or 5:30 I fell asleep for a little while, to wake up with my eyes swollen shut from the tears. Some women can cry and look no different. My face swells, my eyes puff, and I turn into a hideous tomato with slits for eyes. I took another shower and called to ask for ice. Lacking product for my hair, I rubbed body lotion into it (and on my face, lacking my moisturizer). My chapped lips I couldn’t help.
Tracy awoke and took her shower. We weren’t too miserable too appreciate the water pressure (non-existent in our apartment). I applied an ice pack (ice cubes in a plastic laundry bag) to my poor eyes, then went downstairs to find out how to get to the embassy.
While a woman (presumably from New Jersey) loudly complained next to me that no one had told her about the free caww-fee until 9 a.m. (and she’s and ELITE member!) I got directions to the embassy and a map.”You can’t go to the actual embassy,” the manager explained. That was the address I had noted at the police station. “They don’t accept visitors. You have to go to their office for emergency passports, which is on a different street.” He didn’t give me the street number, but circled the street on the map.
Tracy and I stopped for a breakfast on the go at Monprix, and coffee to go at a cafe, then made for the metro to go to the Concorde stop. Of course the train we got on sat stock still. An announcement was made that I couldn’t understand and the train continued to sit.
We exited the metro and caught a bus down to Place de la Concorde and found the street with the passport office. And found the end of the street. No passport office. We stopped in a Best Western to ask. They didn’t know. Back down the street. Stop in a random building to ask. “There, the big doors,” we were told. We rang the buzzer repeatedly. No response. A ripped sheet of paper taped to the door read”Consular office had moved. Go to 4 Rue Gabriel.” That was the embassy address. Back over there we trudged.
A man at a guard booth gave me a sheet of paper once we were there. My tears returned when I saw they required two passport photos — where the !@%$#%@ was I going to get photos made? Then I saw their map of services. #8 was a photographer. I also needed $100. That was the first I realized that indeed, I must pay the embassy to rescue me. Tracy, who had kept her calm all this time reassured me. “I’ll pay with my credit card,” she said, “and let’s just go on in.” It was after 11 and the sign said they closed at noon.
We passed through security, where one guard asked in a concerned way if I was ok. Once inside I tapped my needs into a kiosk, received a number and waited to be called by one of the 20 windows. Fortunately, a photo booth inside provided a way to get my proper photos. They should definitely remove the note about the nearest photographer from their paperwork outside. Had I left to get photos made, I may not have made it back by closing time. The process ended up being quite efficient. I basically just had to prove I was me by answering lots of questions — mother’s maiden name and place and date of birth, father’s info, my marriage date, husband’s place of birth, when I received my first passport and from which office was it issued. I traipsed from window to window whenever C838 was paged, turning in papers here, paying here, presenting my face for comparison with my passport photo here, and finally, happily, receiving a shiny new blue passport.
So most of the drama really ends here. There’s more about the apartment lady not being there, and my ordeal buying a calling card at the post office to call her (they sold me a 15 euro one instead of a 7.50 euro one and it evidently takes an act of God to change a purchase in a post office) but really, once I had the passport I could breathe.
Looking on the bright side, it happened at the least bad time. One night later and I couldn’t have gotten my passport. Earlier and I would have lost a lot more cash and ruined a lot more of the trip. I’m incredibly lucky my friend was with me. Not only did she stay calm and stick by me during the mess, if she hadn’t been there with her credit card, I couldn’t have even begun making the phone calls I needed.
Finally, a word of cautions. This was my tenth time to Europe and my fifth to Paris. I’ve spent more than 120 days travelling over there with never a mishap. I was overly confident, and got too comfortable. I know better than to ever do something as foolish as to leave a purse hanging on a chair. But I got careless. And one moment of carelessness caused a miserable 24 hours for two people, not to mention the worry it caused my family at home. In the class I teach on planning a trip to Europe, I caution my students to always be aware of their surroundings. I broke my own rule. I was in a restaurants packed with tourists, paying attention only to my food and conversation, and never even knew when the lowlife stole my purse. So, believe me, it can happen to you. When you’re travelling, enjoy yourself, but don’t get so caught up that you lose track of your belongings. And here are some ideas:
Keep your passport on your person. Yes, than means wearing a moneybelt, but guess what — I’m going back to that. Or leave it in a safe in your roo. Have copies of your passort with other people and in your room. Keep some cash and at least one credit card on your person. If you’re sharing a room with someone, make sure you both have a key. Keep emergency contact information on your person. Have a way to call home collect. Memorize your passport number. Never leave your belongings in an easily accessible place. And finally, unless you want your passport photo to look like Tracey Gold’s mug shot, may I suggest keeping eye drops, eye cream, moisturizer an lip balm on your person as well.