Avoiding Scams And Thieves While Traveling Abroad

Flickr user Modenadude

My wife and I had just left the Musee D’Orsay when a young woman came running up to us clutching a ring.

The pretty brunette spoke in halting English, saying she saw it drop to the ground as we walked by. After a quick scan of our fingers, we told her we weren’t missing any rings, but she placed the ring in my hand and insisted we take it for friendship. Before my heart could swell with the joy of international love and brotherhood, she then asked for money for a cup of coffee. At that point, I realized it was a scam and handed her back the ring, which she no doubt tried to foist onto another hapless tourist couple.

While our stay in Paris was overall a wonderful experience, criminals threatened to put a damper on our trip. Before our flight out of Charles de Gaulle Airport, we would be accosted by other scam artists several more times, and my wife was pick-pocketed on the Paris Metro. Luckily the hipster shorts I bought in a Parisian boutique were so tight, I could barely get my fingers into my pockets, let alone a common thief do the same.

Unfortunately, theft and scams are all too prevalent in most major metropolitan areas. Staff members at the Louvre actually went on strike for a day earlier this year, protesting the unsafe working conditions caused by thieves and scam artists. Bob Arno, co-author of Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Crime While Traveling, estimates about 70 percent of Barcelona tourists will be approached by a street criminal; of those incidents, about 33 percent result in the loss of valuables.

According to the US government, Paris, Barcelona, London, Rome, Amsterdam and Naples have the highest number of scam artists looking to take advantage of naïve or distracted tourists.

Travel expert Rick Steves recently noted some of the most common international travel scams and ways tourists can avoid them. Other advice to consider:

  • Forgo purses or strapped bags in favor of body wallets or buttoned pockets.
  • Leave fancy jewelry or expensive watches at home. Don’t flash expensive electronic equipment –- particularly iPhones, thieves love them –- around. Have the number for the local police department saved in your phone.
  • Keep your passport and other important documents in the hotel safe, after you’ve scanned or photographed them and saved them in a file-sharing app or program like Evernote or Dropbox.
  • Stay alert. While you might be tempted to buy that second bottle of wine after dinner, realize drunk tourists are easy targets.

What are your tips for staying safe abroad?

Gummy Bear Art Car Takes Grand Tour

gummy bear car in New York
Courtesy of Alex Leuchte

Sometimes an “only in New York” moment has a more global story. On a rainy afternoon this week in Manhattan, my friend visiting from Germany was excited to spot a Mercedes with Munich plates. The car had a distinctive pattern covering its exterior, we debated whether it was metal, fabric or beads, but the actual decoration is much sweeter: gummy bears.

The back window detailed the “grand tour” of this visionary art, starting in Munich, traveling to Paris and London, and finally New York. The project is the third installment of artist Guenther Siraky‘s Mercedes Trilogy, which also took him and the car through Europe in 2007. The plan was to take the gummy bear car to each of the city’s major art museums, including the Louvre, Tate and Guggenheim, exhibiting the work of art in front of each museum. Over a million people have seen the car, and reactions range from disbelief and amazement to tears of joy. NYPD officers have even allowed him to park in forbidden places to display his work. While the car should be covered in rain and extreme heat, the slightly melted gummy bears just add to the vehicle’s charm. Siraky intended to sell the vehicle once he completed his tour last month, but he has extended his time in New York, and can be found driving it all over the five boroughs through the end of September.

See a slideshow of the gummy bear car in NYC below, and check in with the art car’s adventures through the artist’s Facebook page.

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Mini Museum, Big Audience?

Flickr user ColorblindRain

Size matters when it comes to art attractions, but the new Micro Museum in Boston wants to prove bigger isn’t always better.

While it could take days to see everything the Louvre has to offer, visitors at the Mµseum can take in all the art in a matter of seconds. It pays to be short: the three-wall gallery, located at 72 1/2 Union Square, is less than 5-feet high off the ground, and measures a mere 16 inches wide, 8 inches deep and 10 inches tall. The first exhibition is entitled “Invisible Cities” and features six tiny works of art. Museum founder Judith Klausner told Boston.com that she expects the exhibits to routinely rotate.

The museum is as much of a statement on urban development as it is an actual art installation. How many people will actually visit the micro museum to actually study and reflect on the miniscule art and how many will pause for a moment to take a quick Facebook photo and walk on? Who knows.

Micro Museum isn’t the only gallery marketing itself on its diminutive size. A suburb of Indianapolis boasts the World’s Smallest Children’s Art Gallery, featuring works from local elementary school children. You might think the Los Angeles Museum of Art would be a massive structure befitting the second-largest city in the nation. That’s true of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but not its near-namesake, a 13-foot, hand-built structure located in the artist enclave of Eagle Rock.

American Tourist Snaps Finger Off Priceless Florentine Statue

sailko, Wikimedia

An American tourist who says he was “measuring” the finger of a 600-year-old statue of the Virgin Mary ended up accidently snapping off the statue’s pinky.

Staff at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence, Italy are outraged. Although the statue is a cast of the original, repairs will be complex and costly. Timothy Verdun, an American expat and art historian who works with the museum, said:

“In a globalized world like ours, the fundamental rules for visiting a museum have been forgotten, that is, ‘Do not touch the works'”

Although the tourist apologized for his carelessness, he could still be fined for damaging the artwork, which is believed to have been made by Florentine Giovanni d’Ambrogio during the 14th or 15th century.

This is far from the first time someone damaging artwork has made headlines. A tourist once crashed into a work by Pablo Picasso at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, causing a six-inch gash. And then there are people who have purposely damaged paintings, like the woman who once tried to pull a painting by Paul Gauguin off the wall in Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art, and another woman who threw an empty mug at the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in France.

A Winter Wonderland In Paris? Mais Oui!

The first fat flakes clustered along my sleeve as I stood facing the Luxembourg Garden on the icy Left Bank. A grumpy street sweeper from the south side of the Sahara scattered salt and scowled. Then he looked up and batted his clotted eyelashes. Snow! In Paris? What a forgotten thrill!I hadn’t seen the white stuff since a brief dusting last year. Winters aren’t very wintry these days in the City of Climatically Changed Light.

When I first moved here in the 1980s it snowed like frigid clockwork. And that seemed absolutely normal and desirable. Way back in the 1800s when Henri Murger wrote what was to become Puccini’s famous La Bohème, snow fell constantly. Ice formed stalagmites and poets shivered burning their manuscripts to stay warm. That was the Paris of romantic memory, the Paris of dreams, the Paris I loved before knowing Paris.

Yet it was real, too. A bust of Murger lurked across the street in the Luxembourg. As I’d hoped, its bronze beard and many-buttoned coat were dusted purest white. Che gelida la manina, the famous aria from La Bohème, played in my mind’s ear, an earworm of the most resistant kind.

Tunefully accompanying it, something besides the snow began to fall on the city: a mantle of enchanted silence. Then suddenly the strange and unexpected sprouted on the faces of Parisian passersby: smiles!

The subtle transformation of Paris from gritty, grimacing sun-less sump into winter wonderland was complete by the time I’d walked around the park a couple of times. The short-lived silence was split by yelps and laughter. Grownups frolicked.

Kids threw off their heavy school satchels and built snowmen.

A girl broke away from her boyfriend and cartwheeled.

“Do you ever throw pepper?” I asked the street sweeper with his coarse salt as I exited the park. He stared, uncomprehending. Then the euro-penny dropped.

“Pepper! Oui, and we could toss in some mustard too,” he laughed, now scattering his salt with gusto, chuckling and nodding.

It was downright disconcerting. Parisians seemed drunk with joy. Instead of heading home I spent the rest of the day wandering the streets, parks and riverbanks with my wife, Alison, the photographer. My first years in the city came back to me with a pleasant frisson, mixed into remembrances of things past, things read, music heard, and movies seen.

It dawned on me that while everyone sings paeans to spring, and many even praise summer and fall in Paris, no one loves winter. Are winter and Paris not a match?

How wrong: Paris, it was clear, is a winter wonderland. How could I have forgotten? When else can you ice skate in front of City Hall, counting the spires and sculptures, glancing across to the snowy spine of Notre Dame Cathedral?

When else can you watch the cars slow then disappear under piles of snow? Gone are the maddening motorcycles, buried the mountains of lethal dog dirt. This old whore of a city, usually best seen by lamplight, looks powdered and fresh, smells clean, feels authentic and real.

As happens at night with spot-lighting, the snow highlights, underscores, picks out the details. A carved face appears on a dirty plaster façade. Gargoyles wear ermine cloaks. Turrets look like confectionary and the bulbous Pantheon’s dome looms like a ghostly balloon.

Most magical of all, the color goes out of the cityscape: it reverts to the Paris of black-and-white photos and vintage films, engravings from centuries past. The pure, color-free essence returns.

Here was another revelation, an epiphany: winter was a magical night. It removed the superfluous. Flying buttresses reared up in all their naked stone beauty, their snowy manes framed by leafless, contorted black branches.

But the delights of winter went far beyond the visual, the aesthetic, the artistic or historic. Quite suddenly, with ice and snow on the ground as they rightly should be, my favorite cafés seemed even more inviting than usual. The terraces were miraculously empty and smoke-free. Bundled up and seated under an umbrella-shaped heater I had the sidewalk and oxygen to myself. A piping hot plat du jour of roast pork with sautéed potatoes tasted of strong mustard – the kind the street sweeper liked – and of yesteryear, my hunger seasoned by the season.

As the temperature fell farther, chilled inhabitants headed home, freeing up the sightlines. Even the last intrepid ultra-economy tourists from frozen Eastern Europe, Russia, Korea or China disappeared into the murky white dusk. Blissfully empty were the Jardin des Plantes, the Tuileries and, miracle of miracles, the loved-to-death Place des Vosges in the Marais. No lines at the Louvre. The Sainte-Chapelle glowed and echoed, free of its steamy human cargo. By trotting across town at breakneck speed I even managed to sneak unmolested into the Edward Hopper and Van Gogh exhibitions, which until then had been the incarnation of mobbed.

All good things come to an end – or do they? When the snow and ice eventually melted and turned Paris back into a slippery gray sea, the sense of wonderment lingered. For one thing, my eyes had been reopened to the forgotten advantages of serious weather. For another, the forecasters were already announcing a series of new winter storms. Joy! Wrapping up and sauntering back onto the mushy sidewalks, I felt paradoxically warm and cozy inside. Paris was mine and mine alone – with Alison – for another few months!

Author and private walking-tour guide David Downie’s latest book is the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His next adventure-memoir, to be published in April 2013, is “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James.” His Paris Time Line app will be published in February. His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.com, http://wanderingfrance.com/blog/paris and http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.

[Photos courtesy Alison Harris © 2012 Alison Harris or © David Downie]