Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The air is safe again; scammers; Montmartre; and digital TV

The air in Paris is safe again. For a few days, we had a pollution alert for particulates, which the press seemed to ignore. I went out anyway, in the belief that a day or two of dusty air wouldn't necessarily hurt me. It did affect visibility a lot, though, which interferes with taking pictures or videos.

Today was uninterrupted blue sky and relatively clean air, and it was comfortably chilly. I didn't profit from it photographically, though, as I was preoccupied with trying to get money for food, what with the eBay store shafting me on the trinkets I sold and my employer taking its time about paying its employees.

Anyway, I noticed some weird stuff while walking home. First, on the Iéna bridge, which crosses the Seine River in front of the Eiffel Tower, I saw a con artist running a shell game, which I couldn't recall ever having seen before in that location, or at least not for a long while. However, that wasn't the surprise. The surprise was that there were (by my count) about eight such games taking place on the bridge. Apparently a traveling army of shell-game fraudsters had decided to make a stop on the bridge, or something. They all had the same accent, but it was difficult to place as I only heard snippets of it. There were crowds around each game, but since shell games typically involve several people who are part of the game, I don't know how many of them were actually innocent victims suckered into the fraud. It just amazed me to see so many of them in such a small area, only about 30 feet apart. I guess these people didn't understand the concept of market saturation. How many marks are they likely to find among tourists on the small span of this bridge?

But that's not all. Walking along the river, near the Pont des Arts, I encountered not one but three gypsies working the found-ring scam, wherein they pretend to find a ring on the ground in front of you and then ask if it's yours, yadda-yadda. They weren't very good at it. I actually observed them with the rings in their hands, pretending to pick them up from the ground. I could only smile a knowing smile and wave them off. What idiots! But I'm sure they found a few victims among the zillions of people walking along the river. There was no shortage of tourists out and about, and I suppose even a few locals occasionally fall for the scam. The kicker is that the ring that they “find” is about the biggest, ugliest brass piece of junk you can imagine—only a gypsy would find a ring like that attractive.

And before you accuse me of racism or some other such nonsense, I'm sorry, but most of these scammers are gypsies, also known euphemistically as Roma or “gens de voyage” (“traveling people”). Their entire culture is built around defrauding the rest of humanity, a bit like the Mafia. Anyone who doesn't accept this reality becomes their victim.

Anyway, with the shell gamers from who-knows-where and the ring-scamming gypsies thronging the sidewalks and bridges, I felt like I was suffering from some bizarre, repetitive déjà-vu experience. This systematic overkill in Paris isn't limited to just scams. Many of the people illegally selling souvenirs and trinkets near major monuments have the same problem. You might see ten people selling things on the Trocadéro plaza across from the Eiffel Tower, and every one of them will be selling the same goods. Why is there no diversity? Does everyone really want the same carved wooden giraffes, untreated pigskin hats, or blinking Eiffel Tower keychains? Do they all have the same suppliers? It's mysterious.

The illegal souvenir merchants aren't out to actually steal money from people, but they aren't exactly legal, either. Most of them have no permit or business structure and are thus operating their business illegally, and they may be illegal aliens as well. Often they have their junk spread out on a large sheet, with cords attached to the corners and joined in the middle. They also have a telepathic herd mind of sorts, like Village of the Damned, but without the white hair and glowing eyes. When one of them detects the nearby presence of law enforcement with his sixth sense, they all become aware of it, and they grab the cords of their spread where they are joined and pick up their wares, the sheet forming a getaway sack containing all their merchandise. Then they run. The slowest among them gets caught and arrested, and might even get a free trip back home if he's an illegal. The others return after a few minutes.

There's even a sort of fashion among the souvenir sellers. One month, it's wooden elephants and red laser keychain pointers. The next month, it's plastic wind-up birds and toy puppies that walk and bark. The month after that, it's day-glo whirly-bird wind-up helicopters and umbrella hats. The merchandise changes in waves. Whatever one guy is selling will be the same as everyone else within a mile radius. It must be that telepathy again. I half-expect that one day I'll see the eyes of one of them start to glow as he commands “you will buy this carved wooden antelope …” in broken French with a mysterious accent.

Sometimes the fashions tend to correlate with locations. For example, in front of Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Montmartre, there are tons of African scammers that have some sort of scam that involves tying colored strings on your fingers (I've never fallen for this, so I don't know how the whole thing works). I never see the colored-strings scam elsewhere, but it's popular and consistent at Sacré-Cœur. They are very aggressive there—when I've gone there with groups in the past, we've occasionally had to pull them away from the young girls and women in the group, so we have staff watching the scammers with eagle eyes to make sure they don't harass anyone.

On the Montmartre butte itself, you don't really see scammers per se, and most of the artists are perfectly legitimate, but some of them have very aggressive selling tactics. Those with a spot allocated for their use on the famous place du Tertre—the square where all the artists gather—are not obnoxious and won't try very hard to sell you anything, but the roving artists, who have no allocated spot and simply walk around with a sketchpad or paper and scissors, can be much more aggressive. They will often start sketching you or preparing your silhouette in paper with tiny scissors without waiting for you to say yes, and then they will try to sell you the result even though you didn't ask for it. The correct response to this is to say “no,” unless you actually want to buy their work (some of them are quite good … but that doesn't mean that you have to buy whatever they push at you).

Speaking of Montmartre, I've finished editing my little 15-minute video visit to the area, which you can view in this post. The first two minutes show Pigalle, the Sin City of Paris. The rest is Montmartre. It's difficult to convey how charming Montmartre is in a video, and I didn't wander much off the beaten path in this video. You'll see, however, that even a slight diversion from the touristy streets changes things a lot. The rue Saint Rustique, visible in the video, is a tiny, deserted street from the 12th century that is right behind the touristy streets, and it is very quiet. It contains a well-hidden artist supply shop that I assume caters to locals, since nobody is likely to run across it by accident on that tiny, silent street. There are many other silent, charming streets to the west on the butte, and I plan to film and photograph them more at some point in the future, insha’Allah.

It's past midnight now, and, apart from today being International Women's Day , it's also the day that the Paris region of France switches from analog to digital broadcast television. Most people with recent TV sets don't have to do much (and if they aren't receiving TV with an antenna, they may not have to do anything at all), but it's still a big change. It doesn't affect me, though, since I've had no television since the government seized my TV set for taxes seven years ago. I don't miss TV, so even if I had the money, I wouldn't buy a new TV set (especially since I'd have to pay yearly TV tax on it if I did).

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