Safety first, fondue later


My luck in Paris has not been what one would call great. I have had a bad case of poison ivy, suffered severely from food poisoning, and was a passenger in the worst car accident of my life—all in Paris. You’d think with my track record, I would try to avoid that region of the world. But I can’t. I’m a flight attendant.

And anyway, I love Paris, and France is one of my favorite destinations. My wife speaks French; we fell in love in Bordeaux; and some of our fondest holiday memories are from France. But let me tell you a cautionary tale.

I was on a layover in Paris in the springtime, and I wanted to share this beautiful city with some friends on the crew. After a full day of sightseeing, I treated two female co-workers to a secret fondue place in the Montmartre district (Maison des Fondues). We had stuffed our faces with a delicious cheese feast and had indulged in far too much red wine from large baby bottles. Although it was getting late, one of my friends suggested we head to Sacré-Coeur, which was a steep uphill climb and a half-mile away. We needed the exercise after that meal, anyway.

Almost to the top and out of breath, we had one last stretch of steps to go. All of a sudden, one of my friends shrieked as two men walking down the steps grabbed her purse. One slit the purse strap with a knife and the other tugged it free. It all happened in an instant, and before I knew it, I was in a foot chase with two thugs. They saw me chasing, so they split up at the bottom of the steps.

I continued to chase the one with the purse tucked under his arm. It had started to rain lightly, and the cobblestones had become quite slippery. I tripped a couple of times but, luckily, so did our assailant. The chase continued through the back streets of Paris and across a few busy streets. I was actually catching up to the guy when we ran into a back alley. It was a dead end, and suddenly he was cornered.

Now what?, I thought to myself as the man slowly turned around and took out his knife. That was enough for me. I turned to run away but was greeted by three of his friends.
“Take out your wallet and throw it to me,” one of them shouted in broken French.
“Can’t we talk about this, guys?” I replied.
One of them smirked, “He wants to talk?”

They continued to walk toward me and I began to yell for help. I felt a blow to the back of my head as one of them hit me from behind.

I woke up in a hospital bed with the mother of all headaches. I was sore from head to toe, and my face had what can only be described as a footmark indentation, but luckily there was no knife cut. Best of all, I was alive.

The following are some safety tips I learned from this experience (and from other somewhat less adventurous layovers). They should be helpful to everyone traveling abroad.

1. When sightseeing, always bring a dummy purse or wallet, and put only the bare essentials in it: one credit card, one piece of photo identification and enough cash for the intended outing. Leave everything else in your hotel room or in the hotel safe. If you insist on carrying your passport with you, purchase a pouch that straps to your body. The woman’s purse that was stolen was a dummy purse that contained nothing too valuable; unfortunately, my wallet had everything in it.

2. Always keep your wallet in your front pocket and your purse around your opposite shoulder with the opening facing inwards, toward your body.

3. If you encounter someone trying to take your purse or wallet, yell loudly. The attention may scare the purse-snatcher away.

4. Don’t resist. If you struggle too hard, you could get seriously hurt. Remember, the man has cut your purse strap with something that can cut you just as easily.

5. Don’t be a hero. I learned this the hard way. I was the only male, and I felt it was my duty to catch the assailants. That was misplaced chivalry. Besides being beaten up and almost hit by two cars, I lost my wallet. Worse, I could have been killed.

6. If someone threatens you and demands your wallet or purse, just hand it over. Remember, it’s just a leather contraption that holds your personal items, and most of those can be replaced. Your life can’t be.

7. Guard your drinks. A recent criminal ploy is to spike drinks with Rohypnol, better known as “roofies.” Yes, this is the date-rape drug, but it can also be slipped into the drinks of unsuspecting tourists. I know many crewmembers who have become victims of this dangerous drug.

8. Never write your room number on the sleeve of your hotel key card. If you’ve had too much wine and have forgotten the details of your room assignment, just go to the front desk and ask. Believe me, they are used to it. I like this option much better then finding some stranger in my room.

9. Don’t assume that the person lying on the side of a back street is a homeless person. Apparently, the French lady who found me mistook me for a vagrant. (This is understandable since I was unconscious, smelled like booze, and my clothes were all messed up.) Luckily, she called the police anyway. Do the same for the next poor sod, or at least notify a nearby shopkeeper.

10. Trust your first instincts. I wasn’t too happy with the late hour of our last sightseeing tour, but decided I was being overprotective of my friends. I went along with the consensus, never voicing my concern. Big mistake.

This advice should be followed in every major city. Crime is a fact of life, and your awareness and safety precautions are your first defense.

My wife and I are planning a trip to France soon, beginning with a weekend in Paris. I am a bit leery, but I’m looking forward to walking those beautiful streets again. This time, I will be better prepared.

First stop, fondue!