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Thursday, Jul 31, 2014
Pasco Tribune

Jackson: Travel's educational advantages are real

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PARIS - Foreign travel, at last, turns out to be every bit as educational as promised by the sunny Rick Steves on all those public television specials.

How else, after all, is the average American to discover the practice of plopping fried eggs on top of perfectly good main courses, such as hamburgers and grilled-cheese sandwiches?

Then there's sorting through foreign coins and currency, constantly performing mental calculations about what you're spending in actual American greenbacks. (Quick answer, always: a lot.)

Not to be overlooked are the instructive activities taking place on city streets, where the hucksterism is at all times flamboyant and alluring, yet so utterly blatant it would embarrass even a county government found guilty of shaking down local landowners.

v vWe were crossing the Pont du Carrousel Bridge linking Paris' traditional Rive Gauche to the Louvre Museum when we were spotted: three gape-eyed Americans in non-conforming attire, our heads on swivels and dangling cameras.

She was in her early 30s, probably, although her appearance was timeless, dressed like an extra in one of those 1940s Universal monster movies, layered and disheveled, a gypsy more authentic than any played by Maria Ouspenskaya, the essential fortuneteller of Hollywood's Golden Age.

A loose-knit shawl hugging her shoulders flapped in the wind like wings, and her thatched black hair clung to her like a swallow's nest in a storm.

And suddenly she was in front of us, bending over to sweep something off the ground she'd just - apparently - spied.

v vIn retrospect, her gesture was overbroad, a practiced, theatrical move designed to command attention. She certainly had ours. When she rose, a wide circle of gold gleamed in the palm of one hand: a man's wedding band.

Her urgent, dark eyes seized mine. "Yours, monsieur?" She knew it wasn't, but the play had begun. I shook my head, instinctively raising my left hand to provide proof. Sucker.

In heavily accented English, she pressed on. "Not mine, either," she said, coming out "ee-zer," sliding it like a hoop over a twig down her finger. "Too beeg. . Maybe just your size?"

Although we'd kept walking, she fell in step with us, reversing her course. She held up the ring, displayed to provide a look inside. "There's writing. An inscription. What does it mean?"

A bold stamp, so large a middle-aged mark could decipher it without reading glasses, claimed the ring was 18-karat gold. At the center of a 74-year-old bridge five stories above the surging Seine, the point of no return had arrived. The moment of truth.

v vIn a voice trembling with concern, the extra from "The Wolfman" pleaded into the windswept space between us, "Maybe you take it? Bon chance (good luck) for you? What else should we do?"

We? How did a stranger finding a ring in the vicinity of a passing family suddenly become an alliance? The proper answer was too obvious to be denied.

"We shouldn't do anything," I answered, still moving. "You should take it to the nearest policeman. Le gendarme."

At that, her fist clamped down like a hawk's claws on a mouse; the ring vanished and, pivoting on a gasp, soon so did she.

We walked in silence a slight distance when the heir apparent could contain his bewilderment no longer. "Why didn't we help her? Couldn't we have turned it in? What if she just keeps the ring?" The same questions shaped his mother's gaze.

"Because that was some kind of a scam," I said. "I don't know what was going to happen next, but if we'd taken the ring, it wasn't going to end well."

For once, I was right. Put "Paris gold ring scam" into your favorite Internet search engine and the results roll in by the thousands.

It seems the fat 18k band is, in fact, gold-plated brass, nearly worthless. But those who accept the gypsy's offer of the ring are asked for a small "finder's fee" - maybe 20 euros, or about $30 - in return.

She goes off in search of another patsy, and you are left with, even by Paris standards, an extremely overpriced souvenir.

This is not to suggest scam artists are unique to foreign shores. One of the most clever plays out daily in New Orleans' French Quarter where youngsters carrying shoeshine boxes will either buff up your loafers for a couple of bucks, or, at the same price, wager they can identify "where you got them shoes."

"I can even tell you what street you got them on," they boast.

Show them your $2 and they'll say, "Where you got them shoes is on your feet. And the street you got them on is Bourbon Street."

So, yes, travel is ultimately educational, much of it having to do with the capacity of human resourcefulness. My advice: Pack and go, but be alert. The bromide about fools and money applies to innocents abroad as well.

tjackson@tampatrib.com

(813) 371-1851

www.Facebook.com/TomJacksonTribune

Twitter: @tjacksonTBO

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