Friday, June 3, 2011

How to Ward of Magic

France is the most visited country in the world – as many as 76 million people visit the country each year; the famous Louvre museum alone attracts 12 million annual visitors (most of them standing in front of the Mona Lisa, apparently). And, with tourists, come those who seek to exploit those tourists: to extricate from them money, by ignoring the standing conventions surrounding “honesty”, “egalitarianism” and “not being a dick”.

I’m not talking about “tourists prices”: charging more money because people who are visiting for only a finite period are more willing, and generally more able to pay more. That’s nothing more than free market economics. Just ask Milton Friedman.

No. I’m talking about pickpockets; I’m talking about people collecting money for a made-up charity; about people who charge money for one thing, by making the victim think it is something else entirely.

A favourite example of the latter in Paris requires nothing more than a couple of pieces of string and the promise of magic: a man walks up to an ostensible tourist holding a few lengths of wool tied in a slip-knot, saying something like “hold out your finger, it’s a magic trick”. If the tourist obliges, the magician slips the string over the finger, and rapidly braids it into a ring, such that it cannot be easily removed.

Now that he has gone to the trouble of making you such a beautiful ring, the tourist is honor-bound to pay for the service. Angry bartering ensues.

Most scammers know how to pick their target – they can usually tell who might be likely to fall for the scam, when someone might need only a little convincing to agree, and when someone saying “no” really means “fuck off”.

But not all. Walking up the hill to Basilique du Sacré Cœur, Matt and I are approached by one such string-wielding magician, who strides right into Matt’s path and delivers the standard opening line.

“Nah mate, I’m good.” Replies Matt, shoving his hands in his pocket and stepping sideways.

The ‘magician’ steps with him, continuing to block his path. “Come on. Very good magic trick.”

At this point I have moved a few feet ahead, as Matt steps back the other way. “I said no, OK?”

To this, our Parisian David Blane places his palm firmly on Matt’s chest, pushing him half a step backwards. “Hold out your finger! It is a magic trick.”

“Whoa buddy! I said no.”

Realising that this guy is the only con-artist in the world with less social intuition that Rain Man, I spin around, twisting at the waist, head cocked, voice low; meet the magician’s eye, and let fly with: “Hey! Back off, eh!” He looks at me with a shimmer of fear in his eye, steps aside, and hurries away...

No, wait. That’s not quite what happened. That story doesn't make me look nearly blundering enough...

I spin around, twisting at the waist, head cocked, voice low; meet the magician’s eye, half a hot dog in hand, the other half in my mouth, and let fly with with a loud mummer and a few soggy crumbs. Yes, what was probably the fourth aggressively assertive thing I have ever done, I ballsed up by talking with my mouth full. 

For whatever reason, though, the guy backed off. I’m pretty sure that he had already given up on Matt; but there is a part of me that chooses to believe that he took one look at me and thought “Wow. That guy is so bad-ass he doesn’t even need to bother with consonants.”

Saturday, January 22, 2011

How to Talk to the Homeless

I’m standing at a bus stop. A man, homeless, it appears, but well-presented, walks up to me and says something in Slovak. I shrug, and say “Neviem [dunno]”.

“Hovoreš Slovenčinu? [Do you speak Slovak?]” He says.

“Trochu [a little]” I reply, trying to make myself appear as unapproachable I can manage. This I do while battling my professionally cultivated habit of being as approachable as possible.

“Do you speak English?” he says, in very good English.

Bugger. He’ll never leave now. Think quick! 

“Yup.” I say. 

Crap. That probably didn’t work.

“Can I have two Euro?” he says. “I’m homeless.”

“You can have one,” I reply, fishing a small handful of coins out of my pocket, and separating two 50 cent coins from the pile. I don’t know what it says about my strength of character that my idea of getting rid of annoying beggers is to still give them money.

“Thank you,” he says. Here he presents his fist, extended at waist height. I look at it for a moment, then tap my fist against his. He smiles and says “You are a good man,” then promptly turns to the beautiful Slovak woman standing next to me.

Before he has finished saying his first word, she points to me with her head, and says “No. He already gave you,” in English.

“Oh,” he says. “Are you two...”

“Yes.” She says quickly.

He looks to me. I smile and nod. He looks back to the girl, then with a grin that says good job!, engages me in a congratulatory fist-bump, and walks away.

Now, if anyone every asks me “did you have any luck with Slovak women?”, I can say “Well, if a hot Slovačka pretending to be my girlfriend in order to avoid talking to a homeless guy counts, then I can confidently say: Yes.”