Thursday, August 26, 2010

Paris, panhandling, and languages

This is another in my intermittent series of "what I did on my summer vacation" posts.

Everybody we ran into in Paris, at least most service personnel, spoke passable English. The one and only time we hit a language barrier was at a cafe, where the waitress didn't speak English except for "drink". The real barrier, though, lay in the completely illegible, hand-scrawled menu. We had to hunt around the cafe to find a printed copy.

It's been seven years since I studied French, and even then I didn't get past beginner's level (I did it not out of interest, but for a very specific reason that soon turned out to be invalid. So I wasn't too motivated.) Still, I was surprised how easy it was to understand signs in French. And while I could not make out heads or tails of spoken French, there were two instances when I understood what was said. One time Ray and I were walking down the street late at night, and we passed a young woman and man on the sidewalk. The woman was opening a cardboard box. She pulled out a pair of shiny, high-heeled shoes and exclaimed: "les chaussures!" We didn't understand if she was opening a present, or if she found a box of glamorous, brand-new shoes right there in the middle of the street.

Another time we went into a Japanese restaurant. A few seconds later restaurant manager or owner yelled at the hostess: "ferme la porte!" I felt bad about not closing the door myself, but I could swear it was already open when we came in, so I thought it was supposed to be like that.

For some reason, languages determine who panhandlers approach. They -- usually women dressed in gypsy-style clothes -- come up to you and ask: do you speak English? If you say yes, they'll unleash some kind of sob story about needing money. But if you say "no", they'll leave you alone. They will still leave you alone if it's clear you're lying -- e.g. if you add "not with the likes of you". Nor do they ask you if you speak French, German, Spanish, or any other language. It's like some kind of binary-valued ritual that either triggers a signal "proceed" or not.

Another trick panhandlers do to get your attention is more sophisticated. One time my mom, Ray and I were walking down the street; a gypsy passed us (and I'm using the term gypsy loosely -- she was a dark olive-skinned woman in loose, long, colorful clothes, but her nationality could have been anything), but a few steps later, she bent down, picked up something, and called to us. We turned around. I don't remember what exactly she said, or in what language -- probably not English, more like a language of gestures -- showing us a ring she had just "picked up" from the pavement. From a distance it looked like a golden ring. She asked if it was ours. We shook our heads and walked on. It was clearly a scam, but I was intrigued how it would unfold. I didn't go back to find out, of course. But for a while we speculated what she would have done if one us had claimed the ring. Since the purpose of any scam is to extract money from your "mark", how would you convince the mark to part with his/her money by giving him/her a free, albeit worthless, ring? Or was it just a test of the mark's gullibility and greed? Or was there a gang waiting somewhere in the wings, who would come and beat us up if she claimed we stole the ring from her? Though we weren't in a bad part of town (quite the opposite, on a well-traveled route from Notre Dame to Louvre), there was very little pedestrian traffic on it; in fact, there was not another person in sight. But if somebody wanted to mug a tourist, would they first need to distract them with a scam?

Ah, the mysterious ways of lowlifes.

The strangest instance of panhandling I saw were women in Muslim garb sitting in the middle of the sidewalk with their little cups of change. They didn't look like gypsies. Rather their long clothes were of one solid color, and their heads covered by hijabs. They knelt in prayerful poses on the sidewalk of Champs Elysees -- not along the wall, as customary for beggars, but right in the middle of crowds walking to their nightlife and shopping destinations. They were holding signs saying they were Bosnian refugees. Whether they really were is anybody's guess, but despite being completely still, they looked a bit too theatric to be genuine.

Finally, while we're on the topic of languages, here is a little bit of Frenglish. It was a menu in a cafe. Unlike the one I mentioned earler, this one at least had an English version of the menu. It looked as though it had been run through a Google translator. :-) Click on the image for a bigger version.

A Frenglish menu in a Paris cafe

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