Speak English?

Walking on the streets of Paris, it’s obvious that people can detect Americans at a distance. I’m not always sure what gives us away (wearing shorts, sure). Often, it means a subtle shift in language that you have to pay attention to: a shopkeeper says “and is that all?” in English instead of the French equivalent.

The most noticeable thing that happens, though, is you attract gypsies. No, really. I was lucky enough to be warned early, but the first time I saw a barefoot girl in a flowing dress, walking around one of the riverside streets asking everyone she saw “Speak English?” I didn’t quite believe it.

The scam is that they ask anyone who looks touristy “Speak English?” and if they acknowledge at all that they do, they deploy a small piece of paper or worn cardboard, where someone’s written
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am from a family from Bosnia […] (so please give me money).

More or less. They are not, in case you are at this point curious, a family from Bosnia or wherever that particular plea claims.

If you read it and don’t refuse them immediately, they start pleading, making little hands-together praying to you gestures, and so on. I think many people give them money at this point to make them go away. Sometimes, if they sense opportunity, they’ll keep at someone who’s already given them money, though I rarely saw this. Once they got money, they walk away, sometimes turning it over in their hand before stuffing it in their moneybelt like the ones worn by people worried about being pickpocketed by gypsies.

What’s not clear is why they ask people if they speak English, and why they themselves don’t speak or pretend not to speak English, and are instead reduced to showing a sign to people, or why they don’t appear anything or dress anything like a standard Bosnian person.

Take a counter-example. Say that I flee the United States ahead of angry mob of rival bloggers, and end up in Mexico. Would I hang around tourist attractions in Mexico, asking everyone if they spoke Icelandic, and then showing them a plea, written in Icelandic, which I can neither speak or write, asking them for money?

The question is quite good. It’s in almost perfect American English, and your natural response is to say “yes” and then they have your attention.

Moreover, wahat the question does is filter out people in continental Europe who either have experience with gypsies or who have heard warnings about them. They’re either going to refuse a response because they don’t speak English (and probably recognize the pitch), or they’re going to refuse a response because they recognize the hustle. Leaving people from the UK who don’t know any better, or American/Canadian tourists who may have little experience with this kind of con.

So answering “yes” is like saying “I’m naïve and don’t understand what’s going on”. This is like slathering yourself in barbeque sauce and then jumping in to the lion exhibit at the zoo.

The thing to do is deny you speak English, even if they walk up to you while you’re talking in English, because it prevents the pitch (most of the time).

I’ve been approached on the streets, near the Louvre, near Notre Dame, but the Eiffel Tower provided the best example of this, because it has a great open square, where tourists enter and exit constantly, and where they move towards predictable queues, and sit along accessible benches.

We watched them work today for a while, and its fascinating. It’s a little like seeing ranchers at work. There were one to five girls, all fairly young (like late teens on) and they would circulate in almost random-seeming patterns, but manage to not approach the same person twice as they worked their way around the square. There was almost always one at the base of pillar as an elevator descended, letting off a pack of known tourists, but they would group and then disperse, staying just out of each other’s earshot, so if you were approached by one you were unlikely to hear the “Speak English?” of another from the same group.

They took breaks, maybe when they were tired or maybe when they felt they needed to let the ecosystem refresh itself, but they’d all find a spot of grass where they could lie down and talk. It’s probably even odds on whether they were talking shop – what wavering tone best worked on mothers with small kids – or trying to talk about anything but how depressing it must be to work crowds every day like that.

They made a lot of money.

They disappeared entirely when the French military guys showed up. The French run patrols around major landmarks seemingly at random, three uniformed, camoflague-clad soldiers with automatic rifles who saunter through, scanning the crowd around any important site. The British seemed to dislike displaying their military – in situations where something was serious enough to protect with uniformed officers (or enlisted personnel) with heavy personal weapons generally served as the second line of defense, ready to respond if something serious happened, but also content to let the London police be the face of security, unarmed though they were. But here in Paris, there they are, closely bunched like an invitation for a suicide bomber, walking along the Champs de Mars, serious as can be, occasionally helping a brave tourist unlose themselves.

I don’t know if this happens every time, or if it was coincidence, but while we were watching the “lost Bosnians” do their bee-dance we saw one of the threesomes of uniformed military walk in from the southeast, and suddenly they were all gone. They disappeared entirely, and we didn’t see any of them for a while.

Now, there are police around France (not many, it seems, but there are). I don’t know if they don’t particularly care, or if they would flee around them, but it seems like a good way not to be hassled on the street is to dress up as if you’re in the French army and carry an FN-FAL automatic rifle.

What I find even more interesting about this is that in a way, it’s like the battle between infection and an immune system. If you’re too gullible, you’re attacked from all sides by con artists of all kinds, who will take you for every cent you have (and can borrow from others). But you can’t counter-attack everyone, because almost everyone is innocent. In this case, it makes me much less likely to help people out while I’m traveling, if only because I’ve been made less willing to listen to their plea – whether they’re asking for a baguette, directions to an embassy, or money – because allowing myself to respond to pleas means I’d waste a lot of time.

Similarly, I’m dramatically less likely to talk to someone who is close to the description of the girl who hassled me repeatedly over a couple of days in different locations – which, in turn, I think reflects why people in France and Germany have such a low opinion of Gypsies in general, and means that if you were a Gypsie, and wanted to make an honest living, it’d be that much harder because no one trusted you.

You might soon be reduced to walking barefoot around tourist-rich areas of Paris, carrying a worn cardboard plea, asking “Speak English?”

3 thoughts on “Speak English?

  1. Matt

    Just a quick note to say that the ‘military’ forces you see in Paris aren’t actually military, they’re the CRS (Comapgnie Républicaine de Sécurité, or Republican Security Corps). They’re actually cops, but a distinct force from the ‘gendarmerie’ (regular street cops).

    These are the national anti-riot, anti-terrorist forces. When stuff like the riots in the banlieus happens, as it did last fall, these are the cops that go in to break it up. And yeah, they regularly patrol tourist areas, and the metro. I saw them all over the place when I lived in Paris.

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