Varenna, Verona, qual è la differenza?

Geography time! Varenna is on Lake Como and has houses like this:


And Verona is on the river Adige and has buildings like this:


That’s Verona’s amphitheater, which is older than god Rome’s Colosseum. Unlike its more famous counterpart, Verona’s amphitheater also has the distinction of having been in continuous use since its construction in the year 14 A.D. How’s that for getting your money’s worth? Modern builders, take note.

Verona has a lot going for it — fashion, markets, fantastico gelato, all that — but Varenna, in its faded glory, is where I’d rather live. Impossibly narrow lanes, still-spectacular-after-all-this-time villas, friendly bars, and, the showpiece of it all, Lago di Como, add up. Aperitivo in hand, standing on a balcony over the stormy waters, looking across the lake to Bellagio, you feel like Byron or Shelly. An accordion drifts across the water, calling you.

It’s nice, is what I’m saying. Unbelievably, though, this country gets better. More on that later. Ciao for now!

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La Dolce Vita in the Polish York

Surprises, surprises, and more surprises. “Travel is fatal to prejudice,” Samuel Clemens once wrote, and, while good ol’ Sam had broader topics in mind, his quote is applicable to more mundane matters. My image of Poland, for instance. Previous to coming here, the word Poland brought to mind:

  • Chicago football in the 70s
  • boiled turnip and cabbage stew
  • grey skies, grey cities
  • sausage

…and, that’s about it. Of course, I knew better. I had read about Poland, its long, rich, and often tortured history. I knew it had great cities that had been cultural capitals, and that these cities had spawned many great minds of history — Copernicus rewrote the galactic map. Poles are right up there with the Germans and Italians in the annals of great music, from Chopin to Ray Manzarek. Hell, even the inventor of the Q-Tip was Polish. So why was I expecting a dull country full of grumpy, sullen fatalists?

Well, whatever the reasons, I am happy to report that I was wrong about everything (except the sausage; God but they love their sausage). Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Kraków, quite possibly the best city to live in, ever:

and not a single turnip for miles around

and not a single turnip for miles around

This place is gorgeous. Kraków’s main square is Europe’s finest — in fact the entire city core is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s Poland’s major college town, and as such it’s lively, fun, and cheap. It bristles with energy, confidence, and hope.

And the food is really really good here. The absurdity of my preconceptions loomed over me at every corner.

Now, the attentive among you may have noticed I referred to Kraków as “the Polish York”. That’s not entirely accurate, as Kraków as a whole is much bigger than York, but there are striking similarities nonetheless: Like with York, there is a ton of history here, right under your feet. Kraków recently opened a stunning underground museum that was made by excavating, in situ, the main square. If the 14th-century roadbed doesn’t float your boat, maybe the 13th-century market stalls will, or the 12th-century graves (complete with anti-vampire burial practices). Like York, the city center is flat, compact, immensely accessible on foot, and packed with pubs and eateries. And like York, one gets the immediate impression that yes, one could live here. One should live here. There are no streets with such spendiferously goofy names as York’s “Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate”, but still. It’s the cat’s meow.

First order of business: prepare for the day.

it's hard work but somebody's gotta do it

it’s hard work but somebody’s gotta do it

Here we are, taking care of business. No, we’re not just enjoying $3 beers while relaxing in a cool cellar cafe/bar right off the main drag stocked with books in many different languages. We’re not just chatting with fellow travelers from around the world who, like us, have been charmed by Kraków. Because you see, we’re in a freakin’ laundromat. Doing our laundry.

Hard work over, now it’s time for some local flavor. We book back to the main square for the afternoon Hejnał Mariacki. According to legend, back in 1241, the Tatars (remember them?) sacked Kraków. A sentry spotted the dawn attack and started to sound the alarm by blowing a rally cry with his bugle. The city gates were closed in time and hence the attack was thwarted; however the bugler was shot through the throat with an arrow, and died. To commemorate this, once an hour on the hour (round the clock) a bugler appears at the window of the St. Mary’s church tower and starts playing his tune, only to abruptly cut off. It’s weird and cute and funny and completely lovable all at the same time.

gotcha, Tatars

gotcha, Tatars

Time to visit Schindler’s museum and the old Jewish Quarter. We’re gonna have to stock up on vitamin B for this.

ah, vitamin B(eer).

ah, vitamin B(eer).

Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of Kraków, was for hundreds of years a pretty mellow place. Poles and Jews coexisted pretty nicely (especially by old-timey European standards) until the Nazis showed up. You can imagine what happened next. Or you could re-watch Schindler’s List, which took place in the area (and was filmed here, as well). The Jews were driven out to a ghetto a few miles away, and the quarter was left to rot. Even the buildings were appalled.

dismayed building is dismayed

dismayed building is dismayed

Just on the other side of Kazimierz, on the site of Schindler’s factory, now sits one of Europe’s best, most innovative, and well-executed museums. It tells the story of how Kraków and its inhabitants — all of them — fared under the Nazi boot.

here's a hint: the floors were better cared for than the people

here’s a hint: the floors were better cared for than the people

I could go on for hours about this place, but I won’t. I’ll just leave it at this:

  • It is insanely great
  • You must go there

I’d like to stay longer. Much, much longer. But we’re off to Hungary, and the brilliant, mad capital of the former Austro-Hungarian empire: Budapest. Till next time, keep on truckin’.

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Beware of the Burčák

Finding something new in Moravia

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why we here at travel. To bring you delightful, and delightfully weird, things from around the world. We are proud to present to you a few things in Štramberk, a tiny city in eastern Czech Republic. Historically, this area was known as Moravia (the western part of Czech lands were known as Bohemia). Actually, the phrase “was known” is a bit misleading in the eastern part of the Republic, since while no one in the former Bohemia continues to refer to it by that name, Moravians will still claim the title when it suits them (and this is often, apparently). Moravians are, in general, poorer, more boisterous, more quick to smile, laugh, and quarrel than their reserved western cousins, making them effectively the Irish of central Europe. I loved them immediately.

We arrived in Štramberk just looking for lunch and had a succession of surprises. First, this teeny hamlet of a few thousand people had a superb pizza joint. The German-speaking waitress was visibly relieved when she found my caveman Deutsch sufficient for communication. It’s not a small world after all, I suppose. Stepping out, we lucked into Štramberk’s heritage day festival, when the town square was full of locals, watching other locals sing, dance, and goof about in costume. Several vendors also set up shop in the square selling all sorts of stuff I’d never seen before and couldn’t figure out. Oh, and sausage. I know my sausage; I’ve been around the block a few times.

At the fair, we discovered a specialty virtually exclusive to Štramberk: the Štramberské uši, or “Stramberk Ears”. This is a baked treat, a kind of cinnamon and clove flavored flat cookie, rolled up into a rough approximation of an ear shape. Local legend has it the townspeople started baking them after an incident in the year 1241, when marauding Tatars sacked their city. Some clever townspeople lured the invaders to a particular spot underneath a dam, then broke the dam, flooding out the Tatars and saving the city. Since the Tatars were known for cutting off the ears of their victims to send back to the Khan as tribute, the locals started shaping their flatbreads into ear-like shapes in a nice (and tasty) fuck-you to their would-be conquerers. Score another point for Štramberk.


they’re super cheap too, and last for days

Next, we discovered another culinary delight, only not quite as local–this is particular to the whole of the Czech Republic, though we’d never heard of it before. Maybe that’s because, by law, you can only sell it between August and November. It’s Burčák, (BOOR-chack) basically a very immature wine. It looks and tastes like fruit juice, though it’s generally as alcoholic as beer. Indeed we thought it was fruit juice, and downed a cup or two. When we started feeling ever-so-slightly breezy we thought to google the name of the stuff, and, much to our delight, the top hits in the search results were “Beware of the Burčák” and “The Most Dangerous Beverage in Prague“. We did our (belated) research, realized we were quaffing central European hillbilly hooch, and immediately went back to the booth and purchased a full liter. For research purposes, of course. We’re dedicated to bringing you the truth, no matter the cost.

Our research well underway, we repaired to some benches to watch the entertainments. The local medieval guild paraded around in fine costume, then some adorable preteens (no, seriously) did a fairly complicated jump-rope routine, and then, the most sublime act of all: A Czech bluegrass band took the stage, layin’ down that old-time high lonesome sound. In Czech.

Afterward, I went up to meet the boys. Only one, the fiddler, spoke any English at all, but he was really happy to find that an honset-to-gawd A-murikan had seen, and liked, his act. We shook hands and left as friends.

shit-kickin' knows no borders

shit-kickin’ knows no borders. shit-kickin’ needs no borders.

All in all, pound-for-pound, this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it speck on the map turned out to be one of the best travel days we’ve had in a long, long time. We need to spend more time here, but for now we’re off to Poland, and more terra incognita.  Happy travels!

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Why I don’t love Prague (even though I really want to)

Don’t get me wrong–I don’t hate Prague. I don’t even dislike it. It’s just that I can’t love it, and that’s really, really frustrating, because I really, really want to love it. It is the world capital of Art Nouveau, and I love Art Nouveau. It has this:

paid to see it this time

paid to see it this time

And streets like this:

pscAnd a skyline like this:

It has Mucha’s masterpiece collection The Slav Epic, the Obecní dům (perhaps Europe’s finest municipal house), thousands of bars, and a devil-may-care, party-at-all-hours ethos. What’s not to like?

Well, there’s this:



But it’s not really the tourist crowds. It’s the way Prague handles them.

I’ve likened cities to womanly archetypes before, so indulge me again* (it’s my chance to be artsy and romantic). Prague is like an achingly beautiful girl with an irritating, squeaky voice. Sure, you may want to look at her but you don’t really want her around. By this I mean that Prague has so much going for it, yet manages to throw just enough headaches in your way as to make it, in a very real sense, unlovable. And as previously noted, in a trashy city that sucks no one would care. No one would blog about it. It’s only because Prague could be on par with London and Paris and Stockholm and Berlin that the fact that it isn’t provokes such a visceral sense of deflation.

Let’s start with the transit system. Plusses: it goes just about everywhere, is fairly reliable, and is even getting a nice facelift in terms of new tram cars. Negatives: everything else. First, just paying for a bloody ride is Kafkaesque–you need a ticket, obviously, but where do you buy them? At the bus or tram stop? Ha no, hold on professor, that’s crazy talk. Take that efficiency and sense-making back to boring old Switzerland (where one pass provides carte blanche to ride, well, every public conveyance in the country). Nope, you usually have to buy them in corner stores or tobacco stands, which may or may not be at all conveniently placed when you’re racing to catch the streetcar you need. Then, you need to get on a streetcar, which generally just stop in the middle of a very busy street, loading and unloading passengers on a tiny, precarious median, with lunatic drivers buzzing around inches away (and nary a crosswalk to be found). So you have to dart across several lanes of traffic to reach the median, shoving old women and infants out of your way to reach your tram.

Ah, but now you’re in the streetcar, and all is well. That is, if you’ve remembered to activate your ticket, but locating the one or two boxes on the tram into which you’re supposed to insert the ticket, stamping it with the current time (and thereby setting a death clock on how long the ticket’s good for, generally 90 minutes). Oh, you may have to push through a frighteningly large crowd of people to reach the damned validation box, but that’s the kind of social interaction our ancestors fought and died for, so quit complaining. And, you have to insert the ticket into the validation box the right way, because if you put the wrong end in the timestamp will be illegible and one of the city’s transit inspectors (who wear plainclothes and carry tiny, issued-from-a-joke-shop badges) may decide to fine you a lot of money if they can’t read the stamp and are in a bad mood (and they’re always in a bad mood).

And that’s just to ride a damned streetcar. The situation is much the same in the metro system, only worse, because there, you have to buy your (unvalidated, natch) tickets from cartoonishly grumpy machines with no English/internationalized instructions prominent. Oh, there’s lots of ‘helpful’ people hanging about, generally skeezy-looking men in their twenties who wear sunglasses indoors and reek of bootleg cologne, who will offer to buy your tickets for you–for a fee. And those are the honest ones–the dishonest ones grab your wallet when you’re distracted and hightail it out of there. It’s creepy and obvious what’s going on and Prague apparently cannot dedicate a single transit officer to shooing the scoundrels out of the metro stops.

Compare this to London, which, even though every Brit absolutely hates its transit system, still is head and shoulders above this. You buy, or top off an existing Oyster card at any metro station. Tap it on a sensor to get in, tap it when you get off, and the system knows how far you’ve gone and charges your account accordingly. That’s all there is to it. Works on the buses too.

Then there’s the reluctance of the city to put up signs of any kind in English. Now, this may raise a few politically correct hackles out there, so let me finish before you start with the accusations of chauvinism. The Czechs have a rich, beautiful language that they are rightly proud of. I am not for one minute suggesting that they push it out of the way to make room for English. But–and this is a big but–Prague gets millions of visitors a year, none of whom knows Czech. What they do know, in varying degrees, is English. The lack of English signage means lots of confused Swedes, Brits, Chinese, Samoans, and yes, Americans, wandering around, getting into the wrong queue, going the wrong way, and just generally not going about their business as planned. This makes doing anything in the touristy areas–even if you personally know exactly what you’re doing–much more of a hassle than necessary. If Prague wants to remain a premier tourist destination (particularly as its reputation as dirt-cheap is essentially fiction at this point) it simply has to accommodate people who speak (a) no Czech and (b) some English. Other cities have figured this out–hell, even Paris is a breeze these days in comparison.

Anyway, these may seem like minor gripes, and in a sense, they are, but it all adds up. It really does. You leave Prague feeling exhilarated, enlightened even, but also somewhat exhausted, somewhat glad to be out of there. For a city that should rival Paris as a cultural capital, that’s a damned shame.


 *And besides, in Czech the city’s name is spelled and pronounced “Praha”.  And Praha is a woman in local folklore anyway, so there.
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Cheap Thrills

You know how it is: no matter how high you can get, there will always be the time you have to come down.  First, some traveling essentials:

pretty much all they have up here are lagers.  they'll do in a pinch, i suppose

pretty much all they have up here are lagers. they’ll do in a pinch, i suppose

Time to say goodbye to Murren and the very nice people at the Hotel Alpenblick. It’s time to make the trek — by foot, no less! — to Gimmelwald, beloved of Rick Steves and PBS viewers everywhere.  It’s a hard life, I know, but we’re committed to bringing you the tough stories.  The stories you need to know.

no matter how dearly it costs us

no matter how dearly it costs us

Well, at least it’s all downhill.

take a left at Albuquerque, can't miss it

take a left at Albuquerque, can’t miss it

After an hour or so, here we are:


…where we discovered quite possibly the single most insane business in the world:

yes this is real

yes this is real

Yep, The Honesty Shop, ladies and gentlemen.  Europe’s First Unattended Self-Service Village Shop.  There’s just a bunch of stuff in there — souvenirs,  food, tools, whatever — and a cash box to put money should you fancy anything.  No attendant.  No staff.  There is nothing stopping you from robbing the place up one side and down the other. Nothing but your conscience, you heartless bastard.

The Honesty Shop was the only place open in town, so we left it in peace and headed down to the Lauterbrunnen Valley:

current picture, or recycled footage from my Yosemite days? YOU'LL NEVER KNOW

current picture, or recycled footage from my Yosemite days? YOU’LL NEVER KNOW

We were headed for Trümmelbachfälle, a series of ten waterfalls spiraling down a ravine inside a mountain. It is impressive as all hell, but notoriously difficult to photograph.  We took a lot of photos and most of them are just crap.

this is the best one we got

this is the best one we got

It’s also our old friend Swiss Engineering at work–the system of stairs and catwalks built into the mountain making the falls accessible to humans dates from 1913. These people are unstoppable, I tell you.

Several beers and trains later, we arrived in Interlaken, for a leisurely cruise around Thunersee, arguably the prettier of the two lakes Interlaken is, well, inter.

pictured: your average Swiss elementary school. I don't know whether to laugh or cry

pictured: your average Swiss elementary school. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry

More later. Tchuss!

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The Top of Europe

Well, not really.  Switzerland’s Jungfraujoch region calls itself “The Top of Europe” but Mount Blanc, in France, is the highest point in Europe at 4,810 m (15,781 ft).  Jungfrau clocks in at a relatively measly 3,471 m (11,388 ft), but there is publicly accessible transport up to it.  Basically it’s the highest point in Europe you can buy a ticket for.

But first, Switzerland in general: This is a country that works, in pretty much every sense of the word.  It has Europe’s lowest unemployment, highest income per capita for a non-trivial economy, arguably its best transport network and related infrastructure, and, perversely, Europe’s highest suicide rate.  There’s something going on here that warrants a closer look.


even this eggs love this place

We landed in Zürich, and headed for Basel, one of the oldest and richest parts of the Swiss Confederacy (apropos of nothing, I suppose, but you expect factual reporting from, and that’s what you’ll get).  From there it’s a quick jaunt on Switzerland’s famously efficient and reliable train system to the Berner Oberland area, home of the Jungfraujoch, Gimmelwald, Murren, and much else besides.  This requires trains that connect to cable cars that climb seventy-degree slopes to more trains, etc. The vertiginous amongst us (yours truly included) just have to keep repeating the mantra “It’s Swiss Engineering, it’s Swiss Engineering…”

just trust in Swiss engineering... it will get you up that mountain in one piece.  really.

just trust in Swiss engineering… it will get you up that mountain in one piece. really.

And so! Finally we end up in Murren, our home base for the next few days.  Not a bad place, really.  Here’s the view our hotel apologized for (since it’s not the ‘best they had to offer’):



Anyhoo.  Like I said it’s just a jumping-off point.  Several drinks later, it’s high time to buzz up the Schilthornbahn to, well, the Schilthorn, which at a mere 2,970 m (9,744ft) seems pretty unimpressive at first. But then you get to the rotating restaurant at the top and realize it took some monumental heuvos to build the place.  It even has a clear-acrylic skywalk for those who always wanted the experience of a heart attack without all the bother of an ambulance ride.



The star attraction here is the afore-mentioned Jungfraujoch, the three peaks seen below.  Local legend has it that the Monch (monk, in the middle) protects the Jungfrau (the young lady–the highest peak, to the right) from the insidious Eiger (ogre, on the left).



After letting the abrupt altitude change fog your thinking, you’re just about crazy enough to ride the cable car back down.

these people are basically Germans, but even more fastidious.  Just remember that.

these people are basically Germans, but even more fastidious. Just remember that.

There’s too many insane views to cover in a single post, so I’ll leave Gimmelwald, the Lauterbrunnen valley, and Trummelbach Fällen for the next post.  Until then, happy travels and SWISS ENGINEERING.

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The ghosts of war

The enemy? His sense of duty was no less than yours, I deem. You wonder what his name is, where he came from. And if he was really evil at heart. What lies or threats led him on this long march from home. If he would not rather have stayed there in peace. Well, this war will make corpses of us all.
― J.R.R. Tolkien

Normandy. A name that keeps popping up in European history. It comes and goes, asserting its importance for a time, then sinking back into obscurity, only to doggedly arise again. When it does show up, it matters.

Not all that much remains, here, of Guillaume le Batard, though in Bayeux his account of 1066 still hangs proudly. But I’ll save that tale for another day. For we have just toured the sites of a more recent bloodshed.

We started at the German War Cemetery in La Cambe, a small town not far from the Normandy beaches. It holds the final remains of some 21,000 German soldiers, all of whom died in the attempt to hold the allies back on D-Day and the weeks that followed. It’s a downbeat, solemn place, even by the standards of Normandy war memorials. That ought to tell you something.


At the center of the cemetery is a hill with a sculpture, of an austere cross with two sorrowful figures beneath, representing the parents of all those sent off to slaughter:


At the base of the hill is an inscription in German which ends with “Gott hat das letze Wort” (God has the final say).

What many don’t realize about the Normandy landings is that, for the most part, the beaches were not defended by the elite of what remained of Germany’s Army. Nor indeed even by fit, fully functional fighting units, let alone fanatical Nazis. Many of the bunkers and machine gun nests were staffed by Poles and other eastern Europeans dragooned into service, or with Germans who had “seen too many winters, or too few” (to quote Tolkien again). Some of these men didn’t believe in Hitler, only in his threat that their families would be murdered in the camps if they didn’t fight. Some of these men weren’t men at all, still children, really. Some of these men who lay here, surely, deserve a measure of sympathy.

But not all. On the tenth of June, 1944, a Waffen-SS company, led by SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann, passed through the town of Oradour-sur-Glane in southwest France, on their way to reinforce the positions in Normandy. Nearby, they had found the corpse of a German officer killed by the resistance, and this had enraged the unit. They entered the town, rounded up every man, woman, and child they could find. They shot all the men, and burned the women and children alive in the town’s small church. Only six people from the town survived the massacre; one is still alive today.

Diekmann was killed in action at Normandy a week later, and now lies buried here. I didn’t look for him.

Normandy is overflowing with such stories. Heartbreak after heartbreak piles on you. It can be numbing, if you let it.

But I came here for a different reason. I have a fascination with Nazi Germany, and the war it unleashed on the world, but my interest has always been mostly an intellectual, academic one. I came here to counter my tendency to abstract things away, to remain in the realm of statistics and dates. I wanted to humanize my understanding, to take it beyond the books in my library.

Our guide Stewart Robertson, a passionate Briton who now lives in Normandy, was all too happy to oblige. As we drove through the hedgerows toward Utah Beach, he painted a vivid and detailed portrait of the struggle that occurred almost seventy years ago. As he talked, I tried to picture the scene, tried to superimpose the then over the now. I concentrated my mental effort to resurrect the ghosts of war, but they remained hidden and silent. Despite what I knew of the battle for Normandy, all I saw was tidy little towns of half-timbered buildings and people sitting at outdoor cafes catching what sun they could through the low-hanging clouds.

At Utah we saw, hundreds of meters off the shore in the waters of the high tide, the buoy that marks where the first men stepped ashore at low tide on June 6th, 1944. Staring out into the sea, I again called to the past, to see some semblance of the titanic struggle about to unfold. Again the ghosts refused the summons.

Later, at Pointe du Hoc, between the Utah and Omaha beaches, where on D-Day the US Army rangers staged one of the most daring raids of the war, I found what I was looking for. Pointe du Hoc was, then, a very well-reinforced battery of massive artillery guns, guns that could have rained hell on not just Utah and Omaha beaches but also the massive troop transports 12 miles out in the channel. These guns had to be destroyed, at any cost. The Air Force did their best, dropping thousands upon thousands of bombs on the German positions over several weeks. The area still bears the scars of the massive onslaught.


Craters litter the area,along with the remains of German bunkers. But the guns were not destroyed. It was up to the Rangers to come in by sea under cover of darkness, scale the cliffs under fire, and destroy the guns by hand. This, incidentally, isn’t the half of what they eventually had to do, but the story is a long one, and I don’t have room for it here.

In any event, the terrain is wracked with craters, and the going can be difficult in stretches. Going overland from one wrecked bunker to the remains of the forward observation posts, I saw an elderly couple engaged in a struggle of their own. Slowly, with difficulty in every painful step, they made their way along the path.

The man was very old, in his eighties at least. The woman seemed a bit younger, or at least more vigorous, but she was small and it was no easy task for her to support him along the way, but support him she did. There was something they were looking for.

It’s not the statues, or the monuments, or the stirring words inscribed upon them at these sights that really gets at your heart. It’s not even the moving words of Stewart Robinson, however eloquent he may be. It’s the old people, the ones who have some deeply personal connection to the place. Maybe they’re coming back for the first time, or the last. Maybe it’s the hundredth or thousandth time they’ve been here. For this old couple, I don’t know.  I didn’t know this man, didn’t know his name, story, his nationality. Maybe he fought here. Maybe he lost a brother, a cousin, a friend. Whatever it it was, it was important. He was in no shape to be out there, but he was there all the same. This man has no need to concentrate, to imagine, to summon the ghosts of war. They live with him, and he with them.

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Quick update

We made it to Mount St. Michel, all is well but Internet access blows so more later. Much to tell but it must wait for tomorrow. Ciao for now!

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In which Travel Buddy saves the day

On the metro today, Travel Buddy thwarted a gang of pickpockets. Four teenage girls, moving in a pack, started to crowd the area of the train right by the doors. I was suspicious when I saw them coming towards us, and more suspicious when they started their press. The oldest (and presumably the lead) tried to squeeze between me and the center bar, which was a dead giveaway — no teenage girl in her right mind would press up against a male adult like this unless she was up to no good.
The lead girl shoved herself past me, and I moved to keep me hand over my wallet pocket. Didn’t matter though, as she wasn’t after me. She was after the oblivious Asian tourist next to me, the one wearing a safari vest and slacks. Safety tip guys: don’t dress like this in Paris. Or any city. Ever. Even if it doesn’t make you a target for thieves (and it will) it makes you look like a jackass nevertheless.
As the car was about to stop, the lead thief slipped her backpack around to her front for cover, then shot her hand out and into the man’s pocket. Travel Buddy was on it. “Hey!” she said loudly. The girl reflexively drew her hand back, and Travel Buddy tapped the mark on his shoulder, trying to warn him. He didn’t speak any French or English and was really clueless, but the thieves were foiled. “Watch out,” she said to the man, pointing to the girls.
The car stopped and the doors opened. The younger girls were making a hasty retreat out the door. The older girl hissed “beech” at Travel Buddy and I stepped toward her. Before I had to get too macho she thought better of it and got in the wind.
We saw them later, on another metro car, getting yelled at by locals. Bad day for the budding thieves.
Anyway: wear your money belt, keep your wallet in your front pocket (preferably with your arm resting over the opening) and watch for a sudden press of people right by the doors. And for god’s sake don’t wear safari vests and bum bags.

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