Hanging with the gypsies in 'Ooh-La-La Land'

Ah Paris! - The many, many street-side cafés that everyone zooms by on their motor scooters. The Eiffel Tower. The gypsies going up to everyone at Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower and asking "Do you Speak English?" while expecting some money in exchange for them holding up a cheap, little, handwritten note.

The drunk man spitting on a chair on the Metro (subway) platform. Yes, that is Paris. France's famous "City of Lights."

As you might expect from that charming description, I got to see a wide variety of things in Paris a few weeks ago. It's a lovely city, don't get me wrong, but it's like every other metropolitan city in the world, in that, it has a little bit of everything.

Take museums for example. You have a wide variety of museums in the city, well over 100, as I recall. And these museums range from the Louvre, which would take months to get through because it is so large, to the Museum of Eroticism.

Then, you have the crypts under the city. In one part, under Notre Dame Cathedral, you have the Archeological Crypt of the Parvis, which features the remains of the early Roman settlement in the area. Then, scientist Marie Curie and authors, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, are buried in the crypt under the Pantheon.

Then, there are the people. My guides on the two tours I took around Paris were the nicest people. For the most part, I think of Parisians as nice people. Yeah, they don't speak English, and I certainly am not very good at speaking French, but they try. They are also patient if you try to speak their language, but have trouble getting the words right.

But, the gypsies.

Wow. They won't leave you alone. You can shoo one away, but two seconds later, another one comes up and asks the same old question. "Excuse me, do you speak English?" I made the mistake of saying, "yes" the first time I was asked. I was at the far end of the long, pedestrian plaza in front of Notre Dame Cathedral.

This girl, in a long skirt, with a scarf that barely sat on the crown of her head, with dirt smudges on her cheeks, then held up a small, handwritten sign - about an inch from my face. It said something about her being from Bosnia, and she needed money to bring her family to Paris.

I don't know what it was, but something said: "Tell her you have no money and move on," so I did. I know it sounds heartless, but I had a gut feeling that something was off with this girl. I moved away, and she didn't follow.

Another girl, dressed in the same manner, came up to me and asked me the same thing. I walked away again, this time without saying anything to her.

Two more approached me - as I was about to walk into church. Again I ignored them. The next day, at the end of my first tour of Paris, the tour guide was giving some instructions on how to avoid pickpockets in the city. Low and behold, one of the scams he told me to avoid is girls in long skirts, with scarves on their heads and signs in their hands.

They are gypsies, he said, and their goal is to get you to take out your wallet to give them money. That way, they know where you keep your money, and another one can move in to pick your pocket, according to the tour guide.

Then, I encountered the other social deviant in Paris - the loud, drunk, spitting guy in the subway station. Now, you have to love drunk people. They can be so entertaining when boozed up. The reasons I believe this guy was drunk is (first) he was shouting at about 50 people on the Metro platform in very slurred French, and (second) he had a large, open bottle of wine his hand.

And, when I say large, this thing was shaped like a large vase that is narrow at the top and balloons at the bottom. Don't ask what he was yelling. It was, as I said earlier, in very slurred French. He was obviously angry, because he was shouting in an aggressive manner. But, he also spit on the back of an empty chair.

What else can you say about that? This man was exactly the negative stereotype Americans have of the French. Well, at least the rest of Paris was nice. I've run out of space for this week, so I'll talk about the nicer side of the "City of Lights" next week. Au revoir.

Curt Yeomans covers education for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at via e-mail at cyeomans@news-daily.com.