Okay, this is going to be embarrassing for me, but hopefully my story will alert to you the dangers that are out there. I never thought of myself as completely naive and gullible before, but now I may change my tune.
Perhaps the con artist I encountered sensed my vulnerability through the windshield of his car, even though I thought I was feeling pretty strong and on top of the world. I had really pushed myself at my BodyPump class in yesterday morning, knowing I would be skipping out on BodyBalance afterwards in order to have time to get groceries, have lunch with a friend, and accompany her to a Home Depot-type store called Castorama near Clichy, a walk down from Montmartre and Sacre Coeur, before picking up our kids from school. I was very proud of myself, lifting more weight than I ever have for squats and lunges (total of 17.6 pounds). I also lifted that same amount over my head for many repetitions, and even used a two-kilo weight on my shoulder for side crunches which was totally optional.
I went home, took a shower, and dressed. Dressing is a little upsetting because I still can't fit into my old jeans, but I was feeling a bit better because the jeans I bought in the States that fit me perfectly in August are now three to four inches too big around the waist! My other options were gray pants with elastic wasteband or black pants with elastic wasteband. Neither of those would suffice if I wanted to feel mildly attractive that day. So I decided to wear my too-big jeans anyways. But to make it somewhat work is with a belt. I have a stupid "ceinture" that isn't really a belt at all because it is made out of some synthetic cloth and has two rings instead of a normal buckle. (It was included with some cheap pants I bought last year at Etam in the girls' section, made of the same material.) I'm trying not to buy a belt because I'm hoping I'll fit into my old jeans before it's absolutely necessary to hit the shops. Anyways, the belt takes a lot of effort -- sometimes it takes three times to get it to work. And even after I get it to work, after ten minutes of walking, my jeans still begin to sag in the front. Well, there's at least ten minutes of feeling attractive in there.
I wanted to wear my new soft pink sweater, but it was still kind of tight around my slimming waist, so I ended up wearing my form-fitting watermelon pink sweater which ended where my low-rise jeans began. Perfect. I looked pretty good, especially with my new abs and arms.
I slid into my sexy, but inexpensive, Payless ShoeSource heeled black sandals, and set off with my this-is-not-your-Grandma's-rolling cart to Champion to return the lightbulbs that I bought by mistake ("baionnet" instead of the screw-in "grande vis" -- but I could have goofed, too, by purchasing the "petite vis"), buy milk for my friend, and get some conditioner, fruit, fish, and bottled water. I forgot that it was Monday, meaning that many of our neighborhood shops were closed, at least for the morning. I walked all the way to Champion and then stood at the street corner for a minute thinking about my next step. Go to little G20 where the produce wasn't good, head to discount Ed where the fish wasn't good, opt for our neighborhood Franprix which didn't have any fish, or go to Monoprix which had everything but was a little out of the way? I glanced at my watch and decided I had time for Monoprix. I found everything I needed, including some great fresh halibut, and even got some admiring glances from both men and women. Well, one woman. And she was mostly admiring my really cheap sandals.
I was walking back in the drizzle, to which Parisians are all too accustomed. Most umbrellas only come out for the real downpours. I didn't carry one with me this time, but I didn't have an extra hand anyways. I didn't care. I was still warm and fuzzy from the admiration...which probably made me especially vulnerable when I was approached.
Young man in car pulls over to the curb to ask for directions. Or so I thought. He had a map in hand and was pointing to it. People are always asking for directions so I didn't hesitate to stop and help out. I like to help people. My other vulnerability to scams like these.
In Italian, he asked, "Do you speak Italian?" No. In English, he asked, "Do you speak English?" Yes. He spoke his English with a pretty convincing Italian accent. Scam Artist said he was coming from a fashion show at the Palais de Congres and had to be in Nice (on the Cote d'Azur) for another show in the evening. In my head I was thinking, I have no idea how he'd get there from here and I didn't have my map on me. And he only had a ratty old free map, probably from Printemps or Galeries Lafayette. But instead of asking for directions, he started rattling off his designer brand which I didn't recognize (but I'm pretty ignorant when it comes to high fashion) along with some other names. I only recognized Gucci. I was getting excited anyway. Ooh, I'm talking to one of THOSE people. Neat. He showed me his business card which looked legitimate, but which I thought was a little strange because it looked like he only had one and it was laminated. Scam Artist told me he spotted me because I was a small size and he wanted to give me some samples from the show. SA knew they would fit me. He took out a black leather coat and a camel suede jacket, both very neatly folded and packaged in a plastic sheath that had some Italian words printed on it and 2007-2008 along the edges. They also had their tags still on. He also brought out a little book of photos of models in outerwear similar to what he just showed me. I should have been suspicious at this point because the book was not professionally done. Later I realized they could have just been magazine clippings. Somehow he convinced me. He pointed to two pictures -- each pretty much matching his "gifts" to me.
SA said he did not pay for these samples. His company did. The leather coat was worth 2000 some-odd euros and the suede jacket was 1700 euros.
I did feel somewhat flattered to be singled out because of my physique to receive these amazing gifts. I never thought there would be a catch. Stupid (and vain) me. He explained he was in a rush to get down to Nice, a thousand kilometers away, but he was out of gas. SA pointed to his dash as he spoke. I couldn't get a good look at it to see if this was really the case -- I just believed him. He was that good.
SA also did a good job playing the ignorant Italian visitor. He had stopped in an illegal parking area to talk to me and thought he was disrupting traffic when he saw some cars slow to a stop beside him. SA asked if this was an okay spot to park. I said, not really. So he parked his car in the delivery zone (which is a little better) just on the other side of this one-way street. I had to lug my heavy cart down the curb to cross the street. I approached the driver's side to continue the conversation but he motioned for me to go to the other side. I should have been more than a little suspicious at this point. Why wasn't I? He was probably trying to shield his gas gauge from view.
I left my cart by the curb and walked over to the passenger side. He popped the door open and wanted me to sit in his car. No, I wasn't going to let that happen. At least I know to never sit in a stranger's car. He might take off and then I'd never be seen again. SA did not push me and said that Italians were direct and explained his culture (?) in a very Italianate way with hand-gesturing. I said I was American and I couldn't trust strangers. But it seems, I trusted him enough to continue talking to him.
Did SA ever directly ask me for the gas money? Not really. He said he needed money for two tanks of gas and was willing to take me to the gas station to fill up. He never precisely said he had no money, but he said he could give me the coat and jacket as a gift. I didn't want to get in his car, and I was running late and didn't want to walk all the way to the gas station near Porte Maillot. But I still wanted to help this guy, maybe because I wanted to believe his exciting story?
There was a point when maybe I could have easily walked away. I asked about the size of the coats. He said they were one size only, 36-38 (European), which is kind of a small-medium in France. That sounded a little big for me. And especially big for models in a fashion show. I should have been suspicious. I asked if he could show me the shoulder-width because that's about 75% of a perfect fit. He assured me and reassured me that they would fit. Why didn't I insist that he take them out of their plastic sheaths? Did I think I was getting an incredible deal even if they didn't fit? How did he talk his way out of it so easily?
SA said he could have the company pay me back in a few days. I could give him my address. And he'd give me his business card. Or I could e-mail him my address. SA then tossed the laminated card into the brown, handled plastic bag in which he had neatly put away the coats. He even invited me to Milan to have spaghetti. But I was not to tell his wife, C---, and he showed me his ring. I should have been suspicious again because the ring looked like a prize out of bubble gum machine. His story made me so blind. No, I wasn't attracted to him at all -- just his story, his alleged connection with the fashion world which has, to me, been a magical mystery. Maybe if I actually had a subscription to a fashion mag I'd know more about it, but I only let myself read those things at the doctor's office.
I always thought I was a good judge of character. I always thought I could tell a good actor from a bad actor. I always thought I could tell if someone was lying. I always thought I knew what people were really thinking when they were saying something else -- through their eyes. Now my world is upside-down. Ever since I emptied my wallet and went to the ATM to get more...for this complete stranger. I've never even lent money to a friend before. Why? Why? WHY???
He got the money and I got the coats. SA looked apologetically at me when he saw that my groceries had gotten all wet sitting in the rain. He looked really sorry about it. I smiled and said it was all right. I think I might have even said "good luck."
We went our separate ways. He drove off with my money, and I went home with my "gifts." At home, I didn't even let myself inspect the coats or the business card. I was late, and I thought, "Geez, I may have been duped, but I don't want to deal with it now."
I met up with my friend, excitedly told her my story, and kept pestering her for a verdict. Scam or no scam? She was excited, too, because she's much more into fashion than I am and has a friend who used to keep a fashion blog. But I couldn't recall the name of the designer SA supposedly worked for, and I couldn't even remember his "name." I wouldn't know the truth until I got back home from our tasty Vietnamese lunch and our jaunt in a do-it-yourself "magasin."
Full of hope, I snapped open the bag and searched for the business card. It was nowhere to be found. Darn. I immediately knew I had been tricked. SA must have taken the card out when I was at the ATM. Now to look at the goods. Fake leather. Fake suede. They weren't even women's coats. They were both extra-large men's coats. Ouch.
To my surpise, I didn't get angry at myself. I lost a bit of money, but it was almost worth the adventure. I was paying for this odd form of entertainment. I got a little thrill for a moment. And I got a great story to blog.
I called my friend immediately and broke the news. She was sorry but couldn't wait to see the jackets.
For a minute, I debated whether or not to tell John. I was embarrassed. But no, I couldn't hide this from him. I told him at dinner and surprisingly, he wasn't mad. But then, he rarely gets mad. Actually, he didn't have much of a response at all, except for, "these things happen."
The sum of his speeding tickets through Brittany and Normandy in mid-August was about how much I gave to SA. We're kind of even in a weird sort of way.
I hope through my stupidity/ignorance/naivete none of you will make the same mistake. Be wary. Very wary. But let's give Scam Artist an Oscar.