(Second part of a series; first part can be found here).
We – Mom, Dad and I – were walking on a quiet, narrow lane near the Grand Place in Brussels when we were approached by a man who seemed to be looking for directions.
“Gare du Midi?”, he asked, pointing at a map he had opened across his arms.
He was a round figure, short, plump and bald. His movements were quick and designed to attract attention. I assumed he was nervous.
“You need to take a tram and get to a metro station” I said. “Then you can take a metro to Midi.”
“No English,” he replied, and began to rattle something loudly in Italian, again pointing at the map and making gestures indicating desperation. To someone watching us it may have seemed as if we were having an argument; I lost any inclinations I may have had to help him.
“I have no idea – sorry,” I said.
It was at this moment that two other men appeared all of a sudden and flashed something shiny at us.
“Police!” they said, together. “Passports, your passports!”
I pulled mom and dad away instantly, without saying a word, and led them towards a bigger street this lane joined. No one stopped us. As we exited the lane I turned around to take one last look; the two men were coolly walking away in the opposite direction, and the bald man was just hanging around where we had left him.
What I did to get out of the situation was pure reflex. Only later, while discussing the episode with mom and dad, it struck me that the men were not wearing uniforms, and their “police badges” had looked phony. It also must have helped, at a subconscious level, that I had heard of such passport thieves operating in large European cities.
The plan, designed to ensnare gullible foreigners unaware of the nature of checks they can be subjected to, involves one person who plays the role of a “lost tourist” (the bald man) and approaches the “target” (us), and two others who play the role of “Police officers”. The Lost Tourist distracts the Target and attempts to create a scene, at which point the Police Officers arrive and ask for the passports. The Lost Tourist takes out his passport, and seeing him the Target assumes that the “check” is genuine and takes out his passport as well. The Police Officers then say they have to check if the passports are valid and walk away with the documents. The Target is helpless and confused, and the Lost Tourist slips away at a suitable opportunity. (A variation of this plot occurs at traffic signals of busy intersections: the Police Officers arrive on a motorbike and stop next to a car with tourists waiting for the green traffic signal; they ask the tourists to roll down their windows and hand over the documents for a check, after which they slip away on their bike before the dazed tourists even begin to understand what has hit them).
Tourists and citizens in Europe are advised to always carry their identification document, although checks – beyond airports and border-crossings – are very rare. The only occasion I was asked to show my passport at an unexpected moment was in a street in Lausanne in the winter of 2005, when two uniformed officers approached us and asked to see our passports. On this occasion, I was wearing a “monkey cap” – one of those woolly contraptions that makes you look like a fresh Taliban recruit – and was carrying a tripod, which from a distance can be mistaken for an AK47. (It didn’t help that my wife was with me: she has, on occasion, been asked if she is Sri Lankan, which explains the glee on the officers faces as they approached us: they surely thought they were on the verge of discovering a nexus between the Taliban and the LTTE, and no doubt were fantasizing about the promotion they’d get when they handed us over to their boss. Their disappointment upon discovering we were Indians almost made me feel sorry for them.)
After this little adventure we continued to walk along the network of narrow, cobble-stoned alleys that surrounds the Grand Place. I never can tire of this typical European experience which, I’ve heard, is highlighted by tourist companies offering trips to Europe. (A relative I met on one of my India trips asked me what the hype around those “cobble-stoned streets” was all about. Such streets existed in the South Indian village he grew up in, he said, and never once had anyone spoken about them as an attraction. They convey a medieval charm, I replied, and it is not just about the cobblestones – there are also the quaint houses that line such streets, which take you back to a different era. He didn’t seem too convinced; I didn’t try harder).
To be continued….