Archive for February, 2010

Tommy’s travel tip #13: Pisa

February 3rd, 2010 1 comment

Streets of Pisa
Travel tip #13: Three scams to be avoided at all costs:
– the Gypsy woman/girl who asks “do you speak English”?
– the Gypsy woman/girl who hangs around the station ticket machine
– the String Man

Continental Europe can be a pretty crap place if you get caught up by a scammer. These are three of my pet peeves.

“Do you speak English?” – This is almost definitely a bad sign on the streets of continental Europe, especially when asked by females dressed in colourful rags. Don’t respond. I did, once, back when I was a naive little Aussie on his first trip to Europe. The lady in question quickly clutched my arm and shoved a postcard in my face: it read “I’m a poor widowed mother of eight pitiful orphaned girls from Bosnia, all the men in the family were brutally disembowelled before my very eyes. I have been diagnosed with cancer of the ovulus and need a lump of money just to buy my daily bread…” or something along those lines. The truth is, these people are Gypsies, not war refugees. They are well organised and they are very, very good at what they do. The best response is simply to feign deafness – easier to pull off when you are Asian. Answering “no” – in English – is probably the dumbest response.

Streets of Pisa
Ticket machine scam – The more industrious Gypsy drifter works in one of two ways. Some loiter around station ticket booths and ticket machines, and offer to help you buy your ticket for you. They will then ask for a few Euros for their troubles. Not a good deal for the traveller, since all ticket machines in Western Europe have an English language option, and in any case the station staff (at least in the cities) are highly trained, very helpful, and speak English. The second, more resourceful variety, we saw in Geneva, and features an old lady who holds a stored-value ticket at a ticket machine, and offers to buy a ticket for you. I don’t know where she got her where she got the stored-value ticket from, but this is an even worse deal for the traveller, because Geneva has a scheme where all hotel/hostel guests receive free public transport. It is a little sad that these people are “working” in these trades, when they are obviously quite bright and speak English quite well. Perhaps if there weren’t such prejudice against Gypsies, they’d be able to make a living in a job that doesn’t depend on fraud.

The String Man – If the “I’m Bosnian rescue me” scam is just annoying, and the ticket machine scam is at least a fee for a service, then the String Man is downright dangerous. The scam works like this. The African man (they are usually black) approaches you, offers to tie a string around your wrist “for good luck” – then demands 5 euros to take it off. “Just walk away”, you are thinking, right? The reason the String Man is dangerous, is because he is not reluctant to use force – first grabbing your arm or bag if you try to ignore him, then blocking your way if you try to walk away. The antidote? I saw it firsthand in Milan. A group of String Men were pestering tourists on the square before the Duomo (cathedral), when a bunch of young mafia bloods spotted them and approached them. The String Men dropped everything and fled – ran – out of the square. It’s great. After the Carabinieri (national military-police) and the Polizia (provincial and specialist police), the Mafia is pretty much the third police force for maintaining public order.

Until next time,


P.S. my bear does not appear in this post because I thoughtlessly left him in Florence during this leg of the trip. He will return for the next leg of the journey.

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