29 August 2010

Little Virtual Mermaid

Is it still a tourist landmark if the landmark isn't there? Yes!

A friend of mine is living in Copenhagen. From a recent report on his blog:

This morning, we had an excellent, traditional Danish breakfast consisting of bread and things to put on bread. It's such a good culinary concept. Then, G drove me and E2 into Copenhagen. We saw where the famous Little Mermaid statue is usually. Unfortunately , it's on loan to China for the time being. In its place was a large television screen displaying a still photo of the statue. Hilarious.

This is a totally unoriginal thought, but here goes: we don't go to tourist landmarks because they are inherently interesting per se. We go because everyone else has gone. We go because the it occupies some greater status in culture and history--it's not a statue or a building but a Landmark, a gathering place, a site that is, like a celebrity, famous for being famous.

In this case, though, I think the television screen is probably more interesting than the statue it's temporarily replacing (if you're easily amused by irony and disappointment, that is). After all, to take a photo of the real deal is to capture what is probably the least-flattering of all not-so-flattering photos:

17 August 2010

The criminals in Paris are actually kind of charming

I'm writing the Paris chapter, and I had to cut this scene. So here ya go: an outtake!

is not an all-purpose guidebook. It doesn't have tips on avoiding lines or how to dress in various cultures or how to keep in touch with the folks back home. It also has no advice on avoiding that eternal anxiety of travel, street crime.

So when a guy near the Eiffel Tower tried to scam me, I made me an easy mark. Luckily, I had found the single most inept criminal in history.

There are a lot of scams that modern guidebooks warn you about, many involving methods of distracting you while an accomplice picks your pocket (watch out for someone “accidentally” spilling something on you) or trying to give you a great price on goods that are, of course, counterfeit.

Here's how the one that I saw works, in theory: as you walk down the sidewalk, someone a few steps behind you tries to get your attention. He's holding a gold ring or other small, potentially expensive object. “You dropped this,” he says (most likely in English). You tell him that, no, you didn't. He looks at it, as if for the first time, and is stunned—stunned!—to find a marking labeling it as pure gold or otherwise authentic-and-pricey. Then the benevolent soul tries to sell you this prestigious item for a price so low that you really can't afford to pass up the opportunity. He refuses to take no for an answer, badgering you until you give him some cash to go away.

And here's how this guy did it: as I was about ten feet away, walking toward him, he conspicuously dropped a ring on the ground. He looked up at me for a split second, nonchalantly—just lookin' around, being a normal person—then whipped his gaze back toward the sidewalk, gesturing theatrically, jaw dropping to his knees. He pointed. Mon dieu! What have we here?

“Excusez-moi?” he said shyly, looking at me again. “You have dropped zee ring, monsieur?”

“Nope. Merci,” I said, trying not to laugh in his face.

“No, no. You … have dropped ... eet.” There were odd pauses in his wording, as though he couldn't recall his script. “I have seen! I am … helping you. Oui?”


“Ah. Okay. You would like … to buy? How much … will you pay? You make an offer.”

“No, really. Not interested.”

“Non?” I waited for the hard sell, but he offered only a look of confusion, searching his mind for the follow-up line but coming up blank.

“Oh. Okay,” he sighed, and walked away. 

02 August 2010

Quote of the Day: The American Dream in three objects: the pill, the card, the book

"It's no accident that Arthur Frommer, the Pill, and credit cards are simultaneous phenomena. Everybody deserves everything. You only live once. Screwing for everybody and Europe for everybody too. This is the egalitarian key to a proper understanding of Europe on Five Dollars a Day."

-- Stanley Elkin, “The World On $5 a Day.” Harper's Magazine, July 1972.