European travel for North Americans is often an endless chain of intense quaint. Adorable little wedding cake houses in Belgium that are still lived in. People who are made heads of state because a direct ancestor had another, slightly less direct ancestor beheaded. British police helmets and French police sirens.
And the gypsies. Particularly the unchanging and unimaginative practices gypsies have been employing to rip off tourists for a thousand years or more. Amazingly, some of these bald-faced cons must occasionally work or, presumably, they’d stop. But I see a lot of gypsies and I rarely if ever see anything apart from outright begging actually achieve a result.
They’re enormously entertaining to watch though. Sometimes it’s not clear what you’re seeing even when it’s unfolding right in front of you so consider this a little gallery guide to some of the more ubiquitous and engaging street theatre in Europe — the gypsy swindle.
Three Card Monty
How does anyone in 2012 fall for this hilariously evident ploy? If you never heard of it (it’s also known as Follow the Lady and is a variant of the shell game) a guy shuffles three cards, one of which is, say, the Queen of hearts, and invites you to bet that you can tell him which one it is. I once saw a magician turn an entire pack of cards into all aces of spades, I’m pretty sure that with a little training you can achieve the sleight of hand necessary to swap a card. I suppose that explains the rest of the show.
As you approach a Monty game you’ll typically see several people playing and, holy shit, winning! Note that the guy who’s winning is clearly a close genetic relative and probably a sibling to the dealer and that they’re wearing the same shirt. If you watch for long enough without playing the dealer may accidentally fold the corner of the Queen, giving you a hidden edge. When you fail to notice this sure-fire game changer, another spectator who shares a balding pattern with the dealer and his brother may point it out to you.
Should you decide to play you will lose. You may think that in light of the fact that the Queen is there, just not where you thought it would be, that you stand an even chance of guessing right by randomly selecting one of the two cards that you don’t think is the Queen. Mathematically, that is correct and you have a 50% chance of winning but a 0% chance of winning money. If you guess right the stand will be knocked over or the police will be spotted or they’ll just plainly tell you to sod off. If you’re very big or have a lot of friends with you they may show you the courtesy of running away but probably not.
So don’t play, obviously, just take in the show. If they actually score a mark you may get to see the above scenario play out but I’ve watched for hours and never seen it. It still has high points, though, like the changing of the guard. Eventually the dealer runs out of money and the shill will openly return it or they’ll just nonchalantly change places.
This one shows a tiny bit of initiative, I admit. You’re approached in a busy place (because this con works so rarely it relies heavily on volume) and shown a petition by a pretty young girl, one of a team of perhaps a dozen pretty young girls all wearing the same green sweater and flowy skirt that screams “I’M A GYPSY AND I’M GOING TO ROB YOU”. They don’t speak because they’re deaf and presumably that means they can’t speak. They’re all deaf. It’s genetic, I guess. And the petition is in some vague fashion in support of an effort to make them not be deaf anymore and once you’ve signed it you’ll be directed to the column where you enter the amount of your donation. Note that above your entry are the illegible signatures of previous donors who typically give upwards of €20.
I need to confess that this one actually pisses me off. I’m normally zen to the point of sedate about most things but this con isn’t just stealing from the rare tourist too stupid to notice that the girls are literally wearing gypsy skirts but it’s also diverting charity from people who might actually need it. Most people have a giving limit so every €20 they get is €20 a real charity doesn’t.
The absolute best advice for dealing with gypsies is to not interact with them in any way at all. So don’t take the pen like you’re going to sign the petition, smile and drop it down a sewage grate. Never do that. Seriously, you shouldn’t, because like the above-mentioned Three Card Monty these girls are being watched. See those (brand new) minivans with tinted windows on the street near the deaf petitioners? They’re full of men, smoking and talking on their (brand new) cell phones and keeping an eye on their sisters. There’s also the risk that if you spook the herd they may swarm you and when they swarm they can take you for absolutely everything in seconds.
Next week — “Friendship” bracelets, the found ring scam and tranquilized children