The lost Wallet & a Paris connection!

Late 1990s

I was in Cannes in connection with a Trade Fair for Interactive Multimedia & Gaming Event called MILIA. The event was a rare one in which a product (an Interactive CD ROM on a Sanskrit Scripture) I created was showcased as a major achievement from India. I extended my stay in France to spend a couple of weeks in Paris. I was with my wife Shantini. And the time was February. We realized that we were in Paris on the Valentine’s Day! And by virtue of that we could see the ‘real’ Paris in its innate glory!

I had very varied experiences in Paris. I felt that the whole Paris is like a Museum! Every corner of Paris is an art piece. Just before landing, though it was early evening and a little foggy, I could see the iron monster standing like a match stick in the middle of well-arranged pastries.

By the time we reached the location of the Hotel, it was late night. I had booked a Hotel through a travel Agent in India along with the Air tickets. The Hotel was situated somewhere in the city center. We knew the Hotel may not be great for the money we are paying but I was in for a surprise. The Hotel had a single door entry and the lounge was a small long room with no chair to sit. On one side it is full wall mirror to give a spacious look. The Agent had told us that the hotel is ‘just below 3 Star’. I wouldn’t have been surprised if this hotel was below a 3 Star Hotel. But I have already started seeing many stars above my head! Luckily the Room booking was there.

The Lady Manager who looked roughly 35 and very thin, wiping some wine glasses to be hung above her, turned to us and with a straight face and told in a cold tone “Bonjour”. I smiled and pushed the photocopy of the booking confirmation across to her. She looked at both of us and asked in a strange kind of masculine voice “Pusspohtts”. I immediately produced both passports. She scrutinized them, scanned and gave back. She wrote something on a register, punched some keys on a computer and gave me a Key with a huge key brass Hotel name plate attached. It must be to ensure that we don’t carry it around. Room number 402. She went back to her cleaning. Not knowing where to go, we waited and she turned and showed a narrow corridor where there is supposed to be a lift.

We squeezed through the corridor with our huge suitcase filled with things for 2-3 weeks! The Lift could not hold both of us and the suitcase. So I pushed the bag inside and squeezed my wife in along with the bag. The door was like a collapsible door. Stretching myself from outside, I searched for the level button ‘4’ and pressed. I asked my wife to wait outside in the corridor while I reach through the stairs. The stairs were so narrow and winding that I had to go back down twice to let someone come down.

The room was like a pigeon hole. There is just enough space turn around outside of the Queen-sized cot. But the things there were of good quality and very good. There is just one small window which is closed. There is a room heater which started when we entered. The room was quite warm. Outside it was almost touching 4 degrees. There is a small TV stuck in one corner of the ceiling. Feeling happy we switched it on and we slipped into a nice sleep listening to the musical French News! After some time we woke up to a warm room. We were sweating and could not sleep. It was very suffocating! I stretched myself to the small window and tried to open it. With great difficulty I managed to open a little through which extremely cold air started blowing in. I opened a little more and we both, turn by turn put our face outside to get some breath. That was the first fabulous night in Paris.

The highlight or rather the silver lining is the free breakfast. Lots of fruits, Croissants, butter, Jam, etc. etc. Our routine turned out to be very very heavy breakfast, French fries and Coffee as late lunch. Then we hunt for an Indian or Pakistani Restaurant for the dinner. We preferred to see the city walking all the way savoring the beauty of every square inch of the city and if too much tired, do a metro. Roadmap and the Metro map were our saviors. Do not know whether we were taking too much of risk in walking around in Paris. Anyways, by God’s grace, we were safe, or so we thought.

As this note is essentially to tell you a specific incidence, I am staying away from describing the other adventures we had in every corner of Paris during almost 10 days in Paris. All alone and no friends or relatives in Paris. People from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh seemed like own brothers and sisters!! I will keep the Lido experience also for later. In this chapter I am going to focus on something very interesting.

The day was the one when we visited the famous cathedrals Notre Dame & Montmartre. Both were iconic. Notre Dame was full of those strange sculptures of gargoyles. With grotesque images like the images we had of the hunchback, the historic cathedral stood hiding lot of mysteries. Montmartre was more of an elegant structure. Very pleasant to look at.

Details of the places later. Now coming to the adventure. By the time we finished Montmartre, it was past 5.30 in the evening and we thought of rushing back to hotel ASAP since we had planned to go for a French film in a theatre nearby the Hotel. We changed some Traveller’s cheques from a Money Exchange kiosk at Montmartre and ran through a garden to the nearest Metro Station. We had to catch three trains to reach the location where our Hotel was. As we had taken the full day ticket for the Metro, it was easy. In the Metro stations, it is even more easy to identify the trains. There is a huge electronic Metro Map with lot of bulbs along the routes. I just need to press two buttons simultaneously. One the button where current station is shown and the other the metro station near my Hotel is there, and you see the entire connection routes lit up with train numbers and the station to change. I immediately took notes of the station names and rushed. After changing the train at two stations, we reached the Metro near our Hotel and we were literally running to put the bags in the Hotel for going to the film.

We reached the room, freshened up and were about to leave for the film and alas!!! My pouch is missing. It had all the Traveller’s cheques, Indian Rupees, Insurance papers, etc. All I had on me was the Passport and about 100+ francs cash which I changed just now. We were devastated. Did not know what to do! Both of us got panicked. Then both calmed down and took several deep breaths. We started thinking. We started trying to remember where this might have gone. We started rewinding the day’s travels. And we got stuck several times. YES!!! We remembered! We had indeed used the pouch for taking the travelers’ cheques for en-cashing at the Money Exchange Kiosk at Montmartre. That’s it!!! We didn’t think twice. Just locked the room and rushed out and did an exact rewind trip back to Montmartre. We lost breath several times while running from one train to the other. One good thing is that we remembered where we must have lost the pouch! We rushed to the spot where we did the money exchange. Oh! No! The shop is closed. We were at a loss again. Not knowing what to do, we looked around and we saw a flower shop nearby and approached them to ask when the money exchange shop would open. He told it would open only the next day morning around 9.00. There was no other option but to go back to Hotel. We wanted to report the loss of Traveller’s Cheques. Then decided against that because we knew we could get that the next day morning anyways. And also the fact is that everything was closed by that time.

Totally disturbed, we returned to the Hotel through the same metro trains and couldn’t sleep thinking of the pouch. We didn’t even speak to each other till breakfast next day. We waited till 8.00 AM after breakfast and rushed to the metro station. We promptly reached the Money Exchange Kiosk. It was not yet opened. We were early by 15 minutes. We waited in front of the kiosk and then the man arrived. We thought he would recognize us and say “You left your pouch here. Wait. I will give you”. But seeing us, he seemed to have got a little nervous and instead of opening, he started questioning us. After 15 minutes of interrogation, he told he had not seen any pouch there last night at the counter. We were devastated. Still seeing out plight he gestured us to wait.

He opened the shop and ushered us in. He went inside the room and switched on the lights and his computer systems. He was smiling. He asked me whether I had the change slip he gave yesterday. I gave that. After some time he called us from inside and asked us to look at a computer monitor he turned towards us. We could see us in the monitor coming inside and doing the entire transaction. We also saw me taking out the pouch from my shoulder bag, taking the travellers cheque and putting it back to my shoulder bag. We saw the entire transaction happening and it was very clear that the pouch was with me at that time and I had indeed taken it back with me. He smiled. And we were shocked to say anything. We came out of the Kiosk and I started feeling very happy about something. I was not feeling bad about my lost pouch! I was in awe of the technology which put all my doubts to rest. Now I was planning my next move. The reality is that I have lost my pouch with Travellers’ cheques, some Indian Rupees (around 3K) and some papers in it. At least now, I knew what to do.

We looked for the Map and looked for the Standard Chartered Bank Office for reporting the loss of Travellers cheque. I had no clue whether I would be able to get any money. We could locate the Bank near one of the Metros where we change the trains. It was already 10.30 AM by that time. We went to the bank and there were barely 3-4 people in that huge office. Total silence. No customers are seen. I approached one person sitting in one of the desks in the end of the hall and explained my problem. He spoke in very broken English and asked me to wait for a few minutes. And exactly within a very few minutes he returned and asked me to go to one table where I will find one phone which I am supposed to pick up and speak. I could hear a very clear English language speaking voice on the other side asking me for the details of the Travellers cheques, their numbers, where from I got it issued, etc. Luckily I had all the information on a folded paper in the Passport. The dialogue was just for hardly 4-5 minutes. The last question was whether I wanted the cash in Francs or in US Dollars. I said Francs. In 10 minutes flat, I was out of the huge bank with cash in my hand against the Travellers cheques I lost! I was truly amazed at the efficiency and the effectiveness of technology!

Now we were at peace and decided to go for some shopping as we were supposed to start back to India in the next couple of days. Again we looked for the best shopping centers around that area in the map and we found the famous Super Market Galeries Lafayette. What an amazing market!!! We could not really digest the hugeness of that place for some time. We bought something and walked up and down the market just to experience the place. Then I saw a board CyperCafe within the Market and I thought of checking my mails. That is when I got the shock of my lifetime! I saw at least 6 to 7 mails which amazed me. Three of them were from some unknown person with a French name and the others from a colleague of mine in my office back in Gandhinagar, Gujarat INDIA. He was telling me that one French lady had called office at least 10 times trying to tell something about me. The entire office was in panic knowing not what to do. They could not contact me also as they were not having my Hotel contacts. At last she took my friend’s email ID and sent a mail to him saying that she has got a purse of one Mr. Vahama with documents in it. And that she got the office phone number from his business card. Then my colleagues gave my Email ID to her asking her to write to me directly how to contact her and all that. Next I saw one mail from one “Jean Pierre” saying that her young daughter got my purse from a garden where she was playing and asked me to contact her on phone immediately. This mail was last night’s. I had no clue whether the mail was still effective or not. However, I decided to call her. I managed to find out a public phone in the Market and called her. She was so excited to hear my voice and needless to say, I was thoroughly excited. She spoke English but it is very difficult to understand through phone. I realized that they pronounce ‘h’ for ‘r’. So they were calling me Vahama. She was telling me that I called her at the right time as she was on her way to a nearby police station to handover the purse thinking I might try to contact the police. So she was very happy and asked me how she could give the purse back. She invited me to her house and I asked where she lived. When I told her that I was at Lafayette, she told it is only a walking distance from there. I promised her that I would reach there in next 1 hour. We were so happy. Look at the destiny. Shantini was discussing and wondering how these French ladies, who look like live mannequins on the road, would be living in their homes. And now we have an opportunity to see that in real!!! She also described how to enter their house by punching some security codes. We finished the balance shopping and rushed to their home.

The moment we entered into a small empty lounge inside the main door on the street, a young 6-8 year old girl received us and started talking to us in detail. She was obviously pretty excited seeing someone like us. We were guided to the 2nd floor by her all the way talking in French. We didn’t understand a thing. And we were welcomed by an elegant lady at the door of the apartment. She welcomed us inside and made us comfortable. Seeing our excitement, she managed the situation so well that we felt completely at home. She was telling that the little girl who received us found our purse in a garden nearby being bitten by a dog. Seeing that the purse is leather, the girl took it and brought it home. Then the mother inspected the materials inside and found my business cards from which she got my phone number. The rest is history. According to her, she felt connectivity because she was an Art Collector and she knew Raja Ravi Varma!!! And my designation on the card was “Creative Director”.

She also mentioned that she was planning to move to London for better business. She insisted that we looked into the purse and see if everything is safe. We told, we had lost hope and now we are happy that we got a French friend in that pretext. Still we were made to look at it.

All the travellers’ cheques were lost. Documents were intact and most surprisingly, the Indian Rupees were missing! So who could be the culprit? It is anybody’s imagination. It must be an Indian or a Pakistani or a Bangladeshi. But we didn’t say that to her. We told, it was all fine because we had already en-cashed the lost cheques.

She offered us wine, and offered us to join her for lunch. But we excused ourselves and profusely thanked them for their hospitality. In fact she was saying sorry on behalf of the French for this bad experience during our first trip to their country. As a memento I requested for their photographs and she gave a couple of their photographs.

You must be thinking how I could remember all these in such detail. Do you think I can forget this after this kind of experience?

I sincerely hope we will meet again some day. I really pray we were destined to meet more than once!

A typical Paris Valentine’s Day

The family that made the Paris connect

The girl who found my pouch!