Don't let strangers in, even in Paris

When a man in work clothes showed up at her door, the Monitor's Europe bureau chief let him inside. But fortunately, he didn't get a chance to pull off a well-known Parisian scam.

Christophe Ena/AP
People walk in the business district of La Défense, Paris, Wednesday. The Monitor's Europe bureau chief learns not to let strangers through the front door, even in Paris.

I let a stranger into our apartment.

I suppose that in moving from Mexico City to Paris, and feeling a sudden burst of elation for not having to worry so intently about drug and gang violence and, worst of all kidnapping, I went to the extreme.

A man knocked on the door of our temporary apartment saying he needed to check on something and asked if he could come in. He must have said what he was checking but my French, only now on its way back after lying dormant for over two decades, missed the details. He was dressed in work clothes, and I let him in.

He first said he was looking for the heater panel, then started asking all kinds of questions about who we were and how long we’d been in France. I thought this was a bit bizarre, but didn't think much of it.

Then he spotted the chimney. He opened the screen: “Oh no, look at all of this soot.” (I had to look up the word for soot, suie, on my laptop.)

“You have a small child,” he went on. “If she breathes this in, it could be the end. I am obligated to fix this.”

In my daze of jetlag, living out of suitcases, with a mountain of bureaucracy to tackle each day, I actually thought this man might be from the city government, and he was doing his municipal duty, for free, to make sure no Paris residents – even foreigners, God bless France! – breathe contaminated air.

I almost let him get to work – until my more rational husband said, “Let’s call the owner first.”

The owner's response was immediate: “Get that guy out of the house now.”

I learned later that it’s a well-known scam in Paris that plumbers or electricians and other workers will come in, and tell you you need X, Y, and Z fixed. A colleague told me one man entered her house, broke a pipe, and then tried to get them to pay to fix it. I told the guardian downstairs about our visitor, and she said any communal or municipal work to be done will always be posted in the building.

Some of these scams are actually done by thieves, she said, who might rob you – or worse. “Don’t let anyone in your house. It could be very dangerous.”

I did learn back in elementary school not to talk to strangers, and most definitely not to let them through the front door.

But I had a momentary lapse of judgment, a good reminder that you have to be careful anywhere – even in Paris!

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