Hey pretty girl, I hear you’re off to study abroad soon. Before you go, I need to share my story with you.
My recent trip to Paris with my daughter was amazing. BUT one experience continues to plague me.
Real danger lurks deceptively near.
We were happily wandering the streets of Paris all week. Taking cabs, hiking, dragging Katie’s jet-lagged butt out of bed to run to the Arc de Triomphe. We avoided the train station just steps from our hotel, in large part, because I didn’t want to figure out the maze of maps.
It was our second to last night and I was breathing in the panorama outside my window with deserved appreciation. The golden hour glistening over the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Seine. An endless ebb of color flowing through the city. Café umbrellas tossed like confetti over the aging architecture that is Paris. It was effortless beauty.
The very furthest fleck on the horizon was our evening destination: Sacre Coeur. That meant I could avoid it no more – tonight’s adventure would include riding the rails.
The concierge told us to take the number 4, it would get us close. Katie mapped a station within blocks of the basilica on the hill and off we went in our Parisian cool outfits. Totally impractical.
The subway was no different than in NYC. Everyone quiet. No eye contact. Moving knowingly to their favorite post.
Only I had no favorite post. I am little. Little people can’t reach the rings and when the train lurches forward or screeches to a stop, we’re left twisting in the wind. But that’s a whole other post.
After giving a multitude of men my best back off, she’s 19 look, we emerged from the bowels of the station, and immediately stopped short.
I kid you not when I say, we were pretty much the only women on the busy street.
For the first time in my life, I wished I wasn’t a blonde.
Guys were palm-slapping cards for the Moulin Rouge. A move likely learned on the strip in Vegas, and Katie was openly ogled from EVERY direction.
We froze for a moment before checking our map with a young policemen watching us a few feet away. Armed with brand spanking new machine guns like all law enforcement around the city, I was glad to see them. Especially given the attack in the Notre Dame plaza that morning.
“Should we be here?,” I asked.
The answer was instantly apparent when they eyed each other.
“Ah, maybe not,” said one.
“Nah, you should be fine,” said the other. “Maybe just take off your jewelry.”
It was at this very moment a terrible thought came crashing into my head: My daughter is going to study abroad next year. She’s going to be in situations just like this – alone.
In. One. Year.
As I was processing that thought, a German family appeared, armed with a dad the size of Liam Neeson. We immediately decided to adopt.
As the landscape melded back into typical tourists and beautiful vistas, I told Katie, “We’re not going back to that station tonight. We’re cabbing it to the one south.” She agreed.
With the Eiffel Tower a pointy spec in the distance, we took pictures of doves and plants and Katie – about every five feet. Several hours later, we boarded a cab.
We let out into the station plaza to the south, with the surroundings like an abandoned movie set. No indication what kind of neighborhood we were in, we hustled inside, found our way to the ticket area below and gave each other a tired glance. The spidered map of routes was in French. And none of it seemed direct to Montparnasse where we “lived.”
So we asked. And I heard the woman in the ticket booth give Katie a snotty, “No. No English.” Bummer.
We stood for a moment as a sea of strangers swept through the station, disappearing into the passages below.
When the floor cleared, one shiny young man was left in our path. Early 20s, impeccably dressed in a trendy suit, personable. And, Why yes, Madame, he could speak perfect English.
Are you lost? Can I help?
Oh, thank God.
“This is probably a silly question,” I said. “But does the number 4 go south? It looks on the map like it makes a loop. I can’t make out the southern route.”
Oh, no, Madame. I am sorry. He was full of sympathy. The number 4 only goes north. But I can help. Where do you want to go?
He gathered near, clearly invested in our effort to get home safely.
“Montparnasse,” I replied. That’s vague enough, remembering my stranger danger rules.
Oh, Madam. It is very complicated – but I can help you! Just take the number 4 north to the station above.
(You know, the sketchy one). I didn’t let on.
From there, you take the shuttle bus right outside to the neighboring station to the west and viola – you go directly to Montparnasse! Otherwise, you must change trains several times.
Katie and I looked at each other. We were in a foreign country with no working knowledge of the transportation system since I booked this trip all of 12 days in advance. And he was nice and young….and so gallant. Understandably, Katie said, “Come on, Mom. I want to get home.”
I raised my eyebrows – the age-old look that roughly translates to: knock it off.
“Thanks, we’re going to take a taxi,” I said.
Now a taxi didn’t sound good either. Making our way onto a desolate street to climb into a stranger’s cab 6,000 miles from home. But there was no freaking way we were going north. Back to the station with the men and their Moulin Rouge attitude.
Madam, no, no, no. A taxi would be 40, 50 euros at least! Let me help you. I am in no hurry. I would be happy to get you safely to your train at the other station.
He was way too interested in helping us.
“No. Thank you.”
But, Madam, it would be no problem.
Short-girl syndrome kicked in: “NO. THANK YOU.” (You know, like I meant it).
With that his face changed ever so slightly. His eyes glimmered with venom.
How do you say…? Have a nice day. His accent was suddenly thick with disgust. He was no longer a nice man.
Katie’s arm in mine, we rounded the corner to find an English-speaking attendant.
Before I go on, I want to share a disclaimer. We’re both smart women. My family’s navigated our way from Cairo to California over the years. But I couldn’t find the you are here on the French map. It was as simple as that – without that little nugget of info, you’re done.
So I asked about our route.
Madam, take the number 4 south to your station.
“So it runs south?”
Madam, yes, of course, it does. Directly to Montparnasse.
“Sir, is there a shuttle bus at the station above that takes you to another station where a direct route to Montparnasse is also possible?”
No, madam. There is no such bus. SHIT.
“Any idea how much a cab ride to Montparnasse is? You know, roughly?”
Maybe 20 euro. OH. MY. GOD.
We made our way home and as I lay in bed that night, the movie Taken ran through my head.
She might have gone with him. To a station that was bad in the daylight, no less in the shadows of dark.
She might have walked out of that station to a nonexistent bus stop.
She might have been…No, most definitely, would have been taken.
Let that sink in for a moment.
I have. And it’s taken me a month to even try to write this. I’m not paranoid. I’m not wrong. He lied… about everything.
My child would have been taken.
You know, we’ve raised our kids to see the best in people. To be nice to everyone. To believe the whole world is pretty decent. And by and large, I believe people are – decent.
But, pretty girl, you need to hear me, you need to understand. You cannot make a mistake. There’s no room to make a. single. mistake.
As you go off to points unknown in the coming year, please beware the boogie man. Your momma is expecting you home during break to love on and hug.
Share your safe travel tips below or on Facebook at MothersRest.
Human trafficking is a significant problem in Europe and around the world. With women and girls sold into sexual slavery on an increasing basis. Here’s a link to read another woman’s account of her experience when a student in London.
Hey pretty girls and boys, with your sights set on traveling abroad during high school, college or as free-wheeling 20-somethings, you must be aware of the dangers that lurk. The boogie man is real.
About the guest blogger:
Sharon is a mother of two, a marketing professional for nearly 30 years, and an avid trail runner. As the youngest of eight, she’s also a big fan of socializing!
Love these comments shared on Facebook:
I studied abroad in college and the things I did then, make me cringe now. We slept in a park in Rome with our backpacks tied to our ankles, because we didn’t want to pay 15 euros for a hostel. We followed a group of Australian tourists to Munich just because they seemed fun and it seemed like a cool trip. I have great memories, but dear Lord, I was 19 and stupid.
Yep. I went on a solo trip to Peru. Never again!
–Hannah Smith Crowson
It is important to know at least a few basic sentences of the language in the country you visit and to understand the maps. Take the time to know your closest landmark that you can walk back to your place with out giving your address. You can usually get a paper copy of the public transportation and if you study them before you go out you will have a better idea. We actually fond the cab drivers to be super helpful. French was our 2nd language as well as theirs so we each spoke slowly enough to understand each other.
–Shelaine Ashley O’Keefe
Ginny – I was recently made aware of your blog through former colleagues of mine at CIA and FBI — and the experiences Sharon encountered overseas regarding a potential approach by a human trafficker.
As a former FBI Senior Intelligence Officer, I tried numerous times to alert both FBI and CIA management about the overlap between human trafficking and terrorism. Many of our field operators understood the threat to young women studying overseas as well as those being recruited on Facebook by MS-13, unfortunately, federal funding has not been dedicated to offensively targeting these traffickers similar to how we target terrorist organizations.
Having spent many years targeting Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah – specifically Dawood Ibrahim (D-Company in Pakistan), many of these transnational terrorism and organized crime organizations are working together and using proxies to recruit women into human trafficking cells. At the current time, the aforementioned organizations are making billions in profits – more than narcotics and trafficking in arms — abducting/buying/selling of women all around the world. It only gets worse, after the women have been used, many are killed and/or their organs are harvested (uncorroborated reporting) and/or adopt Stockholm syndrome to serve the operational needs of the human trafficking cell.
For any parent or college advising their children/students to study abroad, I highly recommend that all enroll themselves in classroom/online self defense tactics classes, become vigilant in crime domains for locations you are living and operating in and maintain communications at all times. Everyone traveling abroad – regardless of their employment or status in life – must think like an intelligence officer and protect their welfare.
A concerned parent of two college aged children and a former U.S. Government Intelligence Officer