Jason Goodwin: Rome’s Bus 64, the Baby Toss Scam and other crooked dealings to look forward to on holiday

Jason Goodwin praises the finesse of con-artists and pickpockets as one of the things he misses most, having decided to holiday at home this year.

No foreign holidays. No flights. We are having summer at home. Our carbon footprint is the size of a matchhead and, for all I know, the pound and the euro are at par. It makes me wonder what I miss about not going abroad: the food, perhaps – or the anticipation of it – galleries, monuments, the Spanish Steps, tavernas, bratwurst, factor 50+, slim bottles of coloured liqueur, prickly pears, Rembrandt.

Then I remember how a respectable older friend of mine, driving in North Africa, was stopped by the police who claimed he had broken the speed limit. ‘In my country,’ my friend explained, in his exquisite French, ‘dans mon pays, this sort of infraction is often settled with an on-the-spot fine. In cash.’ I am afraid he was then arrested and taken down to the station for attempting to bribe a police officer.

He was disappointed, but I get his drift. I think it will be minor crookedness I miss most. Forget the international brigade of floating Yodas, pavement artists and Dylan sound-alikes who generically demand your admiration and your tips, with their tiresome juggling balls and plaster-of-Paris make-up.

‘This is known as the Baby Toss Scam and your pockets have been picked ’

Forget taxi drivers with broken meters or waiters whose sums don’t quite add up. That’s all just side-business. Rip-off merchants, likewise, exist everywhere and have neither subtlety nor imagination. Theirs are the pricey cold drink on a hot day, the unexpected waivers not mentioned on the hire contract.

I prefer the people who don’t hang around for applause, those manipulative, soulless, blank-eyed, small-time opportunists who always pay you the honour of their attention. You remember scam artists as much for the artistry as for the scam; a few minutes of their friendliness and menace runs you through a gamut of emotions, from laughter and pity to fury and dismay.

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I am thinking of the man who secretly drops a blob of lime on your shoe and innocently points it out. Before you know it, you’re having your shoes shined on the streets of Istanbul. Or there’s the rug merchant who only wants to buy you tea, seriously, and has no intention – really, believe me, why would I lie? – of selling you one of the 40 carpets his boys whisk out for your admiration as you stir in the sugar.

Take the women with hungry-looking babies outside the Vatican. You glance guiltily at a baby one moment, the next, it’s in your arms! This is known as the Baby Toss Scam and your pockets have been picked. At a street counter, you hand over a 20 and either get change from a 10 or a sheaf of worthless pre-revolutionary notes.

Young travellers tell me about the bracelet trick, in which a friendly someone assembles a bracelet on your wrist as a token of their affection, but it doesn’t come off easily and now they’re asking for money in hurt and puzzled tones.

A variant of the Parisian dove hoax is the Caribbean monkey scam. They put a little monkey on your shoulder and suggest they get a shot of it on your phone. Snap! Then they demand $25 for the favour. They have your phone and the monkey isn’t that cute.

In China, fake art shows are the thing. Bus 64 in Rome – used by tourists and pickpockets – has its own website. Bag-snatching by moped thieves on Las Ramblas in Barcelona is such old hat they’ve given it a post-modern twist: a fake bag-snatch occurs at a taxi rank, the visitors are all geared for it and surge forward to help – leaving their own bags to be snatched from the pavement.

That’s cojones! That’s travel! The last time I was rooked? Actually, come to think of it, it was at the ATM in Petersfield.