Angelo Pricolo tells us about a formative experience in Paris
When I think of Paris, two people spring to le mind. Edith Piaf, the little sparrow, singer-songwriter noted as France’s national chanteuse and their most widely known international star.
And Jean-Pierre, the scammer who befriended me on a train bound for Paris Gare du Nord.
Travelling alone can be rewarding and character building. You can meet exceptional and inspirational people and learn more lessons about the world than any textbook or Internet search can teach you. Little did I know it would also provide research for my future in pharmacy.
But travel can also be a harrowing experience when things don’t go your way. There are lots of hazards and unfortunately the wrong people can just as easily spoil your day or your entire holiday.
I was a naive traveler in the 90s with an appetite for exploring the world, which seems to be a right of passage for so many young Australians. Maybe it’s the isolation that pushes us beyond our extensive shoreline like a current moving us outside the flags at our favourite surf beach.
After a week in Torino with family it was off to visit Paris with a suitcase of clean clothes and a full stomach. The train ride from memory was about eight hours so I had a choice of a couchette ticket for overnight travel (which cost more) or standard seat and an early start. I chose the latter.
The train pulled away from the platform at about 7am, only a few minutes late. The Northern Italians are much more respectful of the clock than us Southerners! If all went to plan I’d be enjoying a very late breakfast. I was craving my first authentic croissant and café au lait even if I was due to arrive at about 3pm.
It was a long ride and by early afternoon having long since devoured my packed lunch it started to get exciting. I had heard and read a lot about Paris and was very keen to soak up the atmosphere and the sights.
I have always been fascinated by Notre-Dame, the most famous Gothic cathedral in the world. The 2019 fire that destroyed much of this precious landmark was a tragedy caught on film. I bled with the destruction of my favourite feature, the gargoyles.
It goes without saying there was an obligatory visit to the Eiffel Tower, Le Louvre and a walk down the Champs-Elysées, which culminated in a visit to Le Publicis Drugstore. The Drugstore is the 24-hour pharmacy that sells everything!
An institution in Paris, this round-the-clock pharmacy also serves as a delicatessen, music store, bookstore and restaurant. It services local Parisians and tourists with an attitude that any problem can be attended to anytime day or night. Years later I was to run my own 24-hour pharmacy (partly inspired by this visit) with less variety of stock and not as glamorous. It sat proudly on Sydney Road, Brunswick.
Late at night or in the small hours of the morning, a different breed is out shopping. But if you are the one working the graveyard shift, your service is highly valued. Respectful quick interactions prevail as customers are either heading home to sleep or couldn’t sleep but are craving REM as soon as possible.
Another group of customers is the wanderers who have lots of time. Sometimes they are welcome regulars that bring some normality to this abnormal existence but if they are unpleasant the ramifications are amplified at three in the morning!
Providing a 24-hour pharmacy is essential especially in a big city and it can have the added benefit of taking pressure off state-run public services like hospitals. But not all 24-hour establishments are created equal. And the Paris version had its own flair and intrigue for this traveler.
When I visited the Drugstore in Paris I did not need any medicine but the French tailored jacket I bought fit like a glove and cost me the equivalent of about $A15 (in the mid-90s). It was my favourite jacket for almost two decades. I loved the Drugstore.
From 1997 to 2002 we struggled to run a viable 24-hour pharmacy that was co-located with a medical clinic. Sadly, after five years it all came to an end when the one doctor who did most overnights called it quits.
A replacement could not be found in all of greater Melbourne. The overnight clinic shut and after a year of trying to balance the books we finally decided to shut our doors at midnight too. No doctor, no viable 24-hour pharmacy.
The overnight operation was also hindered by the expectation that all prices were competitive, even with discount pharmacies. Notwithstanding the added costs of penalty rates and a security guard people would often buy something at 3am and then want to return it the next day having found a cheaper alternative.
Back to Paris, as I entered the final hour of my journey I was befriended by a curious, soon to become annoying guy that I hadn’t noticed earlier. That’s because he had in fact just got on, one stop out of Paris. He had no bags but wanted to help me organise mine…
Now I don’t want to sound like a cynic but sometimes people just seem to be too friendly or too confident. This guy was both and my sixth sense was immediately aroused. It made for an uncomfortable last hour of travel but there was no way I could shake him so I just had to sit it out. He asked lots of questions and acted like my best friend.
My excitement at pulling in to the main station in Paris was dampened by a concern for my possessions as Jean-Pierre (from now on JP) insisted on helping me with my suitcase and backpack. He had managed to extract a few details about my travel plans from me. He was full of advice as he led the way down the platform rolling my suitcase.
JP insisted on buying me a drink even though I was hesitant, but trying not to make a scene, I accepted. He bought two fruit juices; I had my favourite, pamplemousse (grapefruit). He had jus d’orange and did not allow me to pay. He definitely was banking on a payday or he would not have wasted the francs.
After thanking him it was time I moved to the baggage deposit to leave my bulky suitcase. I was only in town for a short stay and had found it much easier to move around with just my backpack, which had the essentials packed for a few days.
Again, impossible to deter, JP pointed out where to go by following the sign with the big suitcase, so helpful! He took the lead, asked me for my money and paid the man who looked tired and close to retirement age. He explained the receipt had a number on it that locked and then opened the locker one time only.
Here comes the sting. The receipt needed to be ripped open to expose the code and JP even showed me how to do that as he surreptitiously stole a glance at the number and committed it to memory.
After that his whole demeanor changed. He was in a hurry to get my bag locked away and careful to not see the code he had already memorised. Within a minute of locking away the suitcase he shook my hand and disappeared. The guy I had been trying to lose for almost two hours left as quickly as he had appeared.
I was alone in the middle of Gare du Nord not knowing when JP planned to come back and claim his payload or if indeed he would delegate the pick-up to an accomplice. I felt like the protagonist in a James Bond movie and developed a craving for a Martini, shaken not stirred. But I had no time.
I went straight back to the baggage deposit office and bought another locker number from the same attendant. He unflinchingly obliged like a man who had seen it all before. I gloomily handed over more money and mentally removed that many francs from my already scarce dinner budget. JP had doubled my baggage drop price.
Something in me wanted to hang around to see the look on his face when he realised I had in fact scammed him. But something else in me wanted to swap lockers as quickly as possible and get out of there. I had visions of JP returning with his gang of nasty thieves.
That night I relaxed on my bed in a cheap hotel close to the station and pondered the day’s events. I replayed the entire two hours with JP and wondered if I could have changed anything to avoid the whole drama.
Did I smile too much and look gullible? Did I need a tattoo? Something attracted the scammer to me and I decided I needed to change. Maybe this happens to us all at some stage and it shapes who we become.
I thought about JP, his cool calm intent and eventual betrayal and wondered how long it would be until he struck again.
I’m sure the skills I learned negotiating the slippery Jean-Pierre helped me run my 24-hour pharmacy business where the forced autonomy of this lonely operation, like the solo traveler, ensures you must navigate all types at all hours.
Angelo Pricolo is an addiction medicine pharmacist and former National Councillor of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia.