“Remember–-walk in the middle of sidewalks, and don’t hold the pigeons.”
My tour guide in Milan shared this warning with us before parting. Half of the group, those lingering in the back and talking during the tour, did not hear her warning at all. Although I heard the warning, I felt as clueless as the lingering exchange students.
My district had completed one week of a two-week Europe tour. As you may suspect, we barely scratched the surface of Europe, but it sure was a great introduction. Forty exchange students are difficult to manage, so the group counselors booked a tour in each city and then let us roam independently until dinner at the hostel.
My day had a rough start. My counselor wouldn’t let me go on a horseback tour in the mountains on the outskirts of Milan (#firstworldproblem). I also learned that my Europe tour cost the same as a different district’s month-long Europe tour (#poorstudenttravelerproblem). Both likely contributed to why I subconsciously decided to not adhere to the tour guide’s warning.
Milan’s Pigeon Scam
For some unknown reason, my friend Anna and I wanted pictures with the dirty pigeons at Piazza del Duomo. An Italian man offered Anna birdseed and she quickly accepted. Naturally, pigeons jumped onto her arm to eat the seeds. I snapped a few photos before we traded roles as model and photographer. That’s when I realized the Italian man wasn’t offering, rather forcing, his birdseed into my stupid American tourist hand. It was too late to refuse–my hand was already full of birdseed.
After a series of pictures, Anna and I quickly thanked the man and walked away. We had a strange feeling about him and wanted to move on. He protested our departure attempt by speaking rapid Italian, a language neither Anna nor I understood. We asked him to explain in English or German, but this man continued to speak in Italian. “No English,” he said, “no English.” Anna and I, only seventeen and sixteen years old, were confused and, frankly, scared.
What is happening? What is he saying? Why won’t he let us leave?
Suddenly, I remembered advice our tour guide shared earlier–“Be careful of scammers.” I grabbed Anna’s hand and pulled her away as she tried to reason with the man. I whispered to her, “He wants money.”
Suddenly, the Italian man who didn’t know English spoke perfect English. “Money. Pay me money.”
Anna and I wanted this man gone. We looked at each other with questioning eyes and realized the only way he would leave is if we gave him money.
But we had just arrived from Switzerland. Anna only had Swiss Franks and I only had a twenty in Euro plus some Franks. I tried to give the Italian man spare change, but it wasn’t enough for him. Finally, I shoved the twenty in his hand and we walked away.
We fell for Milan’s pigeon scam.
I guess it was that man’s lucky day. He made quite the profit off two handfuls of birdseed.
We Were Scammed
At the end of the day, I learned from our counselor that Anna and I could’ve threatened to call the police. The Italian man would’ve immediately left us alone because Milan’s pigeon scam is illegal.
Anna and I weren’t the only ones duped that day. Many people walked near the edges of sidewalks. Other scammers could easily tie a bracelet to a passerby’s wrist without them noticing. Removing this bracelet would break it, thus forcing the innocent patron to buy the bracelet.
I did get the picture I desperately wanted, but at a high cost. I tried to come up with something positive about my interaction with the Italian scammer. Perhaps that man now has money to feed his family for the night, I thought. According to our tour guide, most of those men will gamble the money away. I prefer my made-up story.
Milan’s pigeon scam taught me my first major travel lesson. Although I’ve read advice before, it didn’t stick until I faced a scam head-on. Hopefully, you can learn from my mistakes!
- Tour guides and other local travel experts, like those in the tourism office, are obviously extremely knowledgeable about their destination. Listen to their advice when they give it. In my case, I would be twenty Euros richer.
- Be aware of the surrounding location and people. If something makes you feel uncomfortable, follow your gut instinct; it’s probably accurate.
- Keep small local change more easily accessible. Tuck away larger amounts of money, even tens or twenties, in a secure location.
- Understand your rights as a tourist and the rules of the country. Perhaps you can threaten to call the police or even file a report. The locals, local tourism office, guide books, and tour operators are great resources to learn this information pre-departure and upon arrival. Oh, and so are travel blogs like mine!
One bad incident doesn’t have to ruin the entire destination. Things may go wrong while on the road; in fact, something probably will go wrong. I was bitter about the scam for the rest of my time in Milan. Looking back, I didn’t give the city a second chance. I missed out on experiencing Milan’s fashion and impressively seamless mix of modern and historic architecture.
Scams and theft happen, but you can take steps to avoid it as best you can.
P.S. If you have an upcoming trip, check out the Resources tab for my favorite travel gear and resources.
Pin this post for later! Tell me, have you been scammed while traveling?