In 1999, a few girlfriends and I decided to take our very first international post-college trip to Europe. We had no idea how to go on our own, so we booked a bus tour that would take us across seven countries in a span of two weeks. The tour company would take care of everything – hotels, most meals, transportation, and a guide to explain all the sights. It was perfect for three sheltered suburban girls in the pre-internet age. In Rome, Italy we got dropped off at a bustling city square and given a few hours to walk around and explore on our own. I went off on my own, as my friends wanted to go shopping and I had at that point already lost all of my money (not by a scam, but by simply leaving my wallet behind in the very first hotel room where we stayed). On top of that, I also didn’t have a suitcase to carry back any souvenirs because the airline lost my luggage on the flight to London. None of this put a damper on my trip, as I was simply enjoying Europe too much and relied on borrowing money and clothes from my friends.
After wandering around Rome for a few hours, I made my way back to the bus. In front of our parked bus, a small crowd gathered to watch a very strange spectacle. A man spread out a blanket on the sidewalk and put a boombox blasting dance music on the other side of the blanket. He had small paper dolls – uncolored cutouts from a Disney coloring book, a lot of Mickey and Minnie Mouses, a few Donald Ducks, and a slightly crumpled Goofy. They were all reinforced with a cardboard back and had their legs replaced with thick colored thick yarn. They were dancing on the blanket, their string legs comically jumping up and down in the air.
None of this made sense. Most dolls weren’t even touching the ground, just leaping in the air, wiggling, and shaking to the beat. I leaned in to examine closer. They were paper, cardboard, and yarn, and all had a small black square glued on their backs. I didn’t see any mechanism in the paper puppets that could make them dance like this. The crowd was debating whether these incredible dolls were worth $10 each. I walked into the bus, confused. It was clear to me that this was a scam, but I had no idea how it worked. From my seat on the bus, I could clearly see this bizarre show out of my window and kept watching, in hopes of figuring it out.
I watched as one of my friends approached the bus and stopped, staring at the dancing puppets on the blanket. She leaned in closer to examine. She asked something of the vendor, and he grabbed two new dolls wrapped in cellophane, gently unwrapped them, and put them on the ground. The puppets immediately started jumping and dancing to the beat. My friend nodded, satisfied. The man rewrapped the dolls and handed them to my friend. She handed him a crisp 20-euro bill. I jumped out of my seat and ran towards the bus door.
“What are you doing!?” I yelled, “Stop!”
Our guide grabbed me on my way down the aisle and asked what happened. I explained and he ran out of the bus, yelling in Italian at the vendor.
My friend, undeterred by the sudden commotion, confidently walked into the bus.
“What?” she said. “I bought souvenirs.”
As our guide and the vendor continued yelling at each other in Italian outside, I tried to reason with her.
“Go back and see if you can get your money back!”
“Why?” she retorted, “My younger sister would love these.”
“How in the world do you think a paper doll is going to dance for you?? HOW?” I gasped.
“I had them tested.” She said, “They work!”
To prove her point, she gently unwrapped a Minnie Mouse paper doll and laid it on her lap. It just laid there, its little yarn legs hanging pathetically limp on the side.
I stared at the doll and then at my friend. I bit my tongue and waited for her to realize that she was scammed.
She looked the doll over and wrinkled her forehead.
“It probably needs music to work.” She said, rewrapping the doll and hiding it away in her purse.
I spent the entire drive to our hotel softly wailing in anguish into my hands. My friend was completely undeterred. She never admitted defeat, never acknowledged being scammed, and later insisted that her sister loved the present. I have to believe that despite her outward demeanor, she too learned a 20-euro lesson, just as I had a few years earlier.
Fifteen years later, in front of Tsukiji market in Tokyo, Victor asked me if I would be OK exploring the market on my own for an hour, while he went shopping for traditional Japanese woodblock prints a few subway stops away. We agreed on the meeting place and time, and I went off, wandering among fish stands and sushi restaurants. Deep into the maze of the market, I suddenly came upon a small clearing, a tiny square with a large oak tree in the middle. Under the oak tree, a huge Japanese man stood by a blanket on the ground with a boom box on the other end of it, blaring high beat dance music. I stopped and stared, bewildered. Small paper cut-out dolls with yarn strings danced on the blanket.
Six thousand miles away and fifteen years later, the same scam was alive and doing well, according to the size of the crowd gathered around. I was no longer a naïve twenty-year-old, I was going to figure this out. I immediately noticed a few things I missed the first time around. At least one person in the crowd was working with the scammer. He stood on the other side of the blanket, directly across the boom box. By his foot was a large duffel bag, his hand never left his pocket. He kept talking to people around, pretending he was one of them, enthusiastically exclaiming his amazement at these paper puppets every time someone new joined the crowd. If the crowd dispersed momentarily, his face immediately went blank, and he stared off into the distance. He never moved from his spot.
I circled the blanket, watching the dolls carefully, and pulled out my camera. Immediately the vendor rushed toward me shaking his head and pointing at my camera. No pictures. So, I thought, a camera can reveal something about this scam that is not seen with a naked eye. And finally, the most important clue. All puppets danced in one straight line exactly between the boombox and the duffel bag. I thought back to Italy where the dolls also danced in one straight line. It finally all clicked together. The little dark squares on the back of the puppets in Italy were missing from these dolls, but now I knew what they were. These were small thin magnets. Here, the scammers glued them between the paper cutout and cardboard backing, making it even harder to understand the grift.
The trick was simple. There was magnetic fishing line, so thin that it was invisible to the eye (but might show up on a camera if the light hit it just right), drawn between the boombox and the duffel bag, with one end going out of the duffel bag and into the trouser leg of the second scammer, who pulled and yanked on it through his pocket. The dolls were attached to the magnetic line with their little magnets, being jerked around to the music by a seemingly amazed spectator. I laughed out loud and the scammer encouragingly smiled at me, mistaking my smirking for amazement at his miraculously dancing puppets. He yelled out something in Japanese, most likely the price.
Now that I knew how the scam worked, I was eager to share it with the crowd. There was only one problem. I didn’t speak Japanese. The second problem, that both scammers were surprisingly large built men and would probably not take kindly on my interruption of their cash flow, did not occur to me yet. I watched as several people handed them bills in exchange for dolls. I opened my mouth wordlessly and uselessly gesticulated with my hands. I tried to pull up Google Translate on my phone but wasn’t getting any data connection. Suddenly I saw a family of American tourists in the crowd, their young son excitedly pointing at the dancing dolls. Finally! Someone I can save! I rushed towards them.
“Stop!” I yelled. “It’s a scam!”
The father already had his wallet out and a few bills in his hand. The entire family froze and stared quizzically at me. As I breathlessly explained the scam to them, the entire Japanese crowd synchronically dispersed around us. Without understanding my words, they still understood my warning. The American family hid their money and walked away. Reveling in my accomplishment, I looked around for validation only to find myself completely alone. I turned towards the blanket. The large scammer was staring daggers into me. He threw his hands into the air and yelled something angrily toward his accomplice, still standing stiffly by the duffel bag.
I turned around and ran.
Victor left me alone for exactly an hour. He was worried about letting me go off solo and multiple times asked if I will be OK. Of course, I will be OK! What could possibly happen to me! I’ve traveled alone before and was completely fine! How ironic it would be now for Victor to find me with my head bashed in, crying in some quiet corner of the market. These were the thoughts running through my head, as I zig-zagged through the stalls. No one followed me of course, as one man had a fishing string running through his pant leg and the other one was too unwieldy to follow me. I finally found our meeting place, breathless and red-faced, clutching my camera and eagerly spewing the entire story to Victor.
He stared at me, horrified.
“I am never letting you go off alone again!” he cried.
“I solved it!” I gasped excitedly, “I solved the Italian dancing doll mystery!”
I spent the metro ride to our hotel recounting the story over and over again. Victor spent the entire ride softly wailing in anguish into his hands. Just like my friend, some fifteen years earlier, I refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing and pretended everything went exactly to plan.
Stay tuned for fresh stories from our recent Albania trip!