Don’t Trust Men In Blue Vests

Sistine Chapel Scam so Sleazy it Even Impresses Cops

First Impressions is a Prague Wandering series that chronicles the early days of expatriate life for young Americans studying in Prague. The series is intended to capture the shock and awe that many foreigners experience when venturing outside their comfort zone.

By Celine Sidani

Writer Celine Sidani and her friends posed in front of St. Peter's Basilica. Photo courtesy of Gabrielle Gunin

Writer Celine Sidani (left) and her friends posed in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. Photo courtesy of Gabrielle Gunin

The man was wearing a navy blue vest and holding a ‘Maya Tours’ brochure in his hand. My five friends and I spotted him beneath the columns of the Vatican, scanning the long line of giddy tourists who were all waiting to enter the Sistine Chapel. Either he had just gulped down five cups of coffee or naturally preferred to skip around instead of walk.

It was Sunday, October 26. Every last Sunday of the month, the Vatican opens its sacred doors to visitors free of charge, which of course comes hand in hand with spending over half of your day in Rome waiting in long lines and potentially being glued to strangers with bad breath, screaming babies or loud, pretentious American students. Ahem.

“Would you like to skip the line and join a tour of the Vatican?” Blue Vest asked, showing off his gap-toothed grin. “Something tells me you guys don’t want to wait in line for five hours.”

“How much?” my friend Gabrielle asked.

“Twenty-five euros. But for you, 20,” he said. “I love Americans. America is great!”

Within ten minutes Blue Vest had us emptying out our wallets into a makeshift cash register at a tiny Italian restaurant around the corner from the Vatican. And by makeshift cash register I mean a couple of plain white, cash-filled envelopes. A few ‘Maya Tours’ brochures were scattered on the red tablecloth.

The young blonde running the cash register was handing out white label stickers to all  tour attendees, which included dozens of old couples, a handful of American college students and a group of middle-aged Brits.

“We see scams like this every last Sunday of the month,” one of the officers told me. “But nothing as crazy as this one!”

At around 10:30 a.m., Blue Vest and his tour guide accomplices divided us and our 30 or so white sticker friends into three groups. We were part of group one.

“Group one, follow me!” the ginger Brit guide yelled while waving his khaki safari hat and bouncing up and down. “Who’s ready to see the Vatican?” he screamed while practically sprinting up the street. I knew that tour guides were supposed to be energetic, but hey, I did not sign up to run a marathon. Especially after the chocolate-covered cannolis I had just devoured.

We were all a bit out of breath when we made it to the front entrance of the Vatican. Except we weren’t really at the front quite yet. Ginger had pushed the ten of us into the line of tourists, none of who sported VIP white labels. Before I could fully comprehend the fact that we had just paid to cut the line, Ginger was nowhere to be seen. Maybe he really was a marathon runner.

“Maybe we’re just meeting the tour guide at the entrance,” my friend Matt suggested. None of our white sticker friends seemed to be concerned.

“I’m about to run back to that Italian restaurant and beat someone up,” Ami said, cracking his knuckles. “We’re getting our damn money back.”

“I could buy endless gelato with that money,” I said

“I could buy endless bottles of wine with that money,” Gabrielle replied.

And that’s when we saw the bright purple umbrella being held up into the air by a stout older woman wearing the same white sticker. Could she be our tour guide? The white sticker crew was back in action. At least we thought we were.

“You, why are you wearing this white sticker? Get out of line now!” a security man screamed as he escorted us out of the line one by one. “You paid to skip the line. We don’t tolerate that.”

We all ran towards the umbrella lady and encircled her. I pictured the ten of us holding flaming torches and pitchforks above our heads. Everyone was speaking at the same time. “Who are you?” “Where did the other guys go?” “Give us our money back” “If my mom finds out I didn’t see the Sistine Chapel while in Rome she will cry.”

Umbrella lady claimed she was innocent. “I really have no idea what’s going on. Everyone wait here and I will go get the other guys. You will get your money.” Thinking she could be sly, she started walking away from the mob.

“No! We’re coming with you,” we shouted almost simultaneously. Some of the American college kids ran in front of her and formed a wall.

After the lady negotiated with police officers in Italian for about twenty minutes, it was finally decided that the white sticker crew, escorted by the officers, would follow umbrella lady to her bank; she had surprisingly offered to withdraw money from her own bank account. And if the Italian police force supported the deal, so did we.

“We see scams like this every last Sunday of the month,” one of the officers told me. “But nothing as crazy as this one!”

On our way to the bank, we spotted a familiar face and safari hat. Ginger. He was waiting for us at the corner, leaned against a wall. He was holding the white envelopes.

“Who do I owe?” he asked nonchalantly. We were shocked to be getting our money back.

We all put our palms out towards him.

“You know, karma’s a bitch,” Gabrielle told him while grabbing our money. She turned towards us and fanned herself with the 20 euro bills. “Who wants some wine?”

We didn’t see the Sistine Chapel, but we still considered ourselves to be among the luckiest tourists in Rome.

Celine Sidani is in the NYU College of Arts and Science Class of 2016. Her hometown is South Brunswick, New Jersey.

This article was adapted from an assignment for the travel writing class at New York University in Prague.

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Categories: Culture, Europe, Fall 2014 Issue Number 2, First Impressions, NYU Prague, Scams, Travel

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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