Swiss Max – The Genteel Highwayman

He could be everyone’s favourite grandfather, silver-haired, distinguished, well-spoken, tall and imposing but the man in the picture has earned a formidable reputation on the highways and byways of France as a consummate but charming rogue.

Silver haired and silver tongued this is Matteo Schaub a Swiss hitch-hiker with the gift of the gab.

Matteo Schaub or Swiss Max as news reports call him is, according to this website set up to stop him, a hitch-hiker with a silver tongue that taps into a rich vein of big-hearted human kindness.

His victims — and they number hundreds over the past 12 years — all tell a very similar tale, often recounted in sheer admiration with applause for his showmanship, although others do profess to be both incredulous and mortified by the experience.

Approached usually at a service station near a motorway or at a motorway toll plaza — and Max has been sighted as far north as Metz, down the Rhone Valley along the Var and across to Bordeaux (see map for a plot of his travels) — the future victims take pity when told a variation of the “dreadful plight story” painted by this elderly, well-educated man.

Recent sightings of silver tongued Swiss Max on his travels of trouble.

Presenting himself variously as “Max” (or, depending on his mood, Carl Fasser Carl Feder, Carl Felder, Carl Landolt, Carl Silvius, Carl Von Salis, Max Clausen, Max Salis Reto Ganz, Edgard Helmes, Carl Clavsen, Clavseh Carl Alper …) this mythomane, is clearly a skilled, well rehearsed and convincing conman who tells “a very plausible tale in a most believable manner”.

According to Audrey Savournin a journalist at La Provence newspaper: “He passes himself off as a businessman, or the director of Ecosnow, a non-existent snow cannon manufacturer in his native Switzerland. He threatens no one and instead just tells them his very tall tales, and as a result he is, apparently, according to police, untouchable!

Reassured by his appearances and manner, many motorists willingly give him a lift. During the journey, the man regales them with a tale of high misadventure that always inspires sympathy.

Usually this involves the theft of his car, an Audi, ” by a Eastern European gang” with of course all his papers, money, luggage, everything he owns. The tale will vary at Christmas when his stolen car boot was also loaded with gifts for the family. He tells his captive benefactors he would be very grateful for a helping hand to reach the Swiss consulate in Lyon or Clermont-Ferrand, or Bordeaux, or Marseille, depending on where it was he was picked up. During the trip Max unveils his conversational skills, by turns amusing, interesting, and highly cultured.

You are walker? He knows all the equipment you need and highly recommends the mountains of his native Switzerland. You’re a musician? He starts to sing the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and invites you to play at a hotel in St. Moritz for the Saudis, where he knows the director. You’re an art teacher? He knows the syllabus and talks fluently about teaching. You like Russian literature? He speaks knowledgably of Dostoevsky. Philosophy? He is a connoisseur of Spinoza. Physics? He talks convincingly about the string theorem. Motorcycles? He has a Triumph Bonneville and the Moto Guzzi factory is not far from his home and so on.

Max is a master conversationalist and weaver of fantasy. By the time he is finished he has won the hearts of his travelling companions. When the journey ends, most charitable motorists offer him a packet of cigarettes, a meal, a coffee, a train ticket or money, whatever they have on them, or can retrieve from the nearest ATM, ranging on average from 20 to 100 euros.

“He never asks, but he does make it clear he is in need , “says Alain, an art teacher in the Cantal, who tells of his encounter on the stop max blog.

Max always promises to repay his benefactor when he gets back home and says he will send Swiss chocolates or even an invitation to his cottage. He willingly provides them with his name, address, telephone number and email before he departs. Anyone then who, out of curiosity, searches the Internet finds that they have joined the ranks of kindly motorists taken for a ride. Max is indeed a manufacturer …. of stories by the kilometre.

mythomania n. A compulsion to embroider the truth, engage in exaggeration, or tell lies.

Matteo Schaub, 57, was born in Bellinzona, near the Swiss-Italian border and arrived in France early in 2000, allegedly fleeing his homeland because of an arrest warrant for some minor financial crime. Since then he has apparently “survived” hand to mouth and from day to day in the south of France on the generosity of drivers and his own passionate conversational gifts.

Although, writes Jérôme Sage in France Soir he was: “summonsed to appear before a court in Brive, Corrèze (19100) on 20 August 2009, he failed to appear, and was acquitted.” Indeed, in the eyes of the law, Matteo Schaub is not a crook. “He plays very close to the bone, but he plays in a legal vacuum,” according to one police officer. Following complaints the Swiss Consulate in Marseilles had issued a general warning about his activities.

As he is free to pursue his odyssey undeterred, some of his victims have set up a blog and launched an appeal for witnesses and evidence about the man. Stopper Max le Suisse describes SCHAUB as “worse than Pinocchio and smarter than Arsène Lupin” ( a reference to the famous gentleman thief and seducer, popularised in film and fiction across France.)

“Arsene Lupin Raoul born in 1874 in Blois enjoyed an eclectic education which included law,medicine, classical Latin and Greek.”

The blog has a picture of the infamous “Max”, taken by a motorist in 2008 at Brive and warns that using his talents as an actor and storyteller, he has swindled at least 3500 euros out of his victims. Not all of those he has taken for a ride complain however: “For me it cost me 20 euros and he told me a great story. I lost nothing really so I wished well on his travels and said I hoped we’d meet again” writes one of the commenters on the blog.

Despite their chagrin at falling for the glib tongue of silver haired Max, a remarkable number of those reporting to the blog admit to sneaking admiration for such a talented if misguided man and even wish him luck.

Story: Ken Pottinger

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