"Do you want to press charges?" the gendarme asked. It was the last question of an exhausting two-hour interview designed to reconstruct the events of a crime we thought would never happen. In a few seconds we had become two of an estimated 35,000 U.S. travelers who, according to the State Department, lose or have their passports stolen each year while on vacation. We also were one of the 145,000 requests the American Express Company received last year for replacement of lost or stolen traveler's checks.

Although thefts are common, we had never been robbed before, and the experience taught us lessons that we think even the most seasoned traveler will find valuable.

The crime occurred during the first days of a three-week combined business and pleasure trip to France. Driving south of Grenoble, headed for a friend's home in Aix-en-Provence, we stopped at a roadside rest area. We were alone and didn't bother to lock our rented Renault while we visited the bathrooms.

As we were returning to the car, however, a young man on a motorcycle pulled alongside the driver's side. In a rapid and no doubt well-practiced maneuver, he opened the door and deftly lifted Jan's bag from the back seat. He then sped down the highway.

Chasing him was fruitless; he was out of sight in an instant. Our hearts sank as we thought of what the bag contained: Jan's purse, both of our passports, airline tickets and checkbooks, along with $130 in cash and $260 in traveler's checks, not to mention many essential personal items such as eyeglasses and our French-English dictionary.

Fortunately, the first thing we did turned out to be the right one. We reported the crime to the local police. Being Sunday, filing a report was not easy. The closest gendarmerie in the town of Vif had only one officer on duty, and he was reluctant to fill out the paper.

"It is very unlikely we will find him," he said sadly. We agreed but insisted that we would need a report to help recover our lost documents. He nodded slowly and began typing details of the crime. The interview took over two hours because of the exact description French crime reports require and because our normally adequate French vocabulary was missing such key words as voler, to steal. At long last, however, we finished, deciding not to press charges because that would have required yet another form.

Armed with a copy of the report, we headed back to the hotel we had left that morning in Talloires (our friend's address and number in Aix-en-Provence had been in the stolen bag). That decision, although made out of a sense of helplessness rather than purpose, also proved wise. Not only did the hotel register have a record of Bill's passport number, but the staff also provided us with the numbers of two traveler's checks we had cashed there. The passport and traveler's check numbers (we had found Jan's passport number on our copy of the rental agreement) were helpful when, the next morning, we called the U.S. consulate and American Express offices in Lyon.

These advance calls, made more from anxiety than a belief they would do any good, also proved to be quite valuable. We also called Washington and asked Bill's secretary to notify our banks and to cancel Jan's Visa credit card. Now, if the thief did manage to forge and cash any checks, we would not be liable; for the credit card, the liability was automatically limited to $50.

We decided to spend a few more days in Talloires rather than going to Aix-en-Provence. Bill was scheduled to speak at a medical conference in Bordeaux in four days. We would go there via Lyon.

When we drove to Lyon on Wednesday, the consulate had already received a telex concerning our passports, and replacing them was surprisingly simple. We filled out the application, went to a nearby photography studio for U.S.-size passport photos, returned, paid our fee (85 French francs, $14 each), and received our new passports. Feeling complete again, we went to the American Express office. Again, no problems. Jan's $260 worth of checks was refunded after she filled out the necessary forms..

While at American Express, we also picked up our train tickets and couchette reservations for the night train to Bordeaux. In France, the only credit cards honored at railroad stations are VISA and Carte Bleue, but reservations and tickets can be purchased at American Express offices. If you carry their traveler's checks, American Express will also give you a temporary identification card, permit you to make phone calls, and cancel credit cards that were lost or stolen.

We also decided to visit the local TWA representative. When we had called the Lyon office from our hotel in Talloires, we were told that the trip was not necessary, that we could wait until we got to Paris to fill out the report, but we had a few hours, and the office was nearby.

The young woman who served as the local representative for a number of airlines gave us the appropriate "lost or stolen ticket" forms and called Paris to report the theft. When we arrived at the TWA Paris office on the Champs-Elysses five days later, this advance notice enabled us to pick up replacement tickets for our special "vacancies" fares in a few minutes. Without advance notice, the TWA employe in Paris told us, we would have been asked to purchase full-fare return tickets and then apply for refunds from Washington. According to him, the loss or theft of tickets is quite common. "We see at least one case a day," he said.

With this final recovery completed, we totaled our losses. The cash ($50 in U.S. funds, $80 in French francs) was gone forever, as were a pair of Bill's eyeglasses ($100) and Jan's leather handbag ($90) containing a pair of gold earrings ($200). Although substantial, we subsequently learned that all but $200 -- the amount of our deductible -- was covered by our home owner's insurance.

Of course, there were other consequences of the robbery that are impossible to measure. We had to change our original travel plans and missed seeing friends in the south of France. And, although physically unharmed, we still felt violated by the theft. But we also learned some important lessons, lessons that we will follow on all subsequent journeys:

* No matter how safe the situation appears, never leave your car unlocked and never leave a bag with essential documents where a thief can easily reach it. The French police told us of cases in which motorcycle thieves reached into cars stopped at intersections.

* In a location separate from the actual documents, record passport, checkbook, credit card and traveler's check numbers. These are helpful in obtaining replacements and, in the case of traveler's checks, are essential in obtaining a prompt refund.

* If you are robbed, report the theft immediately and keep a copy of the police report. From the U.S. consulate to the American Express office, we found that our official police report, obtained after much effort, was invaluable in documenting the validity of our loss.

* If you are far from the nearest consulate or American Express office, call ahead. This advance notice allows officials to do a preliminary check of your claim, making replacement easier. The same is true for lost or stolen airline tickets. Most airlines will not issue replacement tickets without a waiting period.

* Prepare for the worst by carrying an extra set of eyeglasses, identification, essential addresses, phone numbers, etc. If all identification is lost, remember that secondary sources such as a car rental contract may be accepted by embassy officials as evidence of identity.

* Use traveler's checks. They can be cashed wherever money is exchanged, usually at a slightly higher exchange rate than cash, and, as we discovered, they can substantially reduce any loss.

* Finally, do not despair. Help is remarkably easy to obtain. Once in Lyon, we had new passports and traveler's checks and a renewed sense of security in only a few hours.