It was a conversation we were to remember with bitter irony for weeks–months, years–afterwards.
We had just arrived in Spain and gotten ourselves settled in a nicer-than-expected Barcelona hotel. We were excited about getting a three-course lunch and then sightseeing the rest of the afternoon. Once we figured out the hotel room safe, Will asked if I wanted to put anything in there aside from our passports. I was about to put my wallet in as well, but he asked if I might not want it with me. I wasn’t going to carry a separate purse, but he offered to carry our messenger bag with our travel guidebooks and camera and put my wallet inside it as well. Laughing (oh, how we regret this now), I impishly replied: “Well, only if you promise not to let it get stolen.”
Well, I think you all know what happened that day. The details are irrelevant–and a bit embarrassing and painful to recall. Let it suffice to say that we came to no harm, and that we didn’t even realize we were being robbed as we sat in a crowded and noisy Barcelona restaurant, enjoying our gourmet meals. Will had the bag draped behind his chair, and a pair of men simply cut the bag’s strap from behind. Precise and well-executed.
Of course, there are several lessons to be learned: Be aware of your surroundings, be vigilant in a new city, lock up your valuables in a hotel safe (duh!), and hold on to your bag!
But aside from these obvious lessons, there are a few more as well:
DON’T BE SMUG ABOUT YOUR TRAVEL EXPERTISE
We readily admit that EVERYONE warned us to be careful in Barcelona. We loved the city, but it was one that many guidebooks–and friends and colleagues–rated as the western European city in which one is most likely to become a victim of theft. But all that just rolled off our backs.
The Spain trip was coming at the very end of a year-long stay in England, and we’d already visited Norway, Ireland, France, Italy, Switzerland, Wales, Scotland, Belgium, Austria, and goodness knows how many areas within England proper. We had become so “expert” at flying in and out of Stansted, using Ryanair, familiarizing ourselves with each different city’s metro system within hours of arriving. Surely, we need not be reminded to be careful!
Hopefully we didn’t really think that we were immune to being robbed, but we weren’t really registering the possibility either. Never again will we be so complacent because…
YOU FEEL PRETTY STUPID WHEN YOU’RE FACED WITH YOUR STUPIDITY
Which is exactly what happened when we were filling out a report on the theft. I’m not sure why we even bothered to take the time out to go to the police. I believe we thought we needed some proof of theft so that we would have an easier time getting me a new driver’s license, new bank card in England, and expediting new credit cards to us. In any case, we took a cab (thank goodness Will still had his wallet on his person), and we visited the Barcelona police.
We were interviewed by a young woman who spoke excellent English–a fact which made our own deficiency in Spanish more humiliating. Will, who actually knew some Spanish, was spared most of the ridicule, but I felt pretty stupid during the whole process as she queried whether it’s possible I really did not know the language of a country I planned on visiting for two weeks. (I didn’t really feel it was the appropriate time to mention that I spoke some French and that I could read a little Latin. And my first language was actually Korean. But, all that aside, it was indeed true that I did not know any Spanish.)
Then she asked us to catalogue everything that was inside the stolen bag, and approximate the value. This part was even worse. Digital camera (it was 2007, and we didn’t all take pictures with our phones), guidebooks, but most of all my wallet. Containing? A US Driver’s license, several credit and debit cards, and way too much cash in pounds and euros. (In our defense, we’d JUST arrived in Spain from England and had gotten some money out. Thus, we had substantial amounts in both currencies.) She asked, incredulous: “And you were carrying all that in your bag?”
We left the station knowing that we had been idiotic, and that nothing could quite save us from our own stupidity.
IT’S INTERESTING TO SEE A CITY AS A LOCAL WOULD
Well, it was clear that we weren’t going to get ANYTHING back. So that meant that we now needed to purchase new items: new bag and camera to start with. Our second day in Barcelona had us shopping, not as tourists who fancied a memento but rather as people who actually NEEDED these items.
Instead of tourist areas, we sought more reasonable prices at mid-level department stores frequented by locals. Would you believe that there is a lot LESS English spoken there than in tourist areas? We found ourselves haltingly explaining what happened to us–with urgent references to our pocketbook Spanish phrase book–and were heartened to discover that hardened sales clerks were immediately more sympathetic once they found out why these obvious tourists required a bag and a camera.
In retrospect, Will and I actually enjoyed our interactions that came about because of the theft. We too often confine ourselves to the sightseeing areas, and so we don’t really ever have contact with people who don’t immediately switch to flawless English and who don’t really believe that their livelihoods depend on pleasing tourists.
SUCH EXPERIENCES ALLOW US TO MAKE CONNECTIONS WITH LOCALS
A few days later, we were in Granada to visit the wonderful Alhambra. On a wet and dreary afternoon, Will and I took respite in a tea house for a break from sightseeing and the inclement weather. To dry our wet umbrella a bit, we hung it off a table ledge–though Will’s new bag was plastered to his body. (Yes, yes, closing the stable door after the horses are gone. Tell us something we don’t know.)
An elderly lady who was by herself seemed concerned. She pointed to the umbrella and was clearly expressing her worry that some nasty no-good individual would come along and swipe our (5 euro) umbrella. Ah, how thoughtful of her.
My Spanish having vastly improved with the repeated use of a few key words in Barcelona department stores, I engaged our new friend in discussion.
I started, “En sábado” (on Saturday), “en Barcelona, nos han robado!” (some no doubt wrong verb tense of “we were robbed”).
She gasped, and I warmed to my theme.
“Mi bolso,” I declared, almost proud to produce something so grand as the theft of a purse! She repeated, aghast at such treachery, such tragedy, “Bolso?!”
I nodded, sad but sage with experience. Then I muttered uncharitably under by breath, “Mi marido es stupido.”