We had just arrived in Rome from Vasto Marina, a wonderful seaside place in the Italian province of Abruzzo. We had spent seven gorgeous days sunning on the Adriatic coast, eating amazing food and passing a wonderful time in wonderful company. We were there to do nothing and we were enjoying ourselves doing it.
We decided to go to Rome for the day before flying back to Canada. I had been there before but Carolyn hadn’t and she wanted to see the Colosseum, the Forum and the Trevi Fountain. And do some shopping.
“Beware of pickpockets,” the loudspeaker in the metro announced. A swoop of young women slithered through the crowd pursued by hulky, slim and fat policemen. But the women disappeared. Everybody started to pat themselves down to make sure they had their wallets, money belts and whatever other thing of value they were carrying.
I must admit I admired how those women moved and disappeared. Graduates of the School of the Seven Bells, I was later told; the school for thieves that got its name from the final exam its graduates must pass. In the test, the teacher poses as a mark, his body booby-trapped with seven small bells, each strategically placed. The students must slip valuables from each of seven pockets without ringing any of the attached bells.
With my limited knowledge of the Roma, I explained to Carolyn how they worked as a team. I told her what I knew of their modus operandi.
My expertise came from being born in Hungary and wet-nursed by a Gypsy woman whose son, Frog, later became a good friend. This was during the fifties before we escaped in 1956. Decades afterwards, in the 1990s, I befriended a wonderful Hungarian Roma poet while I translated some of his poems. More recently I have been working on a novel in which one of the main characters is a Roma. To capture him and his story as honestly as I can, I’ve been researching Roma history for the last couple of years. I’ve also occasionally gone to a great restaurant owned and run by an amazing Roma musician and his excellent cook-wife.
Soon we arrived at our hotel, dumped our stuff and set off to discover old Rome. We took the metro, which was more packed than a can of sardines or videos of metros in Japan. At the last second, a group of women slithered in and as the door slid closed a burly cop arrived and started banging on the door. “Pickpocket!” he shouted. I smiled and reached down to pat my pocket.
“My wallet’s gone,” I said to Carolyn. I was surrounded by a bunch of women who had picked me clean and were looking at me with blank faces. I grabbed one and shouted for her to give it back. She just stared at me indifferently. I began rummaging through her bag. Nothing. I started on the next woman. Nothing. My wallet was probably on another metro by now. The one who picks it, never has it on her. It gets passed around and, like the shell con-game, you can never guess where it is.
We got off at the next stop. I was both pissed and amazed. But mainly pissed. I saw a cop and signaled him about the theft. He nodded his head and said “Si,” shrugging his shoulders. “Police station,” he said, pointing into nowhere.
A half hour later we were at the end of the train terminal where the police station was located. We tried door after door. All of them were locked. An officer talking to someone outside one of the doors pointed to a buzzer. I pressed. A voice in static and broken English ordered me to go to the door where the first officer who had pointed to the buzzer stood. He repeated that the door was locked. I fucking knew that. He nodded and shrugged. I went back and buzzed again. The same disembodied broken-English voice told me to go back to where the officer was. I did. My visible exasperation finally convinced the guy to shout something inside and someone opened the opaque glass door into a waiting room where another dejected couple sat. I tried to explain to the policeman what had happened to me. He told me that it was Sunday so there was no one there to take a report. Meanwhile I could hear at least five or six men arguing Italian style behind another set of opaque doors. Their gestures, accompanied by the shouting, looked like a surreal shadow-puppet show.
I glanced at the couple seated in a corner. The man started speaking to me in Italian and gesturing a “thieving” sign. I nodded.
He nodded back. “Me too,” he said in English.
“But you’re Italian,” said Carolyn.
He bent his head in shame. “Si,” he said. He pointed to a document posted on the wall moments before he and his wife were taken behind the second opaque glass wall. We went to look. It was a listing of phone numbers for credit card companies. Two of the numbers were for Visa.
Carolyn began to dictate the first. “It’s one number short,” she said.
Of course, I thought to myself. I dialled the second one. After the welcome and “You are important to us” message I was put on hold. Finally, a woman who sounded Indian told me that I had reached Miami. She wanted to hear my story and asked me security questions. After three people from three other parts of the world offered their condolences and made me spell my name umpteen times, I was finally connected to my Montreal bank, which got them to cancel my cards. While I was on hold for the second or third time, I casually put my foot up on a stylish coffee table. Immediately, the police officer who refused to talk to me before reprimanded me for having my foot on the table. From his tone and gestures, I think he was asking me if I was raised in a barn.
One of the call-centre ladies proceeded to give me a chain of numbers to write down as a reference number for our conversation. As I started to put on my reading glasses, one of the earpieces broke off. I cradled the phone, scribbling numbers on the back of our metro map while trying to keep my glasses on.
Just then the Italian couple re-appeared from behind closed doors. The guy started to talk to me, but I couldn’t listen to him and the call center lady and write down the important information all at the same time. “Bonna fortuna,” I mumbled, waving. We left shortly after that.
As we walked out into the 38-degree heat, Carolyn said, to make me feel better, I suppose, “You know that couple that just left? They had their suitcases ripped off.” I was more amazed and less pissed off.