What the Traveling Writer Endures while in Search of the American Dream
By Norma Jaeger Hopcraft
This week, we're back to Barcelona, where I lived for 3 months as a nanny in order to extend my one-year creative writing sabbatical.
Today I tell you the story of how I was robbed on the stairs you see directly below. I was sitting on the stairs leading up to the right--a mistake, since it was out of view of people in the courtyard. But that's where I was able to tap into the library's wifi, because the library was closed.
When the police came, I experienced a huge cultural disparity that made the situation worse.
The stairs lead up to the Biblioteca de Catalunya. It was built in the 1300s as a hospital.
I sat on the stairs one Saturday needing Wifi to find an English-speaking 12-Step meeting--I was bruised by the Catalan boys' disrespect (that story is two below this one, or here), feeling low, and knew a meeting would bless me. The library was closed, but I wondered if its wifi would reach outside the thick stone walls so I could Google the location of a meeting starting soon.
So I sat on the stairs in view of people in the courtyard, but there was no Wifi. So I moved up the stairs, turned a corner, and was all alone, out of sight of everyone. But the Wifi worked there. I quickly logged in and started Googling.
Suddenly a slight young dark-haired man was in front of me holding out his business card. I was uneasy, but then again he didn't look dangerous.
"Why are you here?" he said in accented English.
"I'm looking for wifi."
"Wifi?" he said, waving the card in front of me. "Wifi!"
I had the library's wifi, I didn't need his, so I said no, thank you. He moved up the stairs to stand next to me and I turned me head, away from my backpack (where my wallet rested on top, since I'd needed the library card inside it to log into Wifi).
"Wifi? he said, waving the card again. Then he leaned in close, holding the card near my eyes. I looked at the words, in Catalunyan, and waved him away.
He said okay and went down the steps.
I went back to Google for a second, then felt like something was wrong. I saw my wallet was gone. I slipped my laptop as fast as possible into my backpack--it had all my work in it, I couldn't leave it on the steps unguarded--and raced down the steps.
"Thief!" I shouted.
A man in a yellow shirt came up to me and blocked my path. "You were robbed?" he said in accented English. I kept looking for the young dark-haired man, and Yellow Shirt kept bobbing in front of me. "Robbed?" I was looking around wild-eyed for my wallet, for someone who spoke English to help me.
Then a man with a red plaid shirt that hung outside his pants came up to me holding my wallet. "You?" he said.
I was so relieved to see my wallet, and I didn't know what this man's intentions were either, so I snatched it out of his hand.
"You come with," he said.
I stared at him, my heart pounding, clutching my wallet to my chest.
"Who are you?"
Yellow Shirt was still bobbing around me, giving me a threatened feeling, and I had just been robbed. I didn't know who to trust.
"Identificacion," I said.
Red shirt dug a wallet out of his pants pocket and showed me a card through the wallet's plastic window. It was completely unconvincing--I had expected to see a shiny badge.
"You come," he said.
I pushed his wallet back at him and said, "Identificacion!" again.
He lifted his red plaid shirt, and there was something black tucked into the waistband of his pants. What was that? He had another wallet?
"Identificacion!" I said.
He pulled the black thing up a bit and I saw it was a small handgun.
Well, I wasn't going anywhere with an unknown man who had had my wallet in his hand and who I now saw had a gun tucked into his waistband.
"Senora," an old toothless man said, sitting by the courtyard fountain. "La." and he pointed to a restaurant on the other side of the courtyard. I ran to it, confused, overwhelmed with men trying to steal from me when all I'd wanted to do was Google a meeting.
I sat on a bench of people waiting to be seated at the restaurant. A nice, American young man said, "Are you okay?"
"I think I'm in great danger," I said -- but I was half-smiling, maybe as a nervous reaction. The young man didn't offer to help.
Just then two uniformed policemen came through the restaurant's wrought iron gate and came up to me slowly. To my immense relief, the handsomest one spoke excellent English.
"There are all kinds of people trying to steal from me in the courtyard," I said. "I can't believe how many."
"You are safe with the man with the handgun. He's a police officer."
"But when I asked for identification, he didn't show me a badge."
"He showed you his revolver. Only police in Spain carry revolvers."
"Well, in America, where I come from, every crazy person carries a gun," I said. "There was no way I was going with him to some unknown place."
"We want you to come to the police station to file a complaint," he said. "We caught the two thieves. In court someday we'll need you to identify them."
"Was one of them the man in a yellow shirt?"
"No, he was just some guy. He was trying to add to the confusion to block the police."
What a nightmare.
So I walked through Barcelona's ancient streets to the police station on La Rambla, the biggest tourist street in the city.
"Thieves are a huge problem here," the handsome policeman said. "That police officer was undercover to try to protect tourists and control the problem. But the law is lenient, and so are the judges. That thief will be back on the streets sooner than you will be today."
In the police station, I filled out forms. The officer in the red plaid shirt walked by. I felt bad that I'd been so uncooperative.
"Lo siento," I'm sorry, I said. He smiled and went back out the door to the streets.
I thought about writing a letter to someone in Barcelona to tell them that a man in plainclothes showing a revolver to American tourists would not reassure them. It was important that it not keep happening. But was my Spanish up to the task? Was Google Translate? And who would I send it to? No, it would be a waste of time.
Putting it all on the line for my art, and for my search for the American Dream
What was I doing, living with impossible boys, far from home and family? I felt very desolate that afternoon.
While I filled out forms and gave my Catalan family's address and agreed to testify when the case came up in a few months, I saw what could have happened to me.
Two young girls from Sweden were also filing a complaint. The police officer explained that their handbags had been stolen with all their money, credit cards, passports and plane tickets home.
Yikes! I'd been spared so much grief when the undercover policeman recovered my wallet. And let me snatch it from his hand.
I thanked my Higher Power that, even though I hadn't gotten to a meeting, he had been taking care of me.
St. Josep's market on La Rambla. Enjoy! But watch your wallet!
A meat counter in St. Josep's.
The candy counter.
Fruit and fruit juices!
More hams, bacons. It's a great market. How about you? Ever had your wallet lifted? Comment below!