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Posts tagged ‘mugging in Barcelona’

Notes on a Mugging

Gerona. It’s amazing how fast things happen. One minute you’re chomping merrily on dumplings, the next you’re being dragged down an alley in the Barrio Gotic by the strap of your handbag. But this story begins 60 miles outside of Barcelona, in the peaceful countryside surrounding Gerona.

“Fireball” and I woke up for one last leisurely morning at the rural Can Solanas B&B. Our enchanting hostess Lourdes prepared a typical Catalan breakfast of toast, manchego, tomatoes, chorizo, and spanish pâté. We were instructed to cut a tomato in half, smear its pulp on the toast, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, then finally top with meat and cheese, an assembly known as torrada in Catalan. We ate merrily in our private sitting room that overlooked the garden. After breakfast we retired to the sun-drenched, ivy-lined balcony off our bedroom to wait for our ride to the barn.

At the barn, we geared up for one last trail ride. Our zealous guide Rafa expressed in his best Spanglish that some parts of the trail would be dangerous and we would have to “back line!” After a few quick glances of consternation on our parts, he befuddledly corrected himself, “o, line back!” We figured he meant lean back and were terribly excited at the prospect of a steep hack. We were further encouraged by Rafa’s careful selection of a machete as his instrument of choice for the day’s ride.

Five of us set out across the vast expanses of brilliantly yellow canola plants, picking up a gallop that sent horse-hoof shaped clumps of turf flying at me, striking my chest with a thud. It was thrilling. This must be how jockeys feel, I thought, or fighter pilots.

Once past the low flats we entered the thicket, Rafa valiantly whipping out his machete and slashing us a clear path. The unbridled ruggedness of the terrain made it more Amazonian rainforest than Spanish countryside, the intermittent splash of rain adding to the effect.

After 3 exhilarating hours in the saddle we came to a clearing with a handful of poplars. We tied one horse per tree and let them graze in the shade while we made our way towards a fancy but completely empty restaurant. We had the entire place all to ourselves! We dined on salmon doused in gravy with tempura vegetables.

After lunch, Rafa scooted his chair back from the table, crossed his arms, lowered his chin to his chest, and dozed off for a mini siesta while the rest of us had dessert and coffee. I marveled at his evidently well trained ability to sleep on command. He awoke 20 minutes later, bright eyed, bushy tailed, and ready to lead us back into the fray from atop his fiery black stallion.

Back at the barn, we detacked our horses and said our goodbyes to our new friends at Equinatur Hipica. “Fireball” and I boarded the train in Gerona, assisting each of our stiff legs on board manually. An hour later we were navigating the Barcelona train station in search of a metro that would take us to the upper east corner of the city where we had rented a room from a host on Airbnb. Since we had had such an outstanding Airbnb rental record in both London and Brussels we were stunned to find that our Barcelona quarters were half what we had expected. First of all, we (naively) misread the room description on the site and assumed the listing was for TWO bedrooms. What we found was one room, and not just any room, a tiny one with a 3/4 size bed. That’s halfway between a twin and a full. Apparently our host was confused by our correspondence and thought we were traveling as a couple so she relegated the two of us to one puny bed.

The room cost a whopping 50 euro a night as well. We could have stayed in a hostel in a private room for that cost. Needless to say we were terribly depressed. Since Fireball had landed crookedly in the stirrup after a big jump earlier that day, her fast inflating ankle was causing her a great deal of pain. We spent the night, cramped like sardines and miserable. The next morning we woke up and headed straight out the door in search of some of Gaudi’s masterpieces. Since it was the Monday following Easter, almost everything was closed, except for the Gaudi buildings which meant that lines of tourists AND locals clogged the sidewalks. Depressed, we wandered back to our dismal rental “cell” and sulked.

I checked my email to find a terrifying message from my friend “the Muse” back in Paris saying “I’m at the hospital I got attacked, my head is bleeding and got hit hard on head with a camera, lots of blood and feel dizzy. Please come to the hospital or send someone”. I immediately called a mutual friend who was already on the way to the hospital. Apparently the Muse had been mugged in broad daylight while on a walk in the 20th. Two black teenage boys approached her, grabbed her iphone, struck her on the head with her camera, than ran off with the rest of her belongings leaving her in a pool of blood, collapsed on the street. A passerby chased after the two attackers and was able to recuperate her purse but not her phone or camera. I have never heard of such outright violence happen to any of my friends in Paris, let alone in the middle of a sunny afternoon on the way to the park. Fireball and I should have taken it as a sign to proceed with extreme caution…You never think it’s going to happen to you until it’s actually happening to you.

The heartbreaking news of the Muse’s assault, coupled with two and half weeks of travel stress between Fireball and me plus the pain of Fireball’s gimp ankle plus the discomfort of our confined  quarters finally broke us. “Fuck it”, I said, “let’s get the hell out here and go back to the B Hotel. We need to take care of ourselves tonight”. A sense of relief washed over us as Fireball frantically packed and I rapidly booked us a room on Splendia. The only trace we left behind was a hasty message scribbled on a cocktail napkin explaining “something has come up and we have to leave. Thank you, Goodbye”. We were out the door in under 5 minutes.

We were greeted at the B Hotel with some déja vu confusion. “Is there something wrong? Did you forget something?” the front desk personnel asked. No, no, we assured them, we just loved it here so much last week that we had to come back. The staff must have appreciated our loyalty because they gave us two welcome drink tickets and a room upgrade. We took our room key, dropped off our stuff, threw on dresses, and headed straight to the rooftop pool to enjoy our welcome drink before the pool closed. We were tickled pink; we must have been the happiest little pigs in all of Barcelona! When the pool bar closed at 9 pm we headed back to our rooms to make dinner plans. Fireball did some research and found a New York Times review of a dim sum restaurants called Mosquito. It sounded cool, especially since we were a bit sick of heavy Spanish food, plus it would fulfill our appetite for tapas.

We marked the location on our map and set off. We took the metro to the Catalunya station and started walking. The surrounding area quickly devolved into a seedy residential neighborhood with dark characters hanging out in small groups. We both had a bad feeling but when we saw the restaurant a little ways off we figured we had come to far to turn back. The restaurant was everything the article said it would be, cheap tapas with an Asian twist. The crowd was international. On one side of our table was a group of expat Americans, on the other a franco-spanish couple that swayed effortlessly between the two languages. We were proud that we had picked such a clearly trendy and in-the-know locale. We each drank a pint of beer, not enough to make us drunk, but just enough to make us happy. We left feeling so pleased with ourselves for having surreptitiously left our Airbnb rental, resourcefully discovered a new restaurant, and proudly overcome our hesitations about the neighborhood. We decided to take the most direct path to the nearest metro, which was a straight 450 m shot. We chatted merrily as we made our way back towards civilization.

We had just passed a dark street crossing when I saw a man out of the corner of my eye reach for my bag from behind. I turned away, shielding my bag, and shouted “no” firmly. This tactic has always worked for me in the past. Usually the perpetrator tries to laugh it off like ‘ho ho ho I didn’t mean to stick my hand in your purse! how silly of me!”. Usually. But this was no usual robbery. By the time I had said “no” a second, larger man was lunging towards me aiming for my camera. Earlier I had strapped myself into my purse and camera in a crisscross, which meant that now when the thieves were each pulling on one side, I was jostled back and forth in a violent tug of war. There was no way they could break my industrial camera strap or leather bag strap without breaking me too. I started screaming when they pushed me against a wall. Within seconds I was on the ground, being dragged by both straps. At this point the larger of the two men lunged at Fireball to get at her bag, which was similarly slung across her body. By now my bag and camera had been wrestled free and the thief had taken off up the alley.

I scrambled to my feet to find the pieces the memory card, battery, and scratched up body of my camera strewn across the ground. My ipod touch had also managed to pop out of my bag. As it turned out this would be the only silver lining to the night. I collected what few belongings I had left (including my broken eye glasses) and ran up the street yelling for Fireball. I turned a corner and saw her lying in the street, clutching her purse-less purse strap. Her finger, which had been wrapped in the strap in an attempt to keep her bag from choking her while her attacker dragged her, was starting to swell. By now local residents had come down from their apartments, some having even witnessed the attack from the vantage points of their balconies. One group of roommates told us they dropped a flower pot in an attempt to knock out one of the attackers but it missed. What a shame.

The police arrived on the scene and took our names and ages. The locals complained to the police that this kind of crime was getting out of hand and that they needed to do more to clean up the neighborhood. A few people said that they had even seen those same two thieves try to steal a man’s iphone a few nights before. One kind man took pity on the pair of us in our trembling state and brought us some budwiesers to lift our moods. By this point Fireball’s finger had doubled in size and we needed to get her to the hospital. When the ambulance arrived we clambered in, she in the back, and me in the front trying to explain what had happened in terribly broken spanish. We were escorted to the emergency room where a nurse x-rayed Fireball’s finger, deemed it fractured, and bound it in a simple splint. As she was in considerable pain, the nurse offered her a shot of morphine. Now Fireball was wearing a long thin dress that night, and in an attempt to avoid pesky panty lines she had forgone underwear. So she was not too keen on exposing her back side to a stranger. We asked the nurse for “dos segundos” while I scrambled out of my underwear, turned them inside out and handed them over to Fireball. Apparently it didn’t matter because after solo un segundo the nurse came back in to find us hopping around juggling a pair of purple hanky pankys. As if the night hadn’t been traumatic enough!

I went back out into the waiting room to talk to the staff about how to get back to our hotel. They suggested walking though it was probably 2 kilometres away. I looked at them incredulously and asked “seriously? You want us to walk alone, at night, after we just got mugged while walking alone, at night?” They reconsidered and decided a cab would be a better option. Fireball came out with her x-ray printout and paperwork and we loaded into a taxi. Luckily she had been smart enough to squirrel some cash away in her suitcase, so once we arrived at the hotel we were able to pay the taxi driver. We made the requisite phone calls to our parents and boyfriends via Skype from my ipod and computer. Since the emergency room could only perform the most basic of procedures we had been instructed to continue onto the Clinica where Fireball could have a cast put on. We wrapped up our phone calls, armed ourselves with about 55 €, and headed back out into the night (circa 4 am).

While waiting for Fireball’s temporary cast at the Clinica, the extent of what had been taken began to sink in: her Blackberry, Mason Pearson hairbrush, and new Marc by Marc Jacobs bag, my brand new See by Chloé bag and most heartbreakingly of all, my passport with all my stamps and my two french visas, one from when I studied abroad in college, and my current one. I had worked so hard to get those visas and they were gone. What’s more, I had idiotically stuck my recently earned french Carte de Séjour in my passport. This was a completely unneccessary move as I wouldn’t need my carte de séjour for any travel purposes. Something I had worked a good 6 months to obtain and something that would have no monetary value to a thief was gone just like that.

The next morning, or rather a few hours later, Fireball took the earliest flight out, eager to get back to Paris. Meanwhile I set out for the U.S. consulate. I had no proof of identity (even my Sorbonne student I.D. had been stolen) so I had to do the prerequisite swearing up and down that I was in fact who I said I was. I went through the security check and was directed to a building in the back. I signed in with a nice lady at the front desk and explained my predicament. She asked me to fill out some forms and said a temporary passport would cost 100€ but then I could send it in for a full passport at no additional cost. She directed me to the photo booth to have my passport picture taken. I have never looked so mean and sad for a government i.d. in my life.

Back in the waiting room I overheard a handful of my compatriots sharing “how I got robbed” stories. Since Monday had been a bank holiday, Tuesday marked three days of accumulated crimes and stolen passports that needed to be accounted for. I starting up a conversation with a good looking couple from Colorado. The wife explained that they were in town visiting her sister who had been living in Barcelona for some 15 odd years. The sister picked them up from the airport and drove them straight to lunch. She parked the car along the beachfront and helped her guests cover their luggage with some blankets. When the group returned from a fine seafood lunch, they found a completely gutted car. The thieves had taken the couple’s suitcases, both their laptops, presents for their family in Spain, everything. All the couple had left was the clothes on their backs and his passport. The wife had left hers in her carryon.  I then regaled them of Fireball’s and my experience. I wondered out loud “I keep looking for it but I can’t find the moral to this story.” The husband replied, “sometimes there isn’t any”.

Maybe he was right. Maybe we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. When Fireball and I left that restaurant we honestly thought we were taking the safest route home. It was after all, the shortest, most direct line to the metro.

If I could go back and change the events of the hours leading up to our attack they would be as follows: Fireball and I should have taken the news of the attack on the Muse by two men in broad daylight to mean that violent muggings can and will happen when you least expect it. We thought we were safe in numbers, and we assumed the area was ok because we found the restaurant through the New York Times. The instant we felt unsafe though (on our way to the restaurant that is) we should have turned around. There is no better alarm system that your gut instinct. The second thing I would change is that I would have left my passport and carte de séjour in the hotel safe. Credit cards you can cancel, purses you can replace, but the 12 months of paperwork, embassy visits, doctors appointments, administrative fees, and general bureaucratic bullshit that I had to endure to obtain my two french visas and my much coveted carte de séjour I will never get back. And since I plan on leaving Paris in the end of June, I won’t have time to get a full passport in order to get a new visa in order to get a new carte de séjour by my departure date. I’m not handing over my temporary, emergency passport until I’m safe on American soil once again.

Finally, I needed to view my trip to Barcelona not as a weekend holiday but as a real, serious trip to a potentially dangerous place. Fireball was wise to get travel insurance beforehand, which covered her hospital fees and extra hotel stays during her recovery from surgery. Turns out her injury was much more serious than the Spanish doctors had thought. It’s funny how things come full circle. Fireball broke her finger while struggling to protect herself from getting strangled in the strap of her Marc Jacobs bag, and Marc Jacobs’ hand surgeon fixed her finger. I don’t think I would have purchased insurance for the trip, but I should have taken it more seriously.  I think I was under the impression that I had been so thoroughly Europeanized that I was not as easy of a target as your typical American tourist. That was naive and arrogant thinking. Even though I’ve lived in Paris for a while, I will always be an easy target because there aren’t many countries in the world where I look like a local (Scandinavia excluded).

I really thought Barcelona had improved, but I should have known better. The last time I was there was the summer of 2007 with some UVA friends. We were drinking champagne on the boardwalk and after polishing off the bottle one friend ceremoniously tossed it over the side. Mind you we were on a second floor boardwalk, meaning that there were clubs and bars below us. We turned to walk down the stairs that led to the lower level when we were confronted by three large bouncers. “We know you were the ones who threw the bottle”, they growled. “You could have killed someone standing in line for our club”. They encircled us, spat on us, and then left us all dumbfounded and shaken up. Needless to say we pointedly avoided their club. Later that night when we were walking home, we saw those same three thugs. Two were holding a man suspended in the air by his hands and feet and the third was relentlessly kicking him in the gut. It was not a pretty sight. Then and there I vowed never to come back to Barcelona. I guess time made my memory fuzzy.
Things to Remember for future travels: Trust your gut. If you feel unsafe, turn around and go on to plan B. Stash little piles of cash in various places. Don’t ever carry it all with you. Don’t carry all your credit cards together either. If your accommodation seems secure enough, leave your passport there (in a safe ideally) and carry a photocopy with you. If you have to carry your passport keep it under your clothing. And finally, always wear underwear. You never know when you might end up in a foreign hospital and need a shot in our bum.