Monday, May 18, 2009

Too Many Money Belts

As a Traveler in Italy I Find Out That Worrying 
About Theft Can Steal From the Fun

Copyright 2009 Elliott Joseph

June 2009

"You're going to Italy?  Watch out for the gypsies -- and those bag snatchers on their scooters!"

It wasn't the first time my wife and I had gotten such hair raising advice.  On our way to Ecuador and Peru a few years ago, we were told to avoid crowds in outdoor markets, and not to take trains or go into the Andes.  Pretty hard to do if you're going to Otavalo and Machu Picchu. And another time, friends warned us not to be out after dinner in St. Petersburg, White Nights to the contrary. 

Mercifully, nothing unpleasant happened in either of those trips, but now, evidently, we were about to travel to a country that had a nasty reputation for trouble.

Preparing to go to Rome, Umbria and Tuscany, I found that even the guidebooks rang the alarm about security.  They advised us to be very careful with our cash, traveler's cheques, credit cards and passports, not to carry a camera hanging loosely on a shoulder, and to have back-up photocopies of key documents handy.

My head had already been filled with well advertised pictures of thievery plaguing the unwary traveler in hotel rooms, on the beach and in restaurants.  So I thought I'd better look beyond the Botticellis, Bellinis and Michelangelos I was going to see, and think about more than the Chianti Classico, antipasto and pasta I would be enjoying.

Did not the Italians of old fortify their towns with stone walls?  Were not yesterday's protective steps taken by Siena, Perugia and Orvieto saying something to the tourist of today?  What should my own high ground be in preparation for a pilgrimage to yes, the land of Dante and Verdi, but also -- let it be whispered -- the Mafia?  How could I protect my wife and myself and our belongings from the dark side of our beloved Italians?

Giving in to my fears, I set about trying to develop schemes that would outsmart the wrongdoer, from the opportunistic to the most determined.

First, my person.  Under my shirt I would wear two money belts, one with the pouch in the small of my back, and the other on my stomach, where I could occasionally rest my  hand protectively.  I would also wear a hidden pocket, which would hook through my belt and flip inside my pants to rest next to my appendix.  This would be my accessible in and out facility. My pants pockets would hold only tissues, comb and less than ten dollars in euros.

I insisted that my wife wear a small money belt around her waist under her blouse, pointing out that the type that hung from the neck would be subject to a harmful wrenching by a heartless thug.  I urged her to secure any bag she might carry by keeping its strap across her body, and that the contents be dispensable  She resisted, but resigned herself after hearing the argument I presented based on the frightening reports of pickpockets, hordes of children who would surround you, and desperate mothers with starving babies in their arms, who would burn their fingers into your flesh until you surrendered your valuables.

I made lists of serial numbers, flight numbers, and critical telephone numbers to call in case of loss.  I took out insurance.  And then, to go the guidebooks one better, I made three sets of photocopies of the lists and of our important documents, one to carry in my day pack, one for the luggage and one to leave home for safe keeping.  I developed a maze of file folders and envelopes to hold all these papers, and confuse anyone trying to poke through my things.

As the day of our departure approached, I was so on edge I had barely enough wits to pack my clothing and toiletries properly.  My wife went about her own preparations with equanimity, something I wished I could afford, though I told myself I was justified doing what I was doing for our mutual safety.

In my last minute preparations I memorized "113," the police emergency telephone number, and reviewed the Italian vocabulary in my phrase book that I would need to help thwart, overcome or otherwise deal with danger.  Aiuto! (Help!)  Al Ladro!  (Stop Thief!)  Se ne vada! (Go away!)  Mi lasci in pace!  (Leave me alone!).

Then, with one foot out the door, I got a brilliant idea.  I'd take along the old cane I had hanging in the closet.  I recalled once reading about an eighteenth century traveler being very cautious when he noticed a man walking toward him with a stout stick in his hand.  I'd carry my cane, and perhaps there would be a similar message in it for some potential trouble maker.

And so I was ready!

And what happened?  Niente!  Per niente!

Maybe the cane had something to do with it.  Some people seemed to feel sorry for me, thinking I was disabled.  A few gave me a wide berth, perhaps thinking I could be aggressive. Most ignored me as just another guy with a cane.  It had some use helping me walk up steep streets in hill towns and up some steps in Rome.  After a while, though, it was simply one more thing to carry, and a nuisance in restaurants.

As for gypsies, I saw a half dozen colorfully dressed smiling young children one day on the Piazza Barberini about thirty yards away.  No one was paying any attention to them.

Everywhere there was so much traffic and so few sidewalks that the scooters and motorcycles, which were so loud you could hear them coming two blocks away, had all they could do to avoid hitting pedestrians, or getting swatted themselves by a Fiat or Lancia.  I soon got tired shoving my wife protectively against the building walls, especially since it only encouraged her to window shop, and joined the natives walking blithely down the street as vehicles streamed by.

I had been avoiding groups of men congregated on corners and in piazzas until I lost patience wandering without directions, and discovered how open they were to an inquiry, and with what animated delight they waved me toward my destination.  How many times I enjoyed hearing their musical Prego to my grateful Grazie.

Whatever city or town I was in, people were gabbing, laughing, shopping, going about their business, eating ice cream or kicking a ball.  They had far more on their mind than my pockets.

Maneuvering through the streets and seeing the sights during the warm days, I sweated, drenched in my money belts.  When I needed some cash or a credit card I had to go through contortions to get them.  I suffered, but I persisted.  Then one day, my wife said she had been eating so much she could no longer get into her tan slacks, which I knew she loved, if she had to wear her money belt.  I was almost ready to put on hers,, too, but at that point decided that I had had it with money belts, and put them in the sack I was carrying.

I was feeling pretty good about easing up, and even joined my wife shopping.  I had to cash some travelers cheques, and went into a bank, passing through its revolving security chamber that slowly lets one person in and out at a time.  But at the counter I couldn't find my passport. A catastrophe!  Someone had stolen my passport!

"Calm yourself," said my wife.  "It's probably misfiled."

I emptied my money belts.  Gone!  Back at the hotel room, I opened every folder and every envelope.  Nothing.  The passport was supposed to be in the money belt I had worn in the small of my back.  Why oh why had I not kept it on instead of carrying it?

"Maybe it's here in your sports jacket."

"Why would it be there?" I cried.  "Would I leave my passport hanging in the closet?"

"I don't know.  Look."

And so it was, together with my wife's.  I had been wearing the jacket when we checked in several days before, and had put the passports in the breast pocket when the hotel clerk returned them to me after we registered.  They had been there in the closet since then, and for all I know could have remained there unbothered.

It turned out I was to have no terrible news to convey about the trip, no frightening reports to add to the warnings I had received, only tales of fun and pleasure.

One of our last stops was Lucca.  Surrounding the city, which is set on a fertile plain before a range of soft mountains, are its broad, ancient protective ramparts, now a beautiful elevated park, the Passeggiate delle Mura.  On its tree-lined avenue, forbidden to automotive traffic, we found ourselves among joggers, strollers, lovers and cyclists enjoying their city.  I twirled my cane playfully, feeling tutto va bene.

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