Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Experience of Being Robbed on the Rome Subway

Entry for 24-26 November 2006:

We had walked around the center of Rome for several hours, seeing the usual tourist things: Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon (our favorite!), Piazza Venetia, Colloseum, the Circus Maximus. We were tired but looking forward to dinner with Alberto and the Italian Person-Centered Association Board. Changing trains at Termini station, we were packed like sardines onto the train for Flaminio. I was using both arms to hang onto to overhead handhold, in order to brace myself in the crowd. As we came into Repubblica Station, I felt a strange sensation of lightness in my right front pocket, where I had put my wallet for safety; however I was so crowded into place that I was unable to move until the doors had opened and the pressure of people released. I immediately felt my pocket in order to reassure myself, but was startled to discover that my wallet was not in my pocket. I checked again, then checked my other pockets. I felt stunned, startled, confused, with a growing sense that I had been pick-pocketed. I looked at the people around me; everyone looked normal. I looked around on the floor next to me, in case my wallet had somehow fallen out of my pocket; there was nothing but shoes and floor. An older man had been standing in front of me, but wasn’t there anymore; could it have been him?, I wondered. At some point in this process, the doors had closed and the train had moved on to the next station. I wondered if I should yell out something, but I now felt embarrassed and humiliated for having let myself be to vulnerable, and I didn’t know what I should say. “Stop thief,” seemed like it would be too dramatic, and I felt I didn’t want to make a disturbance. I looked at the people on the train around me, realizing that although the thief might very well have left already, they could still be right there, hidden in the normality of those around me… or not. I felt paralyzed.

It’s hard to tell how much time had passed by this time, or, now 2 days later as I write about it, even what the exact order of events was. But it was only after all this had gone through my mind and I had looked around twice that I said in a low voice to Diane, who was watching me with concern, “I think my wallet is missing. I think I’ve been robbed.” She looked at me, as if to say, “What are you going to do?” I shrugged my shoulders. A woman was looking at me with concern. I told her “My wallet has been stolen.” I heard the word “Rubato,” Italian for “robbed,” rippling away from me through the subway car. She looked concerned, but moved away from me, as if -- I felt -- I was some how infected. “What should we do?,” Diane asked. “There is nothing to do for now,” I said shrugging my shoulders again.

I felt shaken, embarrassed, and guilty that I had messed up our experience here, but also strangely light and vulnerable. However, I was already thinking about what we were going to do about it, once we got somewhere where we could do something. Although still upset, I was already beginning to be resigned to what had happened, and I was also beginning to reflect on the meaning of this experience: I realized that I/we would survive this, it wasn’t absolute catastrophe; I still had my passport. In fact, my wallet had contained only 30 euros and 15 gbp. And Diane was here, so I didn’t have to face dealing with it alone. We were a “we,” and we had resources available to us, including Diane’s purse and our friends at the conference.

We arrived at Flaminio. Diane thought I should find a policeman to report the theft to. We walked to the short distance to the Roma Nord rail station, where we tried to talk to a policeman, who told us he couldn’t speak English. We got on a train we thought was going to the Euclide station, where the hotel was. While we sat there for what seemed like an hour waiting for the train to leave (but was probably only about 20 min), we tried to figure out where we stood and what to do next, what our priorities were.

When we got back to the hotel, we set about canceling our credit cards, and figuring out what else had been in my missing wallet. We made a list, phoned the credit card companies, and by dinnertime had arranged for an emergency card to be couriered to the hotel the next day. We had a lovely meal at a traditional Italian restaurant near the hotel (about which see my next entry, because we went back there again the following night for the conference dinner). Then we took Alberto up on his very generous offer to accompany us to the local police station to fill out a crime report.

The police station was not far from the hotel; it was a slow night in this quiet northern suburb of Rome, so the policeman on duty was able to help us fill out the report, which Alberto handwrote at my dictation. The process took about 20 minutes; the policeman made 4 copies of the report, had me sign them, and handed me a copy to take with me for dealing with the various agencies who were not going to be happy that I had lost their cards and now wanted new ones.

By now the next day, our no-frills emergency credit card has arrived. As we left this morning, Alberto presented me with a tie and a new wallet. Straightening out the rest of the mess will have to wait for several later days.

* * *

Although I have had articles of clothing stolen in the past, I had never had my pocket picked. The strangeness of the experience fascinates me: The initial feeling of lightness in my pocket, my shock and paralysis, the feeling of lightness, vulnerability but also a kind of freedom. The paralysis makes perfect sense as the natural result of surprise and embarrassment, two emotions that motivate stilling oneself or even shrinking back. Why didn’t I feel anger, which would have motivated assertive or even aggressive action? There was no immediate threat to my person, no one menacing, instead only confusion and a community of strangers. The lightness feels something like: “It’s only a wallet; it’s only stuff; it isn’t the essence of who I am that was stolen.” Now it had happened, and there was nothing but the freedom to live into it.

In retrospect, this was an experience that I had feared and prepared for since I first came to Rome with my Grandmother in 1963. In my black hat, tall, I clearly had attracted the thief’s attention as a foreigner and possible target, but there had clearly been a strong element of chance to the event. Still, when we took the same train the next day, I guarded my pocket more carefully, aware that my previous strategy of avoiding theft had not worked and that I needed to be more careful.

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