By Peter Preston (THE GUARDIAN, 05/05/08):
It was a gathering of the dispossessed. The blonde girl in short shorts had put her bag between her feet while she paused to eat. When she looked down five minutes later, it was gone. The harassed lady on the corner stool, toiling over her form-filling, was in charge of an entire school trip. Her bag contained everything – cards, identities, insurances. Tap! tap! went a man at the restaurant window. She glanced up from her food to see what he wanted – whereupon that bag went, too. And then, of course, there was us.
Location, location; distraction, distraction. If you’ve travelled the world for half a century and only been mugged three times, that sounds tolerably impressive. LA, Calcutta, Nairobi, Cairo … no problem. But losing your passport three times in Barcelona? That’s a deal more shaming, as my daughter (who lives there) says, labelling her parents “Stupido!” and delivering her umpteenth lecture on the necessities of perennial suspicion and central locking.
Still, test the imbecility factor for yourself. It’s midnight at the airport (two decades ago) and I’m guarding the bags. Five yards ahead, a car has broken down. “Give us a push please,” says the driver, imploring: but when I do, his mate nips round the back, grabs my briefcase, hops into the passenger seat and whizzes off. Idiotic? Yes; though not until after it had happened. Before then, good Samaritans ruled OK.
Two years ago was far more mundane … just a dip in her handbag as an American friend climbed off the train at the Passeig de Gràcia. But last week takes the ground almond biscuit. We’re driving into Barca when a man shouts that a tyre’s gone flat. Beware, be careful … go on for another couple of blocks and stop to look. He’s right. A small, helpful crowd gathers. A particularly helpful guy on a motorbike says there’s a garage 20 metres on. Where? Round the corner. He points. At which precise, distracting point, another man bounds from the other side of the road, whips open the driver’s door, takes my wife’s bag (containing cards, keys, passports, everything) and legs it.
My wife gives fantastic chase. But another man on another motorbike rescues him and they zoom away. It’s a Cecil B DeMille sort of scam, featuring at least five different people – a bigger cast than most West End plays. “Stupido! Stupido!” Except that, four years back, when another tyre went flat in Barcelona, a saintly jogger helped us change it and wouldn’t take a cent for a drink to say thanks. The trouble with muggings, and stories of muggings, is that they always make you expect the worst. They’re great curdlers of human nature.
But now, duly curdled, we must contemplate the rituals of robbery again. The trip to the police station; the wait in a desultory line of Japanese, Germans and generally miserable robbed; the painful failure at Catalan speaking; the familiar pink form to be filled in and taken to Her Britannic Majesty’s consular finest (who knock off at 1.30pm for the day, so come back tomorrow).
They’re pleasant enough at the consulate when they’re there. They smile and seem only one bitten lip away from telling us to have a good day. Too damned cheery? Perhaps. The girl in shorts was going on to Venice with her boyfriend, but now it looks more like Luton airport. The husband of the school-trip victim, waiting at home, seems more into remonstration than support: but, then, we’re under family fire ourselves. However, it’s the cost of calamity that takes your breath away.
That will be £71.50, says consular girl as she hands over two sheets of vellum. For both? No, each. £143 in all, she adds brightly. “You can pay by credit card if you like.” But our credit cards have been stolen … Give me patience and a dog-eared copy of Catch-22! And thus, scrimping, borrowing, finding a card that works, we pay to be allowed back into Britain before (as it transpires) having to spend £97 a time to leave the country again. Total cost: £337 exacted by the Foreign Office for services fleetingly rendered, a virtual tax on afflicted citizens. Oh! and would we like to contribute any leftover coins to the Barcelona survival fund for destitute Brits?
So: three times scammed, three times humiliated, three times ripped off (by Spanish gangs and our own beloved government). Three times instructed to trust no one, help no one, drive on by. Three times a weary tick in police report boxes. It’s not victimless crime, because your own self-esteem is the victim. It’s not solely Spanish crime, either, because the American lady at Gràcia then had her purse picked in Westminster Abbey. It’s just the high price of trusting nobody in a world where trust comes at £71.50 a throw. Stupido! Stupido!