They looked like the angels in a Renaissance painting -- long titian hair, delicate features, porcelain skin. Three little sisters aged 7, 8 and 9. Pressing against me in front of the Rome railroad terminal, they pleaded for money with tears about to flow down their stricken faces.
"You should have kicked them in the stomach as soon as they came near you," the bus driver commented three minutes later when I told him they had stolen my wallet. Welcome to Europe.
This year thousands of tourists will be robbed in Europe, especially in Italy, Spain and France, in what some travelers have termed the most aggressive attacks they have ever seen. Twenty years ago when I lived in Rome I was amused by tourists who clutched their belongings to their chests and cast suspicious glances at all passers-by. But recently, for a while, I became one of them.
I had been awake all night on the plane, I was carrying two suitcases and was in no condition to fight back. The two older girls distracted me while the youngest, with the deftness of a safecracker and the strength of an arm wrestler, opened a tricky catch on my shoulder bag and removed my wallet. When they saw that I noticed her dipping in again, they ran away. I was a walking mark, the tired and overloaded tourist. But other people I met were robbed while merely walking down the street.
The same children who took my wallet accosted a middle-aged couple a few days later. The three girls surrounded the man, patting and stroking him as they begged for money. They ran off after they had been given some coins -- and had located his wallet in a back pocket.
Finding excuses to touch are a standard ploy with children. One little boy pretended to be angry when told to go away and started to take pokes at a tourist, all the while trying to feel where he kept his money.
Adult robbers usually take a more hit-and-run approach. Most often one or more people will push roughly by the victim so that he does not feel his pocket being picked. Some have almost acrobatic timing. A woman riding a Roman bus lost a valuable diamond ring when another woman seemed to lose her balance and fall toward her, hitting her leg sharply with an attache' case. To ward off the blow, the woman put out her hands. The thief removed the ring from her finger and was out the door before the pain in her leg had subsided enough for her to notice that the ring was gone.
Another woman's arm was hit by a motorcyclist while she was waiting to cross a street. As she straightened her arm, he grabbed the handbag on it and rode away. The bag contained all the money, tickets, passports and other identification she and her husband had.
The best way to deal with robbery is to prevent it. The next best way is to make its impact less damaging. Either way, there have to be trade-offs between safety and enjoyment. There is no point in spoiling your trip with continuous fear. The odds are that you will not be a victim, and you can better those odds by taking a few precautions:
*Wear a money belt to hold your passport, tickets, credit cards, driver's license and money when you do not need immediate access to them. You may prefer pinning a small bag or folded handkerchief inside your clothing.
*Front and below the waist is a good rule for pockets. Back and breast pockets are easy to pick. Deep front pockets on pants and some skirts are much harder to rob. Not only can you see what is going on, but you will be immediately aware of anybody reaching in.
*If two or more of you are traveling together, divide up the cash, credit cards and identification so that even if one of you is robbed, you won't be left stranded.
*Keep one of your credit cards in your money belt or another secure place at all times. There is little danger of a thief using them, because most merchants require passport identification. But if you are planning to charge part of your expenses, the loss of all your cards can be catastrophic. Most of them cannot be replaced until you return home.
*If you carry a handbag, wear it on a long strap slung from one side of your neck to the opposite side and toward the front. Clutch bags and short-handled bags are easy to grab. Backpacks are a cinch to open or to cut. Be particularly watchful at curbs: Thieves on motorbikes and cars hit and run.
*Do not wear valuable jewelry or jewelry that looks valuable (a thief will not take the time to assay gold content.) If your level of travel calls for such elegance, keep your jewelry and other valuables in the hotel safe between showings. When you must take it out on the street or in airports, wear it hidden.
*Carry enough cash in local currency in a money belt or in a shoe to get you through a week-end. Those reassuring travelers' check ads always provide some helpful citizen to take the victim to get his checks replenished. Don't count on it. No money, no taxi -- or a big fight when you expect the driver to wait while you fill out forms.
*Pack extra passport photos and a raised-seal copy of your birth certificate for identification in case you have to replace your passport.
*If someone seems to be a threat or a nuisance, scream. At worst people may think you are just another crazy American. One of your best defenses is to call attention to a potential mugging. Use your own judgment, but thieves rarely carry guns or knives. And they probably have a plan of escape before they approach, so any disturbance is likely to make them run off.
If you are robbed, your next step depends on what was taken. Passports can usually be replaced at the nearest American embassy or consulate within 24 hours -- if you have two pieces of identification of the type that were necessary for obtaining it in the first place, such as a birth certificate or driver's license. An affidavit by a properly identified American who has known you for at least two years may substitute for one of the documents.
Travelers' checks can be reissued quickly at the local office of the company, if you have passport identification and the serial numbers of lost checks. If you cannot provide the serial numbers, the company has to wire the issuing office and the information may take several days to arrive.
Cash can be advanced most quickly on credit cards. Next fastest are American consulates, which can generally provide funds 24 hours after money has been delivered to the State Department. But payments to you can be made only in local currency; any consulate can provide details on the procedure. Banks can telex your bank for funds (although you may want to call also to expedite the matter); this takes about three days.
Credit-card companies can be notified of lost or stolen cards in some cities; the consulates will have the telephone numbers. Headquarters in the U.S. will accept collect telephone calls from overseas to invalidate cards. American Express and some gold cards can be reissued quickly in local offices or banks; most other cards will be mailed to your home address.
If you are destitute in a town that does not have an American consulate, you should go to the local authorities. They will probably contact the consulate for you. How much more help they offer depends on the country, the local jurisdiction and how the officials feel that day. You must file a report of your loss with police in order to file insurance and tax-deduction claims. And reports are a source of government crime statistics for police deployment.
The detective at the police station eyed me wearily after I had written out the report four times. No, there was no carbon paper, all copies had to be original. I was one of a steady stream of victims that poured through the station every day.
"What can we do? Our jails are full."
"You could set out decoys to catch robbers," I said. "I could go out and get myself robbed in 15 minutes." "We cannot arrest children under the age of 14."
"But aren't they breaking the law? Can't the parents be arrested for corrupting them?"
"They are gypsies. Everybody comes here," he said pointedly. "We are a democracy. Our jails are full. We have no more room. It is the same as in New York and Chicago."
There remains a final caveat: Put it all into perspective. Take the same measures you take in the midst of major American cities, but there is no need for carefulness to become an obsession. Once you have taken the basic precautions, enjoy your trip.
Two weeks after I returned home a letter arrived from the consular section of the American embassy in Rome. It contained my credit cards and driver's license, recovered and returned by the Roman police.