We’ve only had a few experiences with crime during our international travels over the years. This is the one that still bothers me the most: During a May 2010 trip to Lisbon, a gypsy stole my iPhone. The reason it bothers me? It was my fault.
Lisbon is a beautiful, ramshackle city, and Steph and I fell in love with it during our first trip there with the kids the previous winter. So much so that we decided to visit again, just the two of us, a year later. He had visited all the big sights on our first trip, so we focused on walking around its gorgeous neighborhoods, and of course eating and drinking.
On our last night, we splurged on a decent restaurant in the Alfama, the oldest and most ramshackly part of Lisbon. Like many establishments in the area, it was set deep into a stone structure, almost like a cave. And we were ushered back, literally, to the back wall of the restaurant, in the second of two main dining rooms.
Looking back on this now, I should have questioned this seating, since there was room in the front dining room, closer to the entrance. But at the time, I just thought it was pretty, and quiet, and that it would be a safe spot to eat. I was aware that my iPhone, still an expensive curiosity in Europe at that time, would be the target of pickpockets and thieves. But here, I could safely leave it on the table, which I did, next to the back wall.
Before long, a gypsy woman—a Roma, as they’re called in Europe—approached the table. I was ready for her, I thought, and I was well aware of the various scams for which these people are infamous. She was holding some big sheets of paperwork, like for a lottery-style game where you pay some money and pull off paper tabs. And she explained excitedly in broken English that she had a baby and that this could help.
I don’t like being scammed. And I didn’t appreciate the brazenness it must have taken to approach us deep inside a restaurant. So I told her, no, I wasn’t interested, in increasingly hostile tones. She laid the papers in front of me, and pointed at them, begging me to help. No, I kept saying. I am not interested. Please leave.
So she did. She scooped up the papers and left.
I looked at my wife, exasperated. We complained to each other about being harassed in a restaurant like that, how terrible it was. And then I looked down at the table. Where my iPhone had been. The gypsy had stolen it. Had scooped it up with the papers she took when she left.
A new wave of anger swept over me. This phone, an iPhone 3GS, was expensive, even more so because I had overcome my inner cheapness at purchase time and had actually opted for the most expensive version with more storage. I had paid AT&T some ungodly sum of money to be able to use the phone in Europe—remember, this was 2010, when international plans were slower, more restrictive, and even more expensive than they are now—and now it was gone.
I jumped up, raced to the front of the restaurant, pushed aside our startled waiter, and ran out into the busy, crowded, and twilight-lit streets of the Alfama. The gypsy was nowhere to be seen. She, too, was gone.
Returning to the restaurant, I explained what had happened to the waiter. He seemed shocked and outraged by this intrusion and found the owner, who likewise expressed anger and disbelief. He asked me if I’d like him to call the police—yes—and whether there was anything else he could do.
Actually, there is, I said, and I asked him if he had a computer I could use. He did, up in an attic office, so I used it to access my AT&T account so I could register the phone as stolen and turn off the service immediately. (These days, stealing an iPhone isn’t as lucrative, as it won’t be usable by thieves once the owner reports it was stolen. But in 2010, the phone was theirs to use. All I could do was protect my account.)
I appreciated the chance to access my AT&T account. But as I did that, I also started to wonder if the restaurant, or least our waiter, was in on the theft. After all, how had this obvious scam artist made her way in and out through the first dining room without being seen and immediately identified? There’s no way to really know, of course. But to this day, I still question this.
The police were useless. They did drive us to a police station over by Rossio, which was a weird experience, and we did fill out a report. But my iPhone was never coming back, and I never expected it to. When I got back to the States, I ended up replacing it with a much cheaper and older iPhone 3G model that I always vaguely resented.
What bothered me most about this incident—what still rankles me to this day—is that I thought I was ready to deal with this kind of thing. I had come to Lisbon open-eyed and aware of the potential for pickpocketing and theft, and I knew that scammers were around looking for rubes. I saw the gypsy walk up to the table and resolved then to just handle the situation. And yet I fell for this simple ruse. It was humiliating.
We’ve had other, more minor incidents while traveling. I was actually pickpocketed on an overly-crowded bus in Rome while I protected my daughter from the throng. And we were clearly being followed by a thief on time in an otherwise empty section of the Paris Metro. But we’ve mostly been lucky, and, I thought, prepared. But this incident ate away at my confidence in a way the others had not. I’m still really burned about it.
In fact, I joke about it with Steph and the kids to this day. “Be on the lookout for gypsies,” I’ll say half-jokingly to them as we take a seat at an edge table outdoors at a cafe. I still want to get that damn phone back.