Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What I Learned From Getting Robbed in Madrid

The stunning cathedral at Santiago de Compostela
It had to happen sometime...
I've long held that theft during travel is a combination of luck and smarts. I've been traveling on and off for the last 7 years, and I've been generally careful and definitely lucky. In the few small incidents that befell me, the fault was squarely mine: I misplaced valuables that were then swiped by opportunists. But I was never outright robbed until two weeks ago, in a bar called La Morena Cantina in Madrid.

I love La Morena Cantina: it's funky and colorful, like all my favorite spots. Although it's a bit expensive, it has delicious more-or-less authentic tacos and Mexican beer that's hard to find elsewhere. Most importantly, every Thursday it hosts bilingual bar trivia, drawing a mix of Erasmus (exchange) students, English teachers, and Madrileños.

On this particular night I went with a group of a friends to trivia. Tom, Lucia, Elena, and Gianfranco are very nice people I'd met a few times but didn't know particularly well. We had met by chance at the Talavera feria (town-wide festival) in September when I overheard a group of people sitting near me speaking English -- not a common experience. They turned out to be Erasmus students from Italy and the US studying in Madrid. Bilingual trivia was right up their alley.

I had purposely chosen to make a stop in Madrid at the beginning of a long-weekend trip up to Galicia, the Celtic-tinged ultra-green region on Spain's wild northwest coast, to see my friends and squeeze in a little bit of trivia. The Cantina was still empty when I arrived, so I had the pick of seating, an unusual luxury. I was so early that I even had time to ask the waitstaff to stash my backpack (complete with computer) and suitcase in the kitchen. It was a good choice, given what happened later.

As always, I kept my over-the-chest PacSafe shoulder bag with me. It's something I always have on my person. I love it because it's a great size for day trips, allows you to keep your hands free if you are an absent-minded person prone to putting things down without thinking about it (like myself), and has all sorts of safety features. Since it's always with me, my general packing philosophy is that anything I don't want to lose should go into that bag, which meant on this particular night that virtually my entire life was inside. Prepared for my trip the next morning, I had my wallet, camera, mp3 player, prescription medicines, prescription sunglasses, house keys, favorite jewelry, a new book I was excited to read, and on and on and on. Of course, it doesn't matter how many safety features your bag has if you don't use them, and packing so many important things together was about to come back to bite me somewhere unpleasant. 

The trivia started, and we were doing pretty well. The food was delicious, the company was great, and I was so comfortable that I decided to break one of my cardinal rules. I put my bag on the ground, reasoning that it was safe nestled between the back wall, my body/chair, and my friend's body/chair. Mistake.

Then, during a lull in the game, I went to the bathroom. Mistake.

About 15 minutes later, I realized my bag, along with nearly $1000 in valuables and cash (all except my phone, which by some wonderful coincidence had been stuck in my pocket) was just gone. Disappeared. Made off with. Whatever you'd like to call it.

The scene of the crime (except totally full of people)
In the ensuing days, after my panic had subsided a little, I learned some important lessons. I thought I might share them with you:

1) Yes, it's about being smart AND lucky. And that means it's not all your fault.
As I said, I always suspected this; if you had asked me, it's the opinion I would have given. But I don't think I really knew it until now. 

My travels have included both stupendous luck and carefully-maintained levels of security with my belongings. Once on a train in Cornwall I forgot my netbook in an entirely separate train car for 45 minutes, and when I came back it was still there. In Japan I accidentally left a friend's borrowed cell phone at an ATM in a tiny village station when changing trains: when I returned no one had touched it. But I've also taken careful heed of friends' horror stories of thieves on the Madrid metro, keeping my passport carefully tucked away in an under-clothes pouch; after three visits to pickpocket-plagued Barcelona I maintained a 100% success rate by remaining constantly alert, with my bag close to my body.

What this night taught me firsthand is that luck and smarts don't operate separately. Sometimes it doesn't matter how well you care for your belongings: the thieves are just too good at their jobs. All it takes is that one unfortunate intersection, your lapse in judgement and the thief's eagle-eyed hunt. On another night, or even in another few minutes, perhaps my bag might have remained on the ground where I left it. No one else in the bar had an item stolen: I just made an easy mistake in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Over the course of that night and the nights that followed, I had to accept that. What I did wasn't smart, but what happened next wasn't my fault. I can't control my luck; I didn't ask the thief to come looking for me.

2) Sometimes you need to let people be kind to you
As I mentioned, when my bag was stolen I was with a group of very nice people I didn't know very well. We had only spent two nights together previously, a total of perhaps seven or eight hours. Nevertheless, they offered hugs and words of comfort, walked with me to the police station, helped me report my theft, let me use their phones to contact my parents, paid for my food and metro tickets, and were generally indispensable in a situation that would have utterly destroyed me had I been alone. Lucia even spent the majority of the next day helping me go to the health center to navigate the red tape of public medicine without local healthcare, as I was taking antibiotics and needed to replace them immediately.

Throughout the evening and the next day, I felt a constant, low-grade guilt. What were these people doing giving up their hard-won free time and resources for an almost-stranger? Part of me wanted to absolve them of their responsibility, assure them that I could manage on my own, and free them from this annoying and upsetting ordeal. But the truth is that, between the bureaucracy, trauma, and lack of resources (no money, no identification) I couldn't have managed on my own. I needed them around. I needed to let them be generous with me.

A victory lunch with Lucia in Plaza Olavide, Madrid, after successfully recovering my prescriptions and bank information

3) Humor is key, no matter what
While we waited at the police station for me to report the theft (a key part of the recovery process in Spain is showing proof that you have reported the items stolen), Gianfranco went to get something to drink. He came back holding a can of Aquarius, a popular drink that tastes like a mix of Gatorade and piss. "Well," he announced solemnly, looking down into his can with disdain, "As I always suspected, police station Aquarius is just as disgusting as regular Aquarius." 
I couldn't help it-- although I had been holding back tears, I burst into giggles. We all did. It felt really good.

4) I'm stronger and feistier than I think
In the moment after the robbery, I considered with some despondence all the items I needed to replace immediately (antibiotics, asthma medication important to my recovery from bronchitis, bank cards, etc) and later on (ID, various technologies) and the complications those lost items would create. It seemed like I had no choice but to go back to Talavera, tail between my legs, and spend my would-be Galicia vacation putting my life back together. However, as we waited at the police station for them to take my statement, a new and unexpected emotion overtook me: defiance.

I had been a little teary previously, but now my eyes were dry. "You know what?" I said to my friends, "Screw this. I'm still going to Galicia. I'm going to figure out a way. These people already stole my bag; they're not going to steal my vacation. I'll track down the most urgent items and go tomorrow evening, a few hours late."

Elena looked at me appraisingly. "I definitely didn't expect that from you. You have cojones, lady," she said. You have balls. It's true: I do!

Looks like a painting: the stunning Galicia coast

 5) Never let your guard down when it comes to valuables in a public place. Seriously, never.
This might seem like the most obvious advice, but it's easy to underestimate the power of familiarity. I think my main fault here is that I allowed myself to become complacent. I've been in Spain almost three years; I've been to Madrid at least 15 or 20 times. When I'm in a new place with any number of unknown factors and strange surprises, I am always alert. Ironically, the moment a place starts to feel familiar is when I'm most vulnerable. However, in a city like Madrid, which is so plagued with street crime, you can never let your guard down. You can never assume that familiarity equals security, no matter how many friends are around.

6) Some things are out of your control; that goes for the bigger picture, too.
I've said that part of the lesson I learned from all this is that some things are out of my control: making mistakes is inevitable, and if your small error happens to coincide with bad timing, there's not much that can be done. Letting go of that control (and self-blame) was not easy.

Similarly, I had to work hard to keep myself from running endlessly through all the different ways the situation could have played out. I am a believer in the butterfly theory (that small things can change the direction of a course of events dramatically), and as I tried to make sense of that evening it was very hard not to lose myself to wondering. For example, that day it had previously looked like I could take a BlaBlaCar (a wildly popular car-sharing system here) directly from Talavera to Lucia's house in Madrid, but at the last moment it fell through. That's how I ended up taking the bus and going straight to the Cantina with all of my stuff. If that BlaBlaCar had worked out, perhaps I would have decided to leave at least a few of my valuables at Lucia's place. What then? Or what if I had just thought to use one of the safety features on my bag, which allows the owner to clip the shoulder strap around a table leg, making it harder to snatch? What if I had chosen another table to sit at? What if I had waited to use the bathroom? What if, what if, what if?  Who knows what those small choices might have changed?
No matter what, thinking about all that now is not helpful. Instead, I have to remember the useful lessons-- making that bag clip a habit, for instance--and then take a breath and continue my day.

7) Life goes on
I'll admit that the first twenty minutes after my bag disappeared felt catastrophic. Of course it wasn't (much, much worse things happen to people every day; I am well aware of that), but it still felt huge and overwhelming and violating and sad. And yet the next day with Lucia's help I ran around the city getting prescriptions, figuring out special bank transfers to get some cash, cancelling my credit cards, borrowing a temporary purse, finding a new way to Santiago. With all that finished, my weekend in Galicia was still completely wonderful, with highlights including a sweaty, raucous Galician music party called a foliada; a relaxing dip in the hotsprings by the river in Ourense; a delicious lunch of fresh-caught octopus by the river in Noia; and a spur-of-the-moment heart-stoppingly beautiful trip out to the Castro de Baroña, a 2000-year-old Celtic ruin in a spectacular setting on a small peninsula on the wild coast. Yes, I had pangs of regret, sadness, and anger about my loss. But I still enjoyed the weekend thoroughly. Life goes on, if you let it.

At the foliada in Santiago
8) In the end, people are good
I've written on this topic before, but it's worth repeating. Before I left for my trip around the world, I did not have any particular opinion on human nature. If my year-long adventure in 2009 taught me anything, it was to have faith in people. In each place I visited, it was plain to me that, with a few exceptions, people just want to understand each other, to connect with each other, and to help each other. Remarkably, this incident did not change that conviction-- in fact, just the opposite. Nearly every single individual I encountered (besides the thief him or herself) throughout this ordeal was generous or kind or patient with me, from the medical administrator who snuck me into the system so I could see a doctor to the banker who joked gently with me while he set up my money transfer to (of course, and more than anything) the group of friends who supported me through a difficult night. Who knows what motivation the thief had in taking my things? Who knows what he or she needed? These are difficult times here in Spain, and although of course it might have been about drugs or gangs or shady business, the thief might just as well have used his/her ill-gotten gains to feed a family.

I'll never know-- but I do know that, along with a little extra care with my belongings, being robbed has taught me that my faith in humanity is harder to shake than I thought.

The majesty of the Castro de Baroña

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Guest post! Food diary for Yummyfoto

Have you ever wondered just exactly what I'm eating over here? My lovely friend Linda blogs about food over at Yummyfoto, and she asked me awhile back whether I would be willing to write a five-day food diary for her in the style popularized by New York magazine's Grub Street blog.

Well, I finally found time to keep the diary and write it up this past month-- it was fun to do! I timed the whole shebang to coincide with an American friend's visit. We ate well, as you will see... very, very well.

Click here to enjoy five days of deliciousness!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Catalan Christmas in February (Part 2): Scatalogical Humor Edition

My Catalan family and me, posing Christmas 2010 with Caga Tio

The world-famous city of Barcelona is many things: cosmopolitan, rich in history and cuisine, full of pick-pockets, and completely fascinating, to name of a few. It's famous for its storied soccer team and nightlife and for the long-standing independence movement that would separate it and the larger region of Catalunya from the rest of Spain. But that is not what I am here to tell you about.

No, I am here to tell you poop jokes.

I've already taken pains to describe some of the things that make Spanish Christmas unique, but there are a few important -- and, in my opinion, quirkily hilarious-- Catalan traditions that I specifically left to discuss separately. Catalans (people who live in Barcelona and the state of Catalunya) speak a separate romance language; have many separate festivals and holidays; and, if you buy into the prevailing wisdom, are generally more serious and buttoned up than other Iberian people.

... or maybe not so buttoned up. There are two Catalan Christmas traditions that are unique when compared to any others I've heard of anywhere in the world. Celebrating two Christmases in a row (2009 and 2010) in Barcelona gave me a healthy appreciation of both. Warning: if you don't appreciate scatalogical humor, read no further. But if you want to know what poop and the manger in Bethlehem have in common, read on. First up:

1) The Caganer

Vulgar? Yes. Hilarious? Yes.

The first thing you need to know is that cagar in Spanish (and, one assumes, Catalan) means "to take a crap," or possibly something more vulgar than that, a word I'll try to use minimally on this, a family publication. Next, recall that the creche, or nativity scene, is an important part of Spanish Christmas, playing the part that Christmas trees do in the United States. Okay: now that you have been armed with that information, I can explain to you that the Caganer is an important and unique figure in the Catalan creche. Traditionally, he is dressed in traditional peasant clothes, wears a floppy hat, smokes a pipe... and is crouching down to take a bowel movement. Yes, right there in the manger, usually in the corner. Sometimes the porcelain even includes some tasteful tendrils of steam rising up from the fresh specimen.

No one knows exactly where this tradition comes from, only that it goes back hundreds of years (the first recorded Caganer dates from the 18th century.) Some historians say it's a fertility thing; most throw up their hands in confusion. What's for sure is that the Caganer remains as essential a part of the Catalan creche as the angels or the wise men. In fact, in recent years manufacturars of creche components have started to vary available Caganer options-- they make pooping wise men, pooping angels, pooping politicians and athletes. In googling around for images to post in this entry I saw Obama caganers, Angela Merkel caganers, Leo Messi caganers, and more. Basically, chances are that if there is a person in the public eye somewhere in the world, he or she has been immortalized in porcelain mid-poop and sits festively in a Catalan businessman's nativity scene on the Costa Brava.

2) Caga Tió

Mr. Poop, himself, ready for action
Time for a pop quiz. Do you still remember what cagar means, from part 1? If so, you probably can guess the direction we're headed here. To get the full effect, you also need to know that tió is old Catalan for "log." Put the two together and you get the Pooping Log (or something a bit more vulgar if you prefer), and it is exactly as absurd as it sounds.  Caga Tió is a jaunty Christmas visitor made out of a log (of varying size) painted with a face, wearing a red floppy hat, and smoking a pipe. He is the Santa Claus of Catalunya.

Now, say it's the first week in December-- time to decorate your Barcelona apartment! You put up some tinsel; arrange your creche, complete with pooping angel; and head to the Christmas market to find the perfect Pooping Log. The first step in selecting a proper Caga Tió is to decide on size, shape, and temperament. Is he smiling? Is he smoking? Is he tiny or enormous? Which one do you prefer?

Caga Tiós of all sizes at the Barcelona Christmas market
Now, you place the lucky log in a place of honor in the living room, and twelve days before Christmas, the fun starts. Every night little Catalan children leave snacks for Caga Tió, much as American kids leave cookies for Santa or carrots for his reindeer. The idea is to fatten Caga Tió up before Christmas Eve. In the morning the food is gone, having been dispatched by parental late-night munchies. Take care not to put on weight during this week-and-a-half of illicit snacking!

Finally, on Christmas Eve, all is prepared. As in other parts of Spain, multiple generations of your family gather together to eat a late, multi-course dinner, which usually includes sopa de galets (soup with pasta shells) and carn d'olla (stewed meet with vegetables.) Then, at midnight everyone sits down together in the living room. Trying not to let the children see, you cover the door with a blanket,  place all the presents under a chair behind the blanket, and put Caga Tió in front so all but Mr. Poop himself is hidden from view. (Another common set-up is a stack of gifts covered with a blanket and with Caga Tió as king of the mountain.)

Then the fun starts! The children of the family hit poor Caga Tió, all bloated with 12 days of food, with a stick (we used a wooden spoon) and sing a traditional song. I won't hide how hilarious I find the lyrics, especially in context as sung by angelic-faced children to a lovely tuneful melody.

Caga tió,
caga torró,
avellanes i mató,
si no cagues bé
et daré un cop de bastó.
caga tió!"
 Shit, log!
 shit nougat,
 hazelnuts and cheese.
 If you don't shit well,
 I'll hit you with a stick.
 Shit, log! 

"Caga tió,                        Shit, log,
tió de Nadal,                    log of Christmas!
no caguis arengades,       Don't shit herrings,
que són massa salades    which are too salty.
caga torrons                    Shit nougats,
que són més bons!           which are much better!

When the log can take no more, one of the adults waiting behind the curtain pushes the presents out from their hiding place behind the blanket, making it appear that Caga Tió is pooping presents.  (As one might guess from the lyrics, older traditions had Caga Tió bringing only torrons, or nougat, instead of today's gift haul.) The song is repeated until all the gifts have been opened. The rest of the evening is taken up sitting around the living room singing Christmas songs, drinking coffee or wine, and slowly drifting off to bed. Merry Christmas, indeed!

(If this reminds you of Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo from "South Park," you aren't the only one. Although I've never ready anything definitive, it seems impossible that the beloved/hated character would have absolutely no connection here.)

*Due to a translation error, this post has been updated throughout

Merry Christmas in February from Wide Eyes Wider World!