Having a great holiday in Portugal, drifting touristlike with the crowd. Had enjoyed coffee and pastel de nata at a Lisbon café. The sky was blue, the sun was golden. Easy to be mellow and off-guard. In my mellow holiday state I did not notice precisely when my purse was stolen from my shoulder bag. It was with me in the cafe, I am sure. But after the mirador, with its view, its crowds, and many amusing diversions – artists, street musicians, vendors, tuc tuc touts… it was not. Upshot was a feeling of stupidity, vulnerability, violation. The thief had got as close to me as my bag was to my body, and I had not noticed.
A rapid re-calibration of sensibilies meant an hour spent in the foyer of a hotel calling credit card companies, another hour trying to locate the police station, asking directions in bad Portuguese. One kind couple, clearly more street-wise than us, demonstrated their secure money belts and offered sympathy. Eventually, we found our way through a modest doorway into the esquadra, where complainants (mostly women) sat in booths reporting similar incidents. Usually handbag theft. I sat, racking my brains over the contents of my large purse – a gift from my daughter. Repository of all manner of things, not just money and credit cards. Receipts, driving licence, loyalty cards for stores, membership cards. Someone had appropriated my life. It is hard to be reassured that the thieves were only interested in the cash. The rest was immaterial to them. The kind young policeman assured me that identity theft was unusal, they wanted the cash; they would dump the purse and other contents. The notion of having my life dumped in the trash is unsettling. At least they hadn’t got my passport. Some people in the station had had their bags stolen, with passports, travel documents – all that identified them as individuals from a particular country, tour group etc. They had lost all the stuff that gave them passage home, presumably dumped by the thieves once the cash had been extracted. Some lost thousands of euros. At least I had not lost my passport. As I filled out my report with the policeman, the room filled up. This must have been a bonanza day for the carteiristas.
I learned that the pickpockets stalk their prey. They watch you. Observe your body language, your manner of dress. Tourist! They might peer through the window of a shop, see you there, see how you pay. Do you have cash? Then, they will discreetly follow you to a side street and extract the purse or wallet without you knowing. They enter your personal space in more than the physical sense, they enter your mind space to assess their chances of success. Pickpocketing is a most personal crime.
I have replaced my purse. It is no longer a gift, but something I bought for myself. I have a replacement driving licence and cards. The objects themselves don’t matter so much in the scheme of things. I have learned some lessons about the world, about myself, and how I need to protect myself in the future. But also I have learned that a sense of self is not merely to possess documents to demonstrate who I am to third parties. Being myself in public is a projection, and one that can be hacked.
As a footnote – Lisbon is a vibrant city, and a great place to visit. Pickpockets prey upon tourists all over the world. During my absence, a friend visiting Paris had a similar experience, when her husband’s bag was stolen at a street café. Moral – look after your stuff. Cultivate awareness. Know what to do in an emergency. Get insurance. Don’t be afraid – enjoy life!