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Atlantic Abroad
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Previously in Atlantic Abroad

  • The Sausages of Wrath (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, July 16, 1997).

  • Classic Tricks (Matthew Gurewitsch, China, June 25, 1997).

  • Alone on the Brink (William Langewiesche, Chile, June 11, 1997).

  • Globetrotting with the Doozer (Jeffrey Tayler, Greece, May 29, 1997).

  • The Car as Social Barometer (Gregg Easterbrook, Belgium, May 14, 1997).

  • Of Bird Songs and Buddhas (Matthew Gurewitsch, China, April 30, 1997).

  • The Discreet Charm of the (Chilean) Bourgeoisie (William Langewiesche, Chile, April 16, 1997).

  • Beware the Eighth of March (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 2, 1997).

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  • tnttrhd picture
    July 30, 1997

    "Leave your passport at your hotel. Carry only one credit card. Have only small amounts of currency with you when you venture into unexplored sections of the city." These were among the instructions left for my wife and me by an officer of the U.S. embassy in Madrid. Neither of us are veteran world travelers, but we'd both been to Europe in the past, and I'd spent two weeks exploring Morocco several years back -- in all cases without serious incident.

    We asked the cultural-affairs attaché whether these guidelines were offered as ritualistic caution to the unwary and inexperienced traveler, or arose out of actual incidents of thievery, or worse. Said he, ruefully, "My wife was relieved of her wallet -- with more than $600, her passport, credit cards, and other documents -- during our first week in Madrid." Every Monday morning, he said, "a line of American tourists forms outside the embassy, all reporting the theft of passports and other valuables." If we were careful we might well have no trouble. "But pickpockets thrive in the tourist areas, and they spot Americans with surprising ease."

    Sobered, we explored Madrid, Barcelona, and then Spain's eastern coastal area, all with a mixture of melancholy and heightened alertness. We carried as little of value as possible when we left our hotels, buttoned and zipped pockets or shoulder bags, remained -- reluctantly -- on what we thought of as high alert. We were, for the most part, spared incident. However, in Madrid's Plaza Mayor, a major tourist attraction, my wife, Elizabeth, was approached by an intense-looking middle-aged woman who presented her, ceremoniously, with a single flower. The gypsy woman, as Elizabeth referred to her later, then opened one palm to reveal a small silver coin, in all likelihood a five-peseta piece, worth a bit less than a nickel. In pantomime she seemed to be suggesting that Elizabeth contribute to the flower fund, and Elizabeth, sunny and generous, opened her orange purse to see what she had in the way of small coins. The gypsy woman seemed suddenly impatient and thrust her hand into Elizabeth's purse. She seized several coins, and went burrowing for more, at which point Elizabeth, alarmed, pulled one strange hand out of the purse, forcibly opened the other hand, removed the coins clutched there, handed the flower back to the now agitated woman, closed her purse, and hurried away. Behind her she heard a flurry of angry Spanish.

    I had no problems in Madrid, but was startled one day in Barcelona as I entered a subway car. A man in his twenties appeared to spot something alarming on my lower trouser leg and began vigorously to brush it off. As I leaned forward to see what was up, I realized that two other young men had stepped to my side and, with elbows and knees, pinned me firmly in place. Reflexively I reached for the pocket where I carried my supply of pesetas, and found a stranger's hand there ahead of mine. I yanked the hand out of my pocket, broke away from the three men, bolted from the subway car, and melted into the crowd outside. I was shaken, but materially intact.

    We left Spain a few days later, still mulling over our inconclusive brushes with larceny. In the course of our two weeks, which included several remarkable exchanges with townspeople who spoke no English but who wanted very much to help us find the not-very-well-marked roads we sought to travel, we were treated with exemplary courtesy and kindness, not to say patience. Far from being adrift in a sea of knaves, we felt considerably more secure than we do in many American small towns and urban byways. We were tourists, however -- and, what's worse, tourists who lacked fluency in the language of the country we were visiting. We could never find or participate in community there, never touch anyone's life in more than a superficial way. Perhaps the dark side of tourism is its unavoidable tentativeness, its conspicuousness and vulnerability. Perhaps, very simply, it attracts thieves.

    C. Michael Curtis is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly.

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    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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