Journeys are made for knowing, remembering, forgetting, of the joys, the hard goodbyes, the lessons, the pains, the pleasures and everything in between.
So it was, the remembrance of my first real encounter with European thievery. It happened, that it happened in nowhere else but in Spain. That's a country after my heart, its history tied unambiguously to the past and fate of the New World and the history of contemporary and divided Africa.
October 2007. I was returning from a poetry festival in the city of Lleida. The Mahalta Litfest was a huge imaginarium, a place of imagination, creativity, bright lights and love. The celebration ended and the poets must go their different ways.
Atocha Renfe was the place, the huge train terminal where the world goes in all directions. I was part of the multicoloured train of people who moved to the schedule of the station. So, I thought. Some roving eyes must have caught my virgin steps, unsure gaits, around the platform. I carried a city map too.
The train stopped; the door opened its arms; I lugged my baggage in; a space cleared for me in the filled coach, space enough to stand and steady my hand on a pole lest I fall to the weave and bob of the snaky machine. My other hand pinned the bag to the floor, and my laptop bag dangled, held or pressed against other bodies around me. Everything was motion, my mind fastened on the plane to catch in Barcelona. And everything around me was so polite, so postcard, except the rough instability of the train, filled to the very pin of the automatic door.
I admit, I didn't pay attention to the details of my jacket and other pockets. Once, I caught the eyes of the woman with the umbrella pressed into me as if we were a couple; she rolled her eyes between a wink and a grin; I filed it away as the usual strange compliment to a stranger. But she looked strange, almost not like the typical European woman of her age; sturdy, the stock of a plump teenager with wrinkled skin, seven inches below five feet in height. I could help the police in a precise mugshot of her. But nothing really happened, except that woman's grimace...
The train stopped. As I lugged baggage and self onto the platform, I felt a lightness in my waist; then I remembered it. I had a waist pouch in place, and it was still there, but empty. Ori iya mi o! That wench of a wink had disappeared into another traffic, and I, left in the track, mumbling in tongues, about to count the emptiness that my zipper had given away. UI Identity card, business cards, tax refund papers, purse of monies, my US Social Security card, Illinois state card, all gone without a stickup, gone with the wink of a strange woman. The only survivor was my Nigerian national passport; too heavy or too worthless, I didn't know.
When I reported at the Airport Police to complete an incident form, I was number 8 on the list. My Catalan poet-friend was not amused at my story. Apologies greeted my story of loss and survival. That was my firsthand encounter with a certain kind of harmless heist, a brand of European thievery for which the Gypsies have become both culprits and actors.