We are in Rome. I can't remember the number of times we've been here. It's like home, especially today after spending a couple weeks in southern Africa and, before that, a week in Lithuania (above Poland, for those who can't quite place Lithuania's location). At least in Rome we know enough of the language to ask for things, and we’re familiar with the food and culture. We are comfortable here – perhaps too comfortable.
Today we have planned to take the subway and then a bus outside the city to see the Catacombs and walk The Appian Way, a road built by the Romans in 312 B.C.
Standing on the subway platform, we discuss how fun it is to be exploring on our own again. Although we thoroughly enjoyed (and needed) a guide on both the African safari, and in Lithuania, it simply feels freeing to be by ourselves. The train comes and, because the next stop is Rome's downtown station, each coach is stuffed with people. I run up the platform in search of a lesser populated car. Rich follows. While still running I hear the three dings indicating the doors are about to close. Hurriedly, I stuff myself into the closest car as the doors slide shut. I turn around. Rich is not behind me.
Oh, well, I think, we both know where to get off so no big deal. I look up and take in my surroundings and I see that he had entered the same car via the other door. He mouths something to me and, of course, I have no idea what he is saying. He repeats and try as I might, I don't get it. With difficulty I make my way toward him, wedging between people, my purse tightly clutched under my arm, my hand wrapped around its zippers and the strap wrapped around my torso. “Scusi, scusi,” I whisper. Once I reach him he says something that is so startling I need him to repeat it.
“What?” I ask.
"They got my wallet."
"How’s that possible? We were running."
"The guy grabbed it and pushed me into the train at the same time. I rammed into people standing there and was apologizing and regaining my balance when I realized the guy was stuck in the door. By the time everything registered, he was on the outside running away, I was on the inside and the train was picking up speed."
The blood drains from my head. At the next stop, scores of people disembark. I sink into one of a multitude of now empty seats. Rich says, "We have to go back."
Of course he is right. Not that we'd find the guy, but maybe, just maybe, he grabbed the cash (100 euro) and threw the wallet away. That’s what thieves do, don’t they?
Back on the original platform we look for, perhaps, a tossed wallet, under benches or on the tracks. On our way upstairs I extract my miniature flashlight from my purse and start looking in the trash barrels. Italian passersby don’t pay much attention, but Americans look askance.
There's a glass enclosure near the turnstiles with subway staff inside. We knock on the glass. We yell in Italian that a wallet was lost, did anyone turn one in? They can't hear us so one of the men comes out and we explain. Once he understands that the wallet is gone, he asks how long ago. I say, "Cinque," and he says "Cinque giorni fa?" (Five days ago?) No, I say, “Cinque MINUTI fa.” (Five MINUTES ago.) He looks shocked. Then I say the word "thief" and he corrects my assessment of the situation, "Signora, you did not LOSE your wallet. It is ...." and here he makes an “away-we-go” Jackie Gleason hand gesture and whistles. In other words, that wallet is gone, kaput, finito.
He gives us directions to the police station. We think it's a good idea to file a report; Rich because of possible credit card problems in the future, and me, because I think the wallet may actually be recovered even if the cash and cards are gone.
On the second floor, chairs line one side of the hallway and we’re told to take a seat. Before our bottoms hit the chairs, a policeman invites us into his office and gives us a form to fill out. When done, he reviews it with us. I say, in Italian, "Who knows, maybe the wallet may turn up even if it no longer has money in it." The officer juts out his lower lip, shrugs his shoulders and holds his hands palms up, like "Yeah, maybe." Later Rich tells me his interpretation of the same gesture was: "Dream on, Signora!"
We return to our hotel where the manager looks up at us questioningly. Rich explains our early return, adding that it was stupid of him not to take precautions. The manager shakes his head and in English, says. "No, it is not stupid. Those pickpockets are very very good. I have no idea how they do it." (Aberdeen Hotel Roma: http://www.hotelaberdeen.it)
We spend the next couple hours reversing any damage done, all the while wondering how we’re going to procure money for the month we still hope to spend in Italy.
I keep a list of our credit cards in a file in my e-mail for just an occasion like this, and the hotel has a business center (actually a hallway) with a computer and Internet access. I log into my e-mail, open the folder and find the list I’d tucked away there. As my eyes sweep over it, I discover that my bank debit card has a different number from Rich’s, even though both cards gobble money from the same account.
Meanwhile, from the room, Rich makes phone calls to the credit card companies. Thankfully, I’d also typed in the phone numbers that were printed on the back of the cards in case the loss occurs outside the U.S. Calling these numbers instead of the in-the-USA numbers guarantees that each call is free.
While still in front of the computer, I pull my cards from my purse. They’ll have to be destroyed since each time Rich cancels a card, my card also becomes null and void. Shuffling through them my eyes alight on a card that only I have. That's a huge relief. I rush back to the room to tell Rich the good news: We can access money for the next month on my debit card and charge purchases on that backup credit card.
Once he completes the phone calls, we decide to employ what I call “The Katie Factor.” Rich seems to have been born with The Katie Factor embedded in his psyche, whereas I had to see it in action from someone other than my husband before I could even begin to put it into practice.
Years ago, my friend Katie and I attended an all-day writers' conference at a local college. Although the day had started out sunny, by the time we left, it had turned cold and rainy and the sky was dark. When we reached her car, she looked in and said, in the most matter-of-fact way, "Oh, I left the keys in the ignition." While my shoulders slumped and I was thinking, “Oh no! What will we do now?” Katie said, "You stay here. I'll get the campus police." When she turned on her heel without complaining, without whining, and without making one self-deprecating remark, I stood there stunned. I’d never seen anyone react like that to what I considered a really crappy situation.
So because of Katie I don’t waste any time wishing things were different. I look up at Rich and with gravitas say, “We’ve got to try again to get to the Catacombs.” Without hesitating, he nods agreement.
We march right back to the same subway station where a few hours earlier Rich’s wallet was hijacked and we hop on the same train headed in the same direction and eight stops later, get off and climb up into daylight. Rich runs into a shop to buy bus tickets and water. The afternoon is getting steamy. As we're crossing the street to the bus stop, which is located on a median strip, we note that the bus pulling away is the one we need to be on. Che serà serà! Another will come along within a half hour. At least that’s what the sign says.
An hour later we are still at the bus stop and since we’re starving, we eat our sandwiches. Not at the beautiful park as we had imagined, but at the bus stop. We decide that drinking the wine we packed would look unseemly considering that we’re standing at a bus stop and not sitting in a park. By mid-afternoon, when the bus finally arrives, we are on our way to our morning’s destination.
We wait twenty minutes for the English-speaking guide, and it is well worth it. He relates the history while pulling us into the story. He asks us to imagine how dark it must have been down there with nothing but torch light, how silent it would be without the chatter of tourists and the clanking of workmen, and how smelly it would be with all the rotting bodies, 80,000 all told, disintegrating in their cut-out caves.
The guide explains how the word Catacombs in Greek means "near the cave." The term was popularized by Christians being asked where their loved ones were buried – the standard reply being, “near the caves.” Although pagans also buried their dead there, they cremated them first, a custom the Christians deplored. Since it was against the law to cremate or bury anyone inside the Roman walls, the Catacombs were established.
Once off the bus I’m surprised we need to walk nearly a mile down The Appian Way to reach the Catacombs. This broad, tree-lined street was built to transport military supplies in ancient times. Today it is stunningly beautiful in the slanted rays of a low-slung sun.
When we arrive at the Catacombs, we learn that they cannot be toured without a guide. The ticket seller explains that since the Catacombs date back to 200 A.D., they’re a priceless artifact that need to be protected. Oh, and the other reason a guide is necessary is that it is easy to get lost in them.
[Photo above] We waited for the tour guide inside this building. He led us down many steps to the cool depths of the Catacombs. It's a great destination on a hoy day. [Photo below] The bodies were stacked in open crypts like these. Their remains have since been removed.
It is Italy that taught me to take a Che serà, sera! attitude when there are delays. It is Katie who taught me to move on and not waste a moment when plans go awry. #
For some perspective, I know that being pick-pocketed is a disheartening experience; on the other hand, being physically attacked in Rome is a rare occurrence. For more information on crime in Europe, visit Amanda Ruggeri's wonderful site: