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So, how was your post-pandemic vacation?

June 26th, 2021 · 1 Comment · Spain, Travel, Uncategorized

Strap yourself in for a wild ride of emotion. One that encompasses the five stages of grief — as well as an almost comedic lack of awareness. 

It would be funny if it were not so damn stupid.

Two weeks ago, we went looking for a place to kick out the jams — senior style. And in this part of France the obvious choice is Barcelona, which is less than 200 miles from here. We invited Leah’s parents to come over from California, and we were ready to roll.

We enjoyed ourselves in those early days, in Spain, and felt a collective sense of “maybe this thing is really over!” as we settled into our first days out of France in a year.

Good food, nice weather. A visit to the Sagrada Familia, checking in on the progress made on Antoni Gaudi’s marvelous basilica during the previous 18 months, the timeframe for the Covid-19 Virus to pummeling most of Europe.

The four of us, Leah and me and her parents, were moving an hour south, to the Cap Salou area of Tarragona and environs, known for stunning, cliffside views of the Mediterranean Sea, inexpensive housing and well-priced seafood.

We didn’t make it. Not that night. 

About those “five stages” It’s a psychological thing …The stages are “denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance”.

From about 3 p.m. till about 5pm, we were transfixed by “denial.” Beginning with an unwillingness to recognize and deal with the two (or was it three?) motorcycle men who maneuvered us like puppets.

We fell into one of the great scams of the Computer Age — stripping electronic valuables from cars without the befuddled victims noticing. 

The scam begins with a flat tire, The right-rear, generally, pierced by the guy on the motorcycle. It moves on to another young man saying he is on his lunch break and about to go back to the shop and would be happy to help us put on a the spare. What a nice kid!  

The thieves keep us jumping for the next half hour. “See, the tire is flat. I will have to change it. You can help with the jack. We have to get stuff out of the trunk to reach the tiny spare tire. Hang on, I have to get a tool. I’m back. My friend at the shop is getting a tool. Look, there he is.” The new guy has a beard and is older than the other guy (or two guys), but he seems to know what he’s talking about. He studies the rim of the right-rear. We stand next to him, looking as if we can fix the tire by staring at it. “Gonna need a new tire.” He says he will be back in the time it takes to count to four.

We never see him or his cohorts again. 

The “bargaining” part of the “five stages’ is hard to pull off. The thieves have all our stuff. 

The missing backpacks contain four passports, two residence visas, four iPads, two Kindles, a laptop, a new iPhone, credit cards, prescription drugs, medical insurance cards, two pairs of wireless headphones, two sets of house keys and a whole lotta cash … all gone. A very big haul for these guys.

We have nothing with which to bargain.

One small victory — later that night, Leah got a fraud alert from her credit-card company, and she reported the card stolen. Meanwhile, the thieves tried using one of our credit cards 16 times, but none of the spending went through. Hah!

Depression? That’s not having most of our electronics. Or, it’s sitting in the police department as Leah is introduced to an English-speaking Barcelona cop, who needs four hours to ask questions while the other three of us sit in the waiting room.

By now, the adrenalin has worn off, and we’re old and tired tourists.

We give up a day on the beach because we’re too tired to make the drive at 11pm. We reach our usual BCN airport hotel in time to go have dinner a few doors down the street. I had the spaghetti bolognese and two beers. It is midnight.

Acceptance? From the time we got to the last junkyard/tire shop, I was carrying an iron bar from the trunk. Possession of that began from the time the bearded crook disappeared, and it occurred to me that we were sitting ducks. Nobody around. And if they were to come back to take the car and haul it to a chop-shop, or they want to shake us down, or worse  …

We were spared that dire scenario and in the morning I put down the iron bar.

I guess we also have to accept that Bareclona has A LOT of small-time crime. Instead of something really ugly happening at that junk yard, the thieves apparently went on to their next mark. They never laid a hand on us. They never threatened us. 

But we know that Barcelona has a bad reputation. Some of the locals there seem to think that a few ripped off cars is the least tourists can pay for making Barcelona into a sort of Mediterannean hood’s Disneyland. Most of the cops seemed passive about the burglars and thieves, etc. In fact, they said because of the Covid it had been a bad time for thieves and so they were currently more active. 

The part that really grates? I have been through this before, back in 2012, thereabouts, when I was on a crowded train after a Barcelona-Real Madrid match in Camp Nou … and I had my pocket picked.

Every single one of us should have done a better job of secreting our money and valuables. But in particular, me. I now have been ripped off twice in Barcelona and once in Paris. On all those occasions I let my mind wander. Can’t do that in that town. 

So. Have to go get a mugshot — it is required for people whose U.S. passports have been stolen. Every day, it’s something.

Now, for another version …

The facts of the incident seem to change daily. Something remembered, something forgotten. 

The only certainty is that none of us emerged unscathed, and the effects are lingering.

We’ll start at the beginning, with hope. An emergence from the pandemic that allowed us to live more freely, to travel, to see loved ones.

My parents came to Barcelona just two days after Spain officially opened for Americans. We decided to hang out in the city for a few days, help ease their jet lag. They are 79 and 80 and had not stayed in Barcelona since 2012. The city seemed calmer and more real; probably because of the lack of tourists. It was great to eat outdoors, to visit (again) the Sagrada Familia. 

After some decompression time, we headed out for the “vacation” part of our trip: A week in Cap Salou, a town outside of Tarragona, Spain, about 115 kilometers away from Barcelona. We rented a great apartment with panoramic views over the Mediterranean. It was supposed to be a reward of sorts, for behaving well during the pandemic, for not seeing anyone, not going anywhere. A nice little treat.

So we packed the car and headed south, hitting stop-and-go traffic on the way out. It ended up being more stop than go.

About half a mile before we were supposed to get on the highway, a guy on a motorcycle pulled up next to us and started to point at our right-rear tire. Almost simultaneously, I noticed a warning light about low tire pressure on the dashboard. 

We started to pull over, and the motorcycle guy, wearing a high-visibility safety vest, motioned to us to follow him off the highway and into a safe parking lot outside a gym. We got out of the car, and sure enough, flat tire. We didn’t hear anything happen and barely felt it. In hindsight, it was probably punctured by the motorcycle guy (or another motorcycle guy) while we were stopped at a light. 

Paul got out and walked over to the gas station that was just across the way. The “helpful” guy seemed to have disappeared, and we figured he was well on his way. As I returned from the gas station, noting it only sold gas — it didn’t have a mechanic — the motorcycle returned. The guy asked if we knew how to change a tire. We looked at each other and started to fish out the roadside assistance info. 

The guy spoke Spanish, and started to talk to me. I was able to pick up most of what he said, which seemed to be that he was a mechanic on his lunch break, and he’d be willing to help us change the tire.

So we go about taking parents out of the back seat, putting suitcases in their place, fishing out the spare, and the jack. There’s a lot of movement at this moment. It’s hot out, in the 90s, and it’s early afternoon so the sun is high and strong. We put the parents under a tree with a few of the suitcases, and go about helping the guy helping us. After all, how would it seem to let a stranger do all the work and just watch. Weird, right? Distraction No. 1.

At that moment, the idea of getting the spare on from this  guy seemed as good an idea as any. Maybe he’s a Good Samaritan, the last in the continent of Europe. and it’s not like we had any idea how to get a new tire at 3pm on a Saturday. 

Motorcycle guy gets the lug nuts off, and asks if we have the key to the wheel. Because we haven’t owned many cars the past 15 years, and none of them new, we didn’t know what he was talking about. A locked lug nut that keeps people from stealing the wheels. Well we had no idea where those locks would be. Paul and I set about looking for them. This was distraction No. 2. 

At some point, the guy is on his phone. A flip phone. A burner, not a smartphone. He says something quietly, in rapid-fire Spanish. I guess that he’s asking his buddy for a key to the lock. He says something to me about needing a tool. That he has a tool at his shop, and/or he has a friend who has a shop. Remember, it’s still all in Spanish. He motions to Paul to put the lug nuts back on. He must have seemed not to understand, because he comes back over, and does it himself. Tells us to follow him. To the “shop” where his “friend” has tools. I am not keen to drive on the tire and Paul is not keen to leave my parents behind. We slowly follow the guy. 

Here’s where it gets hinky (ha! You think it was already hinky, don’t you). We get to, essentially, a junkyard. The  guy goes through the motions directing me to park under a tree, in the shade. I think the workshop must be on the other side of the fence. Paul is thinking something is very wrong. Motorcycle guy says he just spoke to his friend, his friend has the key and he’ll be along to help. Meanwhile, we should jack up the car. Distraction No. 3.

New motorcycle guy comes, asks for the wheel key. We think, isn’t that what he’s supposed to be there for? He says something in Spanish, then says to me: “1, 2, 3, 4 and I’ll be back.”

Paul is certain something is wrong, and getting more agitated. Hear those ”dum-dee-dum-dum” noises in the background? We should have stayed where we left the road, and called roadside assistance. But events were moving fast, just as the thieves planned. Neither of us even had time to say “yes” or “no”.

We wait for the guy to come back. Fifteen minutes, then 20. He doesn’t come back. I still haven’t figured out something is wrong, and Paul is really agitated. He tells me that we’re going to move the car onto the street, where there are people, and we’ll figure out our next move from there.

I go to start the car, but can’t. The message on the car says it can’t find the key card. I’m sure this is silly, and go to get my purse out of the back seat to move the key closer to the ignition. I *still* haven’t figured this out. After ransacking the car, I discover my purse isn’t there. It had to be there when I moved the car, so the last guy must have taken it. Paul is now pretty angry, and we walk toward a newish office building (turns out it’s a crematorium). I want to call the insurance/roadside assitance and Paul wants to get my parents first. We decide that Paul will take a taxi to get my parents and I’ll  call the police and we’ll go from there. It’s around this time we confirm that my parents don’t have Paul’s backpack, and they don’t have theirs, either. This can’t be happening.

The people behind the counter at the crematorium are really nice and sympathetic. They charge-up my phone, they call the police. They let all of us stay in a cool meeting room while we try to sort through this. 

The police come. They are nice but not terribly surprised. One of the three speaks some English. They ask a lot of questions, but it all seems kind of pointless. There is nothing they can do. I start to cry, and the police feel bad. They tell a white lie, saying it will take just a day to fix all this, then we can restart the vacation. They ask if we need some cold water bottles. (Twice). They wish us good luck and write down the address of the police station we need to go to, to make a report. 

I get through to the insurance agent, he tells me he’ll send someone but there’s not much he can do without a car key. These are our options: We can order a new key from a dealer, and it could take up to two weeks. Someone can send the duplicate that we have in our house, to Spain. The insurance will provide a round-trip taxi from Barcelona to Cap Salou. 

A flat-bed tow truck arrives and takes away the car, with the windows still rolled down. The guy gives me a receipt, but we are never particularly clear what happens next. I am speaking French and English and Spanish to various and sundry people, trying to solve problems. 

Once the car is towed, we get a taxi to the police station. Four people with large suitcases and no hand luggage arrive at the station. We have compiled a list of missing objects while waiting. It is extensive: A lot of cash, US credit cards, four iPads, two Kindles, a laptop, one (new-to-me) iPhone, all the charging cords but one. All the medications. Fancy hearing aids. Noise-cancelling headphones. All the gadgets and don’t forget: all the documents. Four passports, two French residence cards, a French driver’s license. The very idea is staggering. 

At the police station, we wait a good hour before they find an English-speaking policeman. Meanwhile, I try to figure out some details, like how to get the house locks changed since the house keys and address were in my purse and if this is a band of thieves, why wouldn’t they sell our information and keys? Calling the rental host to tell them we aren’t arriving on time after all. Figuring out how the hell we’re going to get the spare key. 

I get called in and don’t come out for close to four hours. We are all embarrassed, and feel foolish and angry. By now we are also bored, bored, bored. And still a bit dazed. We plot our next move. We will stay in a nearby hotel, and leave the next morning. We grab dinner at around 11.30pm. Good thing this is Spain.

Next up, the logistics of readjusting your entire life: Cancelling the US cards, getting the insurance company to arrange a taxi to our destination (can’t rent a car — no passports), figuring out what to do about food at our rental because it’s Sunday and it’s still Spain and nothing is open. Finding a pharmacy to replace all the prescription drugs without actually having any prescriptions. Contacting the consulate for new passports, the French authorities for the loss of French documents. No fewer than 48 calls to the insurance company to find out where our car is, and how it will be fixed. Figuring out how to get the key, which is nearly 200 miles away, and how to get back to the car, which is somewhere in Barcelona. We think.

It made for a really crappy vacation in a very nice spot. We were able to take taxis some places, to get our meds and our groceries but the vacation was ruined. We ordered an overnight laptop. We finally admitted we needed the help offered by a friend and she drove our spare key three hours to us in Barcelona. Paul and I took a taxi to meet her mid-week to get the car from the depot. The guy there was really nice and helped us arrange to get a new tire put on. We decided to return to France sooner rather than later. 

It’s been two weeks now, and almost daily there is some new challenge. We took my parents to Marseille for emergency passports but had to stay overnight in order to make it to the early morning appointment. We hope to get ours in Barcelona next week. There is still more to do, which is unbelievable.

We are all seasoned travelers. We’ve had brushes with pickpockets and know plenty of others in the same boat. We would never have been reckless were we not in our own car, with it never out of sight. It has taken us a long time to process what happened, and when, and how.

You think this can’t happen to you. That you’re too savvy and too careful. But it can happen to anyone, before you even know it.


1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Mary Rudder // Jun 26, 2021 at 3:00 PM

    Wow…just wow. My stomach churned reading your story. How incredibly frightening! I can’t imagine the anger, fear, shame and myriad other feelings you must be having as you recount the experience. And with your parents there! That would add a whole other level of anxiety when trying to fix the mess. So very sorry!

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