I’ve met a lot of Americans who posses an unwarranted fear of traveling Europe. Some seem to equate a stay in a hostel with, well, what happens in the movie Hostel. Some seem to think if you visit a place with a name like ‘Slovenia’ or ‘Slovakia’ you’re likely to never return. “Is it safe?” people ask. The answer, of course, depends on your definition of safety.
If the question refers to the odds of getting shot, murdered, or systematically hacked into pieces, then yes, I’d feel pretty comfortable saying most of Europe is safe. With the exception of participating in a soccer riot, you’re far more likely to meet a violent end here in good old gun-laden America. Now, if by “safe” you are referring to the safety of your possessions and money, then the answer becomes a bit more complicated.
I was never nervous in any small towns throughout the continent. But most travelers don’t spend most of their time in rural Europe. People from all around the world (including America) concentrate their touring efforts in a handful of popular European urban destinations.
In these ‘checklist cities’, massive numbers of foreigners shuffling around crowded attractions is an absolute dream for thieves. Think about it. In general, we’re loaded with travel money, wearing bright colors and often so caught up in our surroundings that we let our guard down. Really, the citizens of Rome and Barcelona would be dumb not to rob us.
Now, I don’t mean to pick on Italy and Spain for the hell of it, it’s just that’s where all my personal bouts with such matters come from. My first time in Italy, on a 2007 family vacation, every American we met had a tale of theft. Inspired, my goal was to thwart all the would-be pick-pocketers I encountered.
A few days later in Rome, we boarded a bus after dinner. A crowd, equal parts tourists and locals, filled the bus until it was possible to become intimate with any one of the ten strangers touching you. My younger brother, Shane, and I were in the front, while the rest of our family was confined to the rear of the bus.
As had become my practice, I had my hand over the right front pocket holding my wallet, which was aptly filled with worthless keepsakes and used giftcards. Soon, I felt fingers creeping into that pocket. I couldn’t believe it; this was the moment I’d been waiting for! Making sure it wasn’t just an innocent mistake, I lessened the pressure on my wallet and let the guy dig in there nice and deep like. Jackpot.
My immediate instinct, being from Texas and all, was to pull the guy’s hand out by the wrist and yell, “Boy, looks like you got yer hand caught’n the cookie jar! Oooooooooweeeee!” I’d follow this declaration with a swift uppercut and then the entire bus would erupt in an old west saloon style brawl. The flaw in this option was that they usually work in pairs. Not wishing to get decked from behind, I went with a less dramatic approach.
I grabbed the guy’s fingers and twisted them back with all the force I could muster until he ripped his hand from my pocket. Then the man and his partner began to shove their way to the door. I looked at Shane, who was clueless, and started pointing and mouthing “pick-pocketer.” He just stared back at me confused.
Okay, so it wasn’t as heroic of an occurrence as I hoped, but at least I kept the $2.37 credit on my Starbucks card. On the other side of the bus, a middle-aged guy’s run-in went differently. Apparently, upon noticing his wallet was gone, the man turned to the thief and croaked, “Excuse me sir, I think you have my wallet.” To this the crook replied “No, no,’ and exited the bus. So I could have done worse.
This last time through Italy, Andrew and I made it through without incident. But, our Canadian friends were not so lucky. After we parted ways in Rome, the two girls boarded a regional train to Florence. Jill, who sat in a different car from Stephanie, stowed her belongings under her seat. Listening to her iPod, she dozed off as a stop approached. Jill awoke five minutes later to discover both of her bags were gone. In that small window, someone had stolen all her clothes, visa information, camera and asthma medication. Andrew and I, I’m sad to say, were partially to blame. You see, after spending over a week with two huge guys, these girls had become used to the constant security our presence provided them. So we’ve always felt responsible.
Nevertheless, Jill dealt with the situation with incredible composure and good sense. Admittedly, if I had been in her place, I would have spent several days in a dark corner, muttering, crying and lashing out at Andrew’s attempts to comfort me. Jill simply purchased what she needed (clothes, a winter coat, a bag, etc.) and enjoyed the rest of her trip.
Some two weeks later, we met up with the girls in Barcelona, Spain – another place cautioned as theft prone. We spent a lovely winter’s evening on the city’s main beach, which was near empty. That didn’t matter. While building a sand castle with Jill, I noticed a man in the corner of my eye. He picked up my backpack and began walking off. “Whoa whoa whoa!” I shouted, while preparing for the inevitable chase scene to come. Barcelona has loads of narrow alleys, hanging fire escapes, old people to push down and even a fruit market! It was perfect. I was ready. But, the man handed my bag back to me without hesitation. Baffled by this move, I responded with “thank you.”
So, having a concern about your possessions while visiting some of the more popular destinations is very reasonable. Thinking you’re going to meet a sinister demise while exploring Europe is not. Additionally, having an unrelenting fear of getting robbed, to the point where it dissuades you from traveling, is silly. Unfortunately, these worries stop many potential travelers from ever buying a plane ticket – and that’s a shame.
I’m not a shining example of this, but the keys to safe travel are doing your research and applying common sense. But above all else, if you do catch a thief, don’t ask for your belongings back politely. And if they do give you your stuff back, certainly don’t thank them like an idiot.
Reviewed and Edited by Katie Chassaing