Signs saying beware pickpockets, pickpockets operate here, be careful where you buy tickets etc. are plastered all over Rome’s metro station Termini.
Turning the corner, I was greeted to the sight of gypsy gals sprawled over the ticket machines and barriers so that you couldn’t possibly buy a ticket without interacting with them.
And I mean sprawled, like the way Rachel found Monica waiting for Chandler in that episode of Friends. This was quite frankly nothing like Esmerelda.
One woman had her arms around the ticket machine in a O shape, hugging it and directing an intense babble of Italian sweet nothings at me. It was like she’d been doing the YMCA and the wind changed, and she got stuck like that.
You had to go through her arms to use the machine, fidgeting and British-ly apologising for having to use the machine she is bonded with. It was wild.
And yet by the time I left Rome, I missed those ones! I respected them in a way. At least they tried to rob me to my face.
Twice in Rome a man crossed the street to follow me, shouting after me to stop and come back, without so much as eye contact to provoke them. And nobody else around you stops! Nobody bats an eyelid.
Glasgow has a bad reputation but I’ve always felt safe there. If something happened to you people would definitely stop and help and do things.
In Rome I got the impression a man could run after you screaming obscenities, throw you over his shoulder and walk down the street with you bobbing along, and other men would high five him whilst the women would look away.
That’s a horrible thing to write about another place and I’d never want to put someone off visiting there but I’m not gonna say it was cute when it wasn’t.
I found that stopping and taking my earphones out to reply to someone in the street would quickly lead to regret too.
After a few seconds I’d realise I was now in a situation where the other person wasn’t going to allow me the social grace to leave quietly. Eventually I got a para buzz about the vulnerability of wearing earphones and just started using them as a prop to deter weird people.
And it’s sad because the best part about travelling is meeting locals who actually live in the country you’re visiting, and it’s no fun if you’re too scared.
Anyway by the time someone tried to seriously pick pocket me I was very paranoid and tense about it. I refused to get the metro. I wouldn’t go outside alone at night. I left my most important things in my locker back at the hostel and I carried my bag both over my shoulder and in my hands.
One day I’d caught way too much sun walking around and my shoulders were covered in blisters that were slowly expanding and joining to become one large uniblister. It was verrrrrry sensitive and I’d picked today to visit the Vatican.
I’m not religious but my gran had recently passed and I had her crucifix with me. Not like a wooden one that people taunt poltergeists with in horror movies, the jewellery kind. She wore it always and I never got to say goodbye so having it close to me felt nice.
My mum also got me a St. Christopher pendant to instil some Godliness about me whilst I was away, so I wore them together. I’d also developed a weird habit of touching my head, like that touch wood thing. You know, you touch your head if you aren’t near wood.
Anyway I was trying to channel that into the necklace instead of my head because first impressions count and you can’t be tapping your head every time you think ‘Omg is this person going to kill me, you’ve thought it, now I bet they will, no they wont it’s okay, touch wood’ etc. because it happens too often.
But if you occasionally touch a crucifix around your neck people just assume you’re thinking about Jesus again.
By the end of the day I was feeling ethereal and stuff from the Vatican but I couldn’t be bothered walking the hour back through the city. I’d vowed not to get the metro again but in that moment I was so sunburned, dehydrated and Scottish that I caved.
It would only be five stops or so and it was the middle of the day, how bad could it be?
The platform was crawling with tourists and gypsies. I’d never really seen women in proper gypsy gear before so this was an experience in itself. So many layers. They must have been roasting. (Is it ok to say gypsy? I really don’t know.)
Being Scottish abroad can be your downfall too if you’re pale and your Celtic skin sticks out like a sore thumb in the palette of public transport. And of course the accent.
I was sat next to an legit authentic Roman Catholic nun so we were both getting eyeballed a bit. Or maybe just the nun, again by this point I’m very paranoid. The screen on the train was displaying horoscopes and I thought that was quirky and relaxed a little.
I get to my stop, the dreaded Termini, and as I’m waiting for the subway doors to open I’m holding my shoulder bag in my hands like a baby. The nun is next to me. To my side is a gypsy. (Is it ok to say gypsy I still don’t know)
I glance at her to see where her hands are and I see they are by her sides. Clocked it bitch. There’s people pushing all around waiting to get off the train and I notice the nun is looking directly at me.
I get an itch on my shoulder which is already on fire from the uniblister and I look at my bag strap, it’s still there. I kept expecting someone to cut the strap on my bag and take it that way but it was still there. Hm ok? Paranoid.
I look down at my bag and there is a HAND in my bag with the fingers wrapped around my phone and my purse. Serious heart palpitations occur. I’m essentially holding someone else’s hand in my own.
My eyes follow the hand to the gypsy’s arm. Her third arm. Which I now see is reaching around from her back, under all the layers of her clothing. It’s Hannibal. It’s happening. I cursed myself.
And how did she unzip my bag? It was the size of a water bottle and it was in my hands!!! I didn’t even feel the zip move, never mind a whole hand slip in there.
If my sunburn hadn’t been so excruciating I wouldn’t even have noticed my bag was empty until I was out of the station. Was this divine sunburn? Blessed blisters?
As I looked from her third arm to her face, she turned her head away and the train doors beeped and opened. Her timing was perfect, the crowd swelled around us and she was gone. The nun too.
I felt violated, surprised and thoroughly impressed. I never even saw her face.
I walked back to the hostel in a lucky daze and I wondered for weeks, why didn’t she take my things? She had her hand around them. She could have taken them and I’d never have found her.
Was it the pressure of the nun? Did the nun warn me? Did my Catholic family heirlooms alert the nun to my distress?
Was the nun in on it?