The Purple of Life

She told me to hold on to the purple in my life.

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Location: Chicago, United States

I'm a 37-year-old editor and city dweller, wife and mother, moderately liberal and radically optimistic. I would fill my perfect day with a cup of coffee and the Op Ed section, a flea market and the playground, a run along Lake Michigan, a walk through the neighborhood with my son and my greyhound, a Cuban dinner and a bottle of red with my husband, and an evening flight to some European city. I wouldn't be picky about which one.

October 19, 2006

It was Sunday night, our second day in Spain

Walking home from the gym in the early evening, I note that the air in Chicago, in October, feels so different from that in Barcelona… lighter and crisper, and certainly colder. And I wonder where he is right now, what he’s doing, if he kept my picture, if he ever even looked at it. The stranger who stole my bag right out of my hand.

It was around 10:30, 11 p.m., and John and I were in Barcelona, walking back to our hotel after dinner. It was Sunday night, our second day in Spain. It should have been our third, but our flight on Thursday had been cancelled because of mechanical problems (a thousand poxes on United, by the way). So we left a day late, lost a whole day of our vacation, and spent much more time at O’Hare than I want to remember.

The one consolation had been a six-hour layover at Schiphol Airport. We took the train into Amsterdam and spent a few gentle hours wandering around the Saturday-morning city: the quiet canals, a few bikes whirring past. Tall, narrow buildings leaning on their old foundations, shopkeepers sweeping the sidewalks, a few tourists snapping photos. The sky was blue, the morning light sifting through the trees lining the canals, us cradling our coffees and just wandering, wandering, on intuition and memory, no maps in hand. We’d stayed a few days in Amsterdam in 2004 and loved it, and this was such a gift, these unexpected few hours of strolling. We took photo after photo.

Anyway. Barcelona, Sunday night, 10:30, 11 p.m. We had enjoyed a great meal of tapas, split a bottle of Rioja, and I’d successfully communicated in Spanish with our bemused waiter. Now we were tired, satiated, and strolling back to our hotel, in a pleasant residential neighborhood just east of the Placa de Catalunya. We were about a block away. I was carrying a small purse under my arm, containing our camera, my driver’s license, my credit card, my debit card, a pocket translator, powder and lipgloss, and around 80 euro. (My passport was in the hotel safe.) It was still warm out, and I took the purse from under my shoulder to carry it in my hand, holding onto the straps. A few minutes later, we heard the roar of a moped, and a guy drove onto the sidewalk and snatched it away. It happened in an instant—one second I had my purse, the next I didn’t, and the guy was gone.

I have never felt such shock. I immediately began screaming “Thief! Thief!” and John took off sprinting, his sandals flying off his feet, yelling “Hey! HEY!” But of course there was nothing we could do; the moped was gone. It took me a few seconds to register the loss of the camera, and I think that’s what made me start crying. My camera. Our pictures. I stood in the street and sobbed. John came back and put his arms around me.

The whole thing was witnessed by a guy walking his dog (a greyhound—I tearfully explained to him that we had one, too), who seemed shocked that this had happened in his neighborhood. But I’d been warned to watch out for pickpocketing in Barcelona. After four trips to Europe and five years living in a big city, I truly didn’t think it could happen to me—I was aware, I didn’t dress like a tourist, I kept my bag on my lap when we ate in restaurants. If I’d been wearing a moneybelt, my cards and cash would’ve been safe, but the biggest, most upsetting and costly loss was our camera.

The two hours that followed are a dark blur to me now. We tried to find a police station that the greyhound owner said was nearby, but we couldn’t. We went back to the hotel to retrieve the piece of paper containing my credit card numbers and the 1-800 numbers to call; luckily I’d written them down just that morning. We attempted to use a public phone on the corner. We learned that you can’t make 1-800 calls from Spain. We went to a nearby Internet café to access my cards’ websites and find the right numbers. I called and cancelled my cards. We learned, to our great relief, that John’s debit card had a different number than mine, so we still had access to our bank accounts. Finally, around 1 a.m., we collapsed in our hotel room. I felt guilty, uncomprehending, in shock. John was angry at the thief. We lay down and turned on the TV for company, watched an old Spanish-dubbed episode of Knight Rider. It was the worst night of “sleep” I’ve ever had.


Thankfully, the rest of our trip was trauma-free. The next morning we went to El Corte Ingles, Spain’s major department store, and bought a new camera. The saleswoman didn’t speak English, but we were able to muddle through. With the bad dollar/euro conversion, and the fact that we had to buy new batteries and a memory card, this was a pricey excursion. But it’s a nice camera.

Then we picked up our rental car and left Barcelona for the Costa Brava, the beautiful coast a few hours north: medieval villages, laid-back beach towns, the Mediterranean. Our base for three days in the region was an 800-year-old stone house in the quiet village of Peratallada. It was a good place to start putting the experience behind us, but it did take a few days. I often had flashbacks of the moment my purse left my hand, light as a feather. The sound of mopeds made my stomach tighten. It took me awhile to fall asleep at night. I knew John was thinking about it, too.

But as we saw more beautiful places, did more interesting things—hiked in the Pyrenees, immersed ourselves in beautiful, graceful, vibrant San Sebastian—the event fell further and further behind us. And now, almost three weeks later, it’s lost its bite; it’s a vacation story to tell. The financial cost of it still stings a bit, but I wasn’t injured. He didn’t get my passport. We had only two days worth of photos in the camera—what if it had happened at the end of the trip? (But oh, that morning in Amsterdam… it hurts to lose the evidence of that.)

My credit cards have been replaced, and I went downtown for my new license yesterday. Before that, every time I opened my wallet I was jolted anew to see the empty slot where my license used to be, where my own face used to look back at me. It made me think of some of the photos in my camera, the ones I took of myself in the hotel mirror, the ones John took of me… did he look at them? If he kept the camera, is he still? If he pawned it, does someone else have them now? It’s a strange thing to contemplate, and I haven’t quite stopped contemplating it yet.

Note: I’ve begun uploading some of my Spain photos to Flickr; it’s still a work in progress.

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