Friday, December 03, 2004

Stef's Guide to Italian Street Larceny

Tracy, Sienna

So, we're back from Sardinia and I'm still picking through my photographs and sketching out the notes I'll write to go with my gallery. Whilst ruminating over the trip it dawned on me that this was our only visit to Italy, out of many, where no-one tried to rip us off or steal from us. In that respect, and others, Alghero scores high marks.

One of the worst aspects of visiting Italy is the constant sense of having to be on guard against being ripped-off in shops or robbed. We've seen a lot of that in our time there. Forget airline tickets or mobile phone charges, the Italian hospitality industry is the home of the variable pricing model. On a trip to Florence three years ago, the same bar charged us three different prices for the same order three days in a row. The third price was the highest. This prompted me to launch into the bar owner in a mixture of broken Italian and English blasphemy demanding to know what the bloody hell he was playing at. Genuinely taken aback by my deft mastery of obscene Italian idiom and my understanding of the going rate for the price of Florentine coffee, he shrugged his shoulders and basically said 'I thought you were tourists. It is normal to overcharge tourists. You are not a normal tourist. I am sorry if I caused offence'. I was equally taken back by his frankness. I was expecting him to come up with the usual explanations but he didn't. The usual explanations involve some variation of 'You have to pay more because you are sitting down' or 'You have to pay more because you are standing by the window' or 'You have to pay more because you’re not standing on one leg and whistling'. Whatever location or body posture you have chosen to assume carries a price premium. On this occasion I was openly told 'You have to pay more because you’re a tourist'.

The peculiar thing is all the London Italians I know are aware of this issue yet many of the non Italians I know who have visited Italy rarely comment on this side of things, if ever. Don’t they notice? Are they so awed by the culture that they don't realise they're paying four quid for a coffee and a danish in a backstreet bar? Or is it that many of them are accustomed to being ripped-off as a matter of course back in Britland?

The introduction of the Euro was a major factor in reducing tourist rip-offs in Italy. Prior to that it was not uncommon to overhear tourists in Italy, wading through thousands of Lire of notes, saying something like 'Do you think this is enough for an ice cream?'. A few years ago a Roman bar was prosecuted for what, even by the high standards of Roman bars, was a breathtaking rip off. A group of American tourists ordered a round of soft drinks that came to something like 25,000L. The waiter obligingly helped them out with their currency and relieved them of just under 1,000,000L in notes. And then, his masterstroke; he gratefully accepted a tip for his friendly service and assistance. Bar owners and waiters throughout the land were whispering in hushed awe over that one for years. The bar was only prosecuted because someone in the Americans' hotel noticed later that their guests had lost a lot of money; presumably they had it earmarked for themselves.

In addition to the now defunct multi '000,000 currency system, another contributory factor to Italian retail larceny is the fact that many places are still largely owner staffed and managed. In the UK most high street shops and eating places are chain outlets. The staff there are low paid, treated poorly and have absolutely no incentive to put extra money inside their employer's cash register. Normally, I'd be the first person to deplore the proliferation of McDonalds and Starbucks but, in honesty, there are occasions in Italy when I am grateful to see such places. Sometimes I really can’t be bothered with the hassle of sparring with bar staff and welcome the prospect of knowing what I'm going to get and how much I'm going to pay for it. And that's why they're winning.

If I'm sounding harsh, in my defence, I'd point out that even Italians mistrust each other. That is why they have the curious practice in non family run places of ordering and paying for your food at a cash register then taking a ticket to the person who will serve your food or coffee. Some people will tell you it's a hygiene thing. More honest people will tell you it's to make sure the takings actually reach the cash register.

Nor does the Italian State trust the Italian people. In recent years it has now become an offence to leave a shop without a printed receipt ('ricevuta fiscale') and you can be fined for not demanding one. This was introduced to stop Italian shopkeepers cheating on their taxes ('Ladies and Gentlemen I give you the Italians - Love a generous welfare state. Hate paying for it') but is also a handy tool in the suspicious tourist's armoury. Some shops still try and get away without issuing them but it's always a good wheeze to demand one if you're feeling wronged or pissy.

If you manage to avoid the rip-offs there's the challenge of avoiding Italian street thieves and con men; snatch thieves on scooters, people offering to take your picture, 'oh that's friendly', then demanding a ransom for the return of your camera and double-act pickpockets abound.

The double-act pickpockets are an Italian speciality. In boring old England most of our street thieves confine themselves to a) threatening people at knife point in large groups or b) sneaking into pubs and bars and stealing unguarded personal items when no-one is looking. Italians prefer more artful techniques and like to work in well-practised teams of two. A pretty standard wheeze, now occurring occasionally in the UK, is to hold a newspaper up to your victim's face, or throw some liquid on them or otherwise distract them whilst your partner dives in from the rear. The last time someone tried that baby on me was in Russia, not Italy. I got out of that situation by the simple expedient of punching one of my assailants, a 12 year old boy, in the throat. He went straight down, poleaxed, and his three partners lost all interest in the contents of my and my companion's pockets. It's harsh world out there and I really don’t like thieves, street or corporate. And, no, I'm not in the habit of hitting children but a) I was aiming at his shoulder and b) anybody who has been mobbed by a group of thieving kids in a 3rd world country will know just how nasty the situation can get if they think you're a soft touch.

Sometimes the double act will try a more subtle approach. Tracy and myself were sitting on the steps in St Peter's Square Rome one day when a middle-aged Italian man and a younger, Black woman sat down a few metres behind us. The woman was clearly eyeing my camera and the man had laid his coat in the space between us. Like a kind of visual comedy sketch we adjusted our position twice and twice they shifted themselves to be close to us. Presumably they were trying to act like a normal pair of tourists, just lounging around. They were really rubbish at it. We eventually got up and left. I looked over my shoulders as we walked away and, yes, they had moved behind another couple of potential muppets.

That's the thing about the majority of thieves. They're cowardly, sneaky scumbags looking for easy targets. You can protect yourself but the price is constant vigilance and that's not what you’re after on a holiday.

On another occasion, in Milan, I noticed an old couple of Italians loading their luggage onto a train. Italian old people never travel with less than a dozen bags and the equivalent contents of a well stocked delicatessen. Now that my mum has passed 60 she's started doing it too. Whilst these particular olds dragged a selection of their copious collection of bags into the carriage they left a small pile of luggage on the platform. There was nothing special, a couple of battered handbags and a few carrier bags. The couple was clearly not well-off and the bags probably contained such valuable items as a couple of salamis, a few bread rolls and some old people underwear. That didn’t stop the thief, who was also watching them, from nicking a bag whilst they were in the train. He ran straight into me. Braced as I was and carrying an overweight rucksack, the little snot went straight down. I kicked him once to liberate the bag and took it back to a confused old woman who was in the process of gradually becoming aware she was short of something.

Ok, it's not just an Italian thing, I recently had a similar experience with a South East European character trying to steal bags outside the toilets in Heathrow Arrivals but I have seen much more of it in big Italian towns than English ones. Maybe I shouldn’t moan, at least Italian street thieves are not as well armed as London thieves, who are a much more serious prospect altogether.

The only time I have been genuine worried by Italian street vermin was ten years ago on a trip to Rome with Tracy. We'd known each other for less than a year and it was her first trip to Europe. One night we were strolling near the Coliseum, it was out of season and quiet. I had fallen down with an extreme, but I must say rare, case of Garibaldi's revenge and was so desperate I clambered over a wall surrounding a government palace garden. For the life of me I don't know how I managed it. I checked the wall over the next morning in daylight; it was nine or ten feet high and capped with broken tiles. There's nothing like a severe case of the trots in a foreign city to give a man superhuman powers.

Anyway, I was on one side of the wall and Tracy was waiting for me sitting on a bench on the other. I did what I had to do and cleaned my posterior up as well as I could with a discarded T-shirt I found in some bushes. Even though I was hampered by a caked layer of leaves, twigs and gravel clinging to my bum crack I managed to get back up on the wall. Looking down I noticed that a young guy, in his twenties, was sitting next to Tracy and stroking her hair. A few metres off another, older guy, was watching them. He was clearly pretending to have nothing to do with the first guy but, equally clearly, had a lot to do with him.

Tracy later told me that the guy had just sat down next to her, apparently making idle conversation asking her things like 'Was she a visitor?', 'Was her hotel nearby?', 'Would a beautiful lady like her like to be shown round Rome?'. Then he started touching her hair …

At which point I leapt down from the top of a 10ft wall, smelling of poo, right next to him, shouting and swearing in a mixture of languages. I was sweating profusely and in one hand I was clutching a very small twig.
I think he was surprised. He and his mate buggered off pronto; presumably in search of a genuine sad, solo travelling, naive American female tourist on which their particular industry is so solidly based.

I don’t recall Tracy ever thanking me for my timely arrival. OK, Bruce Willis might have pulled off a more glamorous intervention but I was there when she needed me. All she could say was 'What kept you?'.

We went back to our hotel and I had a shower. A pile of dried shrubbery made its way down my legs to the shower floor. I was limping for days afterwards.


Geek's Girl said...

Just wanted to let you know that I'm glad you're back safe and sound and in one piece - or is that two (Tracy is included in the 'you' part)?

Finally I have something entertaining to read every day. Again. I'm not sure but I think I was beginning to suffer withdrawl symptoms.

No pressure though mate, none whatsoever. Not at all. Don't think about it. Just carry on and pretend I'm not here.

Stef said...

Pressure? Of course I feel the pressure.

But thanks for the positivity. It's always welcome.

Advanced apologies for the boring stuff ;-)