The below account of what happened on 27 November 2011 was originally published on my now defunct Cowbird profile. At the time I needed to write about it, but didn’t want to rehash the details a million times with everyone I knew, so hid it away. Now, a year later, having just come back from another visit to Calabria which involved another complex (although thankfully much duller!) journey, I thought it was time it saw the light of day.
“BRIT-TAN-I-CCA, yes?” Nora, my Italian boss, is pressing her leg against mine under the table in a desperate attempt not to laugh. She has come along to the police station in case of language difficulties, but we weren’t expecting these to belong to the Italians in the room. I’ve been doing fine so far – Nora’s been pretty redundant in terms of translation services – but the friendly, white-haired carabiniero that is taking my crime report is having problems. He attempts to type in my nationality again, using one plump finger and spelling it out loud, syllable by syllable. “BRIT-TAN-I-CHE. Correct?” I nod, straight-faced. My leg, meanwhile, has gone numb from where Nora is clutching it with her free hand under the table.
“So, signora. You were robbed last night, yes? Please tell me how this happened.”
“OK. I was on Via Plebiscito …”
I’m driving around the outskirts of Catania after a weekend away with friends in Calabria. I’m happier than I’ve been in ages. I’m also lost. I’m looking around me for a sign – anything – that will tell me where I am. I knew as soon as I did it that I’d taken the wrong junction off the motorway, but by that time there was no helping it. I can’t even tell if I’m heading the right way. My sense of direction, usually very reliable, has failed me completely and I don’t recognise a thing. Am I going into or out of town? I don’t have a clue. Every so often I find a sign for a place name that I vaguely recognise, but inevitably as soon as I start to follow them the signs then disappear. This is Italy, after all.
It’s been a good 45 minutes since I came off the motorway and I still don’t have the foggiest where I am. Then I see a road name: Via Plebiscito. This is both good and bad. I recognise the name and I know I’m not too far from the centre. However, this is also one of the most notorious streets in Catania. If I had the choice, I’d avoid it, but the traffic is such that I can’t turn round and if I could I’d probably end up even more lost. Snapping the radio off so that I can concentrate I drive on.
It’s a surprisingly pretty street. There are wide, tree-lined pavements garlanded with fairy lights. Stalls selling barbecued meats appear every twenty yards. People are out and about, talking, laughing, enjoying the run-up to Christmas. For some reason it makes me think of Paris. I smile. Maybe it’s not such a bad area as people make out. I relax my grip on the steering wheel and try to work out in which direction I’m going. From my memories of the map, Via Plebiscito is a very long road. However, I can’t remember exactly where it comes out. Racking my brains, I keep driving.
Suddenly, I am aware of a moped so close behind me that he’s almost riding pillion. My warm fuzzy feelings disappear. At the back of my mind I remember driving with Nora when I first arrived in Catania. Whenever a moped came close to the car she would slam on the central locking and grab her handbag, muttering dire curses in Sicilian. I reach my elbow back to hit the lock on my door. It meets only smooth plastic, so I search the dashboard for the central locking button.
There isn’t one.
I’m in the worst area of Catania, at night, on my own, and I Can’t. Lock. The Doors.
I clutch the steering wheel and look in my rearview mirror. The moped’s gone. My momentary relief is yanked away from me as I realise with an icy gush of fear that it’s because he’s now right beside me, peering in through the passenger window. Desperately I pull the wheel to the right to try to crowd him out, hoping that he won’t have space to open the door.
He drops back.
I exhale. I’m not out of the woods yet, though. I’m still lost. I’ve got more of an idea where I was than ten minutes before, but I’m still not sure how this road links up to others that I know. The traffic has eased, but there are cars parked along both sides of the road, so there’s no turning round. All I can do is keep driving and hope that a familiar landmark comes up sooner rather than later. Up ahead, there’s a moped turning around. He’s blocking my way, so I slow the car to a stop.
I realise what’s going to happen just a split second before it does so.
It’s the same moped as before, and he isn’t trying to turn around; he’s making sure that I can’t drive forward. He stares straight at me, eyes insolent through the gap in his helmet. I stare back, on the verge of blaring the horn. Suddenly, there’s a loud clunk and a rush of cold air from the passenger side of the car as the door flies open and I understand, too late, that it’s a two-man team. I look over, terrified, and see black balaclava, gloved hands, black jacket. The sound of his breathing and the rattle of the door as he grabs the pile of stuff I’ve left carelessly on the front passenger seat is deafening. I cry out and make a futile grab after my belongings, but he’s gone.
I stare at the space where my bag once was. The passenger door is still hanging open. I can see my favourite scarf lying on the ground outside, but there’s no way I’m getting out of the car to get it. I become aware that I’m clutching my bodywarmer, the only thing that I managed to grab back from the thief. In a fit of anger I throw it over my shoulder into the back.
Then I start to shake.
I pull the passenger door closed. The world has closed in around me. I have no awareness of anything but my immediate surroundings. Through a fug of shock, I notice that the thief hasn’t managed to get my handbag. It had been sitting underneath my overnight bag and he’d missed it. At least I’ve still got my phone and money. I grab the bag and push it under my seat, winding the strap around my leg as I do so.
A man and two women are walking across the road towards me. They look concerned. They mouth questions at me through the window. I’m still too confused to be able to open it. Instead, I open the door a crack and manage, somehow, to stammer out a sentence in Italian: “Hanno rubato la mia borsa.” They’ve stolen my bag. The three Italians look horrified and move to the side of the road as if to talk to me further, but dull acceptance settles in my brain. I close the door and drive off, shaking my head in mute apology to them.
As I drive, I mentally go through the contents of my bag. At first I’m cheered that my phone, money and cards weren’t in there. But then it hits me like a sucker punch in the stomach: my passport. My passport was in there.
I start to cry.
With the tears come the recollections of the other things that were in my bag: Kindle; camera; driving licence. Along with all the other bits and pieces that are of no value to anyone else but me: my favourite pyjamas; make-up bag; Italian dictionary. I try to laugh at the thought that there is also dirty laundry in there. Take that, you bastards. It doesn’t comfort me.
Headlights come up fast behind me and a big black car roars past, making me jump. I realise that I’ve been driving for the past five minutes with not the slightest awareness of my surroundings. There’s nothing I can do about the bag at this point in time but it looks like, in my dazed state, I’ve driven into a worse area than the one where I was before. Here there are no pedestrians, no parked cars, no houses: just empty warehouses. The absence of human life unnerves me. If I get into trouble here, no-one will help me. I clutch the steering wheel and peer through the darkness in desperate search of roadsigns. Something. Anything. Where the FUCK am I? I turn down another street and realise that I’m back where I was five minutes before. My breathing has become shallow with panic and I can feel myself getting light-headed. I tell myself to calm down. It doesn’t help.
Rigid with fear, I speed up and turn down a different street. Finally, up ahead I see the dual carriageway and the port: I know where I am. The tears start again, although this time they’re of relief. I wipe my clammy hands on my jeans and take a deep breath.
The worst is over.