When in Italy, don't let wallet roam

July 06, 1996|By Rob Kasper

IT WAS SUPPOSED TO have been a "culturally uplifting" vacation for our family. Some cultural lifting took place, but I also spent some time worrying about getting my wallet lifted.

We visited Italy. We looked at churches, churches, churches, a few museums, then a few more churches. Those of us getting uplifted were guys. Myself, my two sons, 15 and 11, and Bill, a family friend who lives in Wilmington, Del. The lifters were my wife and Bill's wife, Ruth. I think my wife and Ruth began preparing for this trip about 25 years ago when they were in graduate school together. Over the years the two of them have been reading books, studying art history, and making travel arrangements.

I didn't pay much attention to the plans, figuring that this trip, like a lot of schemes aimed at my cultural betterment, was a long shot. But one Saturday morning, instead of finding myself at a baseball game, or a swim meet, or wrestling with a leaky faucet, I found myself in a London airport, waiting with my family to board a plane to Bologna.

I read a story in a London newspaper about pickpockets. The story reported that pickpockets were expected to have a field day as soccer fans from throughout Europe descended on England for Euro 96, the three-week European championship tournament. The story told how pickpockets were able to remove credit cards, then slip a wallet back in the pocket of the unsuspecting victim. The victim thinks he has simply misplaced, rather than lost, his credit cards, and doesn't cancel the cards. Meanwhile the pickpocket rings up purchases with the purloined cards.

I checked my wallet. I didn't see a single card. I panicked. Who could have lifted my credit cards? My mind raced as I lined up possible suspects. Could it have been that father of three who sat next to me on the plane ride across the Atlantic? He didn't look like the quick-fingered type. Maybe it was that kid who sidled up next to me as we waited in line to use the plane's bathroom? The kid seemed agitated, but then everybody waiting in the bathroom line was a little antsy.

Mentally I retraced my steps. I discovered the culprit, me. Right before I left Baltimore I had started to " slim down" my wallet by removing the grocery store check-cashing cards and laundry receipts that made by wallet bulge. I figured that carrying a fat wallet would be provocative to the pickpockets. Moreover, a fat wallet would be uncomfortable to sit on during long flights.

While wallet slimming is a good idea, I got carried away. For some reason I ended up taking my credit cards out of my wallet. Sitting in the London airport, I tried to convince myself that my credit cards were not in the hands of some international crooks. Instead they were sitting back in Baltimore in my dresser drawer. I was pretty sure that was the case. I didn't cancel the credit cards, and used the ones my wife had brought along. But in the next two weeks, as we visited virtually every art-laden church in the Tuscany region of Italy, I did utter a few words to the patron saint of credit cards. Just in case.

My wallet worries had virtually evaporated when we moved down to Rome for a few days. Our goal in Rome, as the 11-year-old put it, was to see "the ceiling." That would be the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the one covered with the frescoes of Old Testament characters painted by "Michelangel" as the name now reads on a cheap T-shirt we picked up in Rome. His name read "Michelangelo" when we bought the shirt, but after one trip through the dryer, the "O" bailed out.

Pickpockets apparently like to prey on tourists while they are staring at art, or waiting in line to stare at art.

Workers at our hotel in Rome had warned us to keep close watch on our wallets and cameras as we toured the Vatican. The 11-year-old took this warning to heart, and during our hour-and-a-half wait outside the Vatican walls, he demanded to see my wallet every 15 minutes.

Later, when we stood in the piazza outside St. Peter's, two things caught my attention. First, there was Pope John Paul II, standing in a window delivering a Sunday afternoon message to the crowd gathered below him. Secondly, there was a cluster of policemen examining a wallet that had been turned over to them. I checked my pocket. My wallet was still there.

We rode a bus, the #23, back to our hotel. We had to stand up, but traveled in relative comfort for a few blocks. Suddenly, about 40 college-age guys piled on the bus. Bodies were pressed against bodies against the bus doors. At the next stop a man, a woman and a young boy squeezed on the bus. Soon they were leaning against me and my wife. The bus lurched along and I made sure that my wallet was still in the back pocket of my pants, buttoned tight. From time to time, I wiggled my rear end to slightly different positions, trying to keep my wallet pocket away from the pressure of the bodies behind me.

Finally, our stop came into view and I pushed toward the exit of the bus. As I got off the bus, I put my hand on the pocket holding my wallet. The pocket had been unbuttoned, but the wallet still there. A close call. My wife was not so lucky. In the crush someone had removed about $12 worth of lire from one of her front pants pockets.

Now that I am back home, I have vivid mental images of what the hands of artists like Michelangelo, Bernini and Botticelli can produce. I have a new respect for quick hands of the pickpockets. And I have my new hiding spot for my wallet and my credit cards. I am not saying where.

Pub Date: 7/06/96

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