You know that pickpockets are a plague in Rome — the city of "amore" — when you can't look up to admire Michelangelo's masterpiece fresco on the Sistine Chapel's ceiling without getting your wallet lifted.
I had hoped that in the eight years since my wallet disappeared in Rome's subway that the constabulary would have gotten off their duffs to protect their city's guests. But, no, the thievery has become so bad that Vatican tourist guides recently threatened to strike to protest the inundation of pickpockets. Guess nothing is sacred.
The problem is just as bad and persistent, if not worse, outside the Vatican walls on Rome's piazzas, streets, buses, trains and ancient historic sites. Even an Angolan diplomat recently was relieved of a wad of 3,000 euros.
You might say that anyone walking around one of Europe's most notorious cities for pickpockets with such a bankroll deserved to have it stolen. But I say wait a minute, why should anyone expect to be fleeced as routinely as finding cannelloni on the menu? The prevalent attitude seems to be that anyone touring Rome should expect to be stripped of the hard-earned cash he saved to visit the eternal city.
As "grumpyoldlady" of Maryland recently posted on a Daily Mail message board: "Actually, what would surprise me the most is a trip to Rome where someone DIDN'T try to pick my pocket."
In testimony to how wanton, open and accepted the practice is, you can hardly find a travel guide that does not warn of pickpockets. Carry your cash, passport and credit cards deep in your front pocket and keep your hand on them. Don't dress, act or look like a tourist. (Oh, sure.) Look out for Gypsies. Wear a money belt. Be alert that the sight of a woman openly breast-feeding an infant may just be a distraction. Avoid places where pickpockets congregate.
It's all bologna.
If you want to avoid places where they congregate, you can forget about visiting not just the Vatican, but also the Forum, Colosseum, Termini train station, Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, among other sights. I think they spotted me pulling out my money at the fountain to buy lunch, followed me past the Steps and then struck when my wife and I boarded a nearby Metro subway train.
I had followed the advice: wallet deep in pocket covered by my left hand. With the rail car packed like sardines, I was simultaneously squashed from back, front and sides. It didn't hurt that a couple of nice-looking young women were applying the crush. As the train lurched, I instinctively grabbed a vertical pole for support with the hand I removed from my pocket. That was all they needed. Anyone wearing woolen mittens could have grabbed my wallet without my noticing. Not one looked like a Gypsy or a pickpocket. You think anyone planning to steal from you would dress like a thief or look like a Gypsy? They all were well-dressed young people, like you'd find at the mall.
Looking back, I'm like every other victim: I should have known. The upper level of the train station was packed with thieves, lounging and standing around, watching people pull out their wallets or looking for the sure giveaway: a tourist pats a pants pocket to check that his wallet still is there. It was like vultures watching from the branches as you crawled across the desert looking for a drop of water. Like fire ants ready to swarm and pick your bones when you accidentally step on their mound. Like green flies on ... never mind, you get the idea.
If you think you've outsmarted these people, you're wrong. For every piece of advice, they have figured out a way to foil it. I concluded that the only way to protect my money was to wear a cup; anyone trying to dig in there for it, well, good luck.
If China ever stops lending the U.S. money to cover our ever-exploding debt, we can always turn to Rome's thieves for all the money they have taken off American tourists. Rome seems to think that tourists have an obligation to feed and house these crooks — our duty for being allowed to pay for their overpriced restaurants, hotels and gelato. People who drop that kind of money on the Roman and Italian economy deserve more respect.
Until the "polizia" get a grip on their bandits, I'm never going back. I'd advise you to do the same.
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