When I visited Spain last summer before moving here, I spent a couple days up north in Bilbao. One night, while it was still light out, I was walking the streets with my cell phone in my pocket, listening to music through my ear buds. As I passed a shorter, wider man, roughly my age, he smiled and stuck out his hand. Because I am a gentleman and eager to represent my fellow Americans well, I stuck mine out as well.
"¿Cómo estás, amigo?" he asked. Then asked again. And maybe even a third time, all the while vigorously shaking my hand and still smiling.
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He tried to pull me closer, but I did a little spin move that would have made Barry Sanders proud, and began to smile as well. Then I pulled on his arm – lovingly, but sternly, as a parent might pull on the arm of a child prone to running into traffic, though I know nothing about parenting, which is a sore subject with my own parents, who wish I did, and who are just finding out about this story for the first time as they read this, because look, I'm fine, and it was almost a year ago – and squeezed his hand tighter, told him I was "Muy bien," and out-crazied him.
It must have been at that moment that he realized that this American gentleman could shake hands and dosey-doe all night long if he so le gustaría. After about 10 seconds of these pleasantries, he released my hand, and I his. A truce not so much unlike a Macron-Trump handshake-athon (and you better believe I'm not Trump in this scenario).
I have two roommates. Both of them are Spanish, and both speak English. One of them is 24 and he is great in every way. The other one is 19, and in some ways, he is also great. Both go to my church.
This is the first time the younger one has lived away from home, so the last five months have been a learning experience for all three of us. In fact, after living with him, I think I do know a little about parenting.
This teenager roommate is in his first year of medical school, and I say with no sarcasm that this must be challenging and time-consuming.
So much so that he sometimes makes the understandable mistake that I often made at 19, and still do on occasion at 31, which is believing that he is the axis upon which the entirety of the universe rotates. (I don't think the universe actually rotates, but you get the point.)
I have not yet had the heart, nor the patience, to tell him that this is not in fact the case, though I try to drop hints along the way, such as, Can you please...clean your dishes?...turn down your music?...not blow your nose on the shower wall?
He has a good heart, though. Earlier this year when I spent the night in the hospital with the flu, it was he who stayed for hours, helping with paperwork, translating conversations with doctors, and bringing me food and drink. That I will not forget.
But it doesn't negate what he did the night my wallet was stolen.
A couple months ago I was walking through a touristy part of Barcelona when a naive young man tugged on my shoulder.
Not in a violent way, but more in the way you might pull a spouse back onto the sidewalk the moment before they step in front of a double-decker bus traveling 27 kilometers per hour from the direction in which they failed to look, though I must admit I don't know much at all about being married, which is another sore subject with my parents, who desperately wish I were married, because, then, you know, grandkids, but I am single, so no, I do not have a Spanish girlfriend, and can we please talk about something else, because this isn't why I FaceTimed, and I know, I know, you're finding out about this story for the first time now, too, but it's because I love you so much that I don't tell you these things.
So the guy who pulled my shoulder...there was no handshake this time, just another spin move, and I was on my way.
If only I could have introduced him to my Bilbao friend from last summer, I would have saved him a lot of time, aka the two seconds he spent trying to catch me off guard probably to steal something. And while I can't say for sure that's what either of these Spaniard caballeros were doing, I wasn't born yesterday.
In fact, I was born more than 31 years ago, and yet I'm still unmarried and have no kids, which my parents are NOT excited about, in case you skipped ahead to this paragraph without reading anything else.
We'll call my teenage roommate Donatello, though that is not his name, nor is he a ninja turtle.
The morning after my wallet was stolen, apparently he had to wake up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday to study. I respect that. Anytime I arrive in the apartment and the lights are off, I'm as quiet as possible, shutting doors with the stealth of Jason Bourne, tip-toeing across the floor like it's a frozen pond and one misstep could send me into the frigid abyss below.
But not this night. Not the night I returned home at nearly 1 a.m. after my wallet was stolen, having realized just 10 minutes before that my entire life was in the hands of a complete stranger who probably has no job (I can relate!), but was in desperate need of a six-pack of Red Bull and a ton of Doritos and possibly some toothpaste, or whatever else a ladrón might buy for 19.53€ en una farmácia at that hour.
This night, I had to call Chase about my credit cards. I had to call Ally about my American debit card. I had to call ING about my Spanish debit card. And I had to call the police, twice, to tell them what happened.
So I rang them all, and I tried to do it with a quiet voice. I really did. But you can only speak so softly when you have to explain to Grace at a call center in Charlotte, N.C., that, yes, my billing address is in the U.S., but I actually live in Spain, and I know it's weird to you that the number comes after the street name in my foreign address, but could you please cancel my Visa already?
Meanwhile, Donatello knocked on the wall, which is his non-verbal way of saying, "Hey! You woke me up and I'm only 19 so I don't know a more mature way to handle this but can you please quiet down because I have to get up and study in the morning, which I feel is more important than you being in a foreign country without your ID or any access to your money?" So I asked Grace to hold on for a second, knocked on Donatello's door, opened it, and quickly told him I had been robbed and had to make some calls and I'm sorry it was keeping him awake.
"OK! So sorry!" And I thought that would be the end of it.
I lived in New York City for almost six years, and I was never once mugged/robbed/accosted by anyone. Not even an attempt. At least in New York, though, you know you're getting mugged.
It's not like, "Oh, hey, sir, not sure if you realize, but the blade of your knife is pointing at my Adam's apple and your face looks very mad."
I think it's more like, "Hey, I think this guy pointing a knife at my throat is going to kill me if I don't empty my pockets."
In Barcelona, though, it's like going through a middle-school breakup – you don't feel anything at first, but when you get home and it sinks in, you say, "Boy, this sure is an inconvenient development in my life!"
When you have to call four different banks – some of them internationally – and the police (twice) it takes a bit of time. It's not like making a hair appointment in Barcelona, which, in my experience, is quite simple. No, it's more like having to call four different banks and the police (twice) at 1 a.m.
The cell-phone signal in our apartment, which is on the inside of the building (as opposed to facing the street) is weak, so you have to speak up a bit when you talk.
Grace must have asked me five times to repeat the name of my street.
And can you spell it out?
I knew there was no way Donatello would be able to sleep through the stressed/perturbed/elevated pitch of my voice.
I was already very angry. But how could I possibly get more worked up?
Oh, I don't know, maybe by receiving this reply to my apologetic text in the midst of my call-a-thon:
Upon reading the message, I did what any rational person would do: I put whichever bank I was talking to on mute, walked down the short hallway and into Donatello's room, and smothered his face with a pillow until he lie motionless on his bed.
I had been on the beach from about 19:30-23:30 earlier that night with my Connect Group. When we finished, I walked to the metro station and got on the L4 for six stops to go home. I was riding with an Argentinian girl from church, speaking Spanish. (We're just friends, so please relax.)
But between my gringo accent, and the bulky backpack I wore to carry all the things I needed on the beach, I'm sure I looked and sounded like an easy-target tourist.
Just kidding. I didn't really murder my roommate. Instead I grabbed some rope and duct tape from our terrace, and tightly secured him to his bed – beneath the blanket, of course; I do have some sympathy – and told him if he wanted to sleep so bad he could stay in bed for the rest of his life, which would only be a few more days because no, I could not afford to bring him food and water since my WALLET HAD BEEN STOLEN!
The stop where we got on, Barceloneta, is fairly touristy. And at that hour on a Friday night, the train was as crowded as I had seen it since moving here.
My friend asked if it was like this in New York, and I said this was pretty normal, and during rush hour you can't even move. She was surprised by this.
I set my backpack on the floor in front of me to make it easier for people to stand around me.
At some point between the first and third stop, some guy bumped into me from behind. It felt unnecessary, because though the train was full, it wasn't that full. I stood my ground and he walked to the next car.
I assure you my roommate is in good health. If you want proof, here is a photo of some kind of meat dish he recently cooked with one of the pans I bought for the apartment.
The catch is that the food was cooked about two days before this photo was taken, because Donatello's new "thing" is to cook a dish with chicken or red meat or something that needs to be refrigerated fairly quickly, leave it in a pot or pan on the stove for 1-3 days at a time, and serve himself from the said cooking appliance whenever he's hungry, because he doesn't "have time" to put the food in storage containers.
This turned out to be another great opportunity to teach my forcibly adopted son a valuable life lesson, which is that if you don't take care of things that other people paid a lot of money for and let you borrow, you'll never get to use them again, and then you really won't "have time" because you'll have to go somewhere else to buy food and/or cook whenever you're hungry.
So now Donatello stores his food and washes the dishes as soon as he's done with them.
My Argentinian friend lives one stop beyond where I got off, so when we arrived at Joanic, I said goodbye, picked up my backpack and stepped off the train.
Instinctively, I patted both of my front pockets. My cell phone was in the left, but there was nothing in the right, where I usually keep my wallet. Then I remembered I had put it in my backpack while we were on the beach so that it didn't fall out while I was sitting.
But as I emptied my entire backpack onto the floor of the metro station, I remembered that I had in fact returned my wallet to my front-right pocket upon walking through the turnstile. Now I was sure it was lost during my train ride.
Oh, Donatello? He's moving out at the end of the month.
I didn't have my Argentinian friend Megan's phone number, so I texted my friend/co-leader Francesca and asked her to ask Megan if she saw my wallet.
But Francesca didn't read the message for about 15 minutes, and at that point I knew Megan would have been off the train. During the seven-minute uphill walk from the station to my apartment, I began tweeting at my banks, asking for international phone numbers, while calling ING here in Spain.
If you have heard the stereotype about everything moving slower and people being more carefree in Spain, it's true. Especially compared to New York, and especially at 01:00 on a weekend.
After 10 minutes of waiting for someone at ING to answer – I couldn't find any emergency numbers on their website – I arrived at my apartment, hung up, and started calling Chase, which I use for my credit cards. Meanwhile, I opened the ING app to find that someone had already spent 19.53€ at a pharmacy in Las Ramblas using my debit card.
I found out a few days later that the maximum you can spend on a debit card without using a pin is 20€.
Yes, seriously. He's moving out.
When I tell you I didn't feel anything when I got robbed, I mean it. At least not in my pocket. Which is probably why the guy behind me bumped into me in the first place, to distract me, while he stole my wallet, which had 15€ in cash, two Visas, two debit cards, my international insurance card, a bunch of cafe loyalty cards and my NIE. Of all these items, the NIE – my Spanish residency card – was the biggest loss.
(Almost two months ago, I permanently took my passport out of my wallet and began storing it in my apartment, Gracias a Dios.)
You can cancel bank cards. The cash wasn't that much. And while the cafe loyalty cards make me want to cry, it is the NIE that will cause the most pain to replace.
That's because it's easier to get into Harvard Law School than to acquire a NIE (according to me). At least for the former, they tell you all the requirements beforehand.
Now I might have to pay someone to get me another appointment, then pay for the appointment itself, then wait for the new card to come in, then finally, go pick it up, because it would make too much sense for them to mail it to me.
The Monday after the incident, I went to a police station near my apartment to file a report. The waiting room felt like a cross between the MVA and a public library co-working space, except much cleaner and more civilized.
A Barcelona-born police officer of about 55 years soon invited me into her office.
I can't imagine a nicer or more helpful person being assigned to help with what, to them, must have been the least important incident of the day.
We bonded over my budding Spanish skills, and the fact that she has been to Oregon, which she pronounced so oddly that at first I thought she was telling me she had been to Arragon, which probably isn't even a real place.
After about 30 minutes of chatting and documenting hard evidence (that is, emailing her a screenshot of the pharmacy charge on my bank account), she told me to wait two weeks before applying for a new NIE, because sometimes, wallets get found and/or returned, and at least still have the non-monetary items in them.
To get through the waiting period until my cards arrive, I PayPal'ed my other roommate 200€ and he gave me as much in cash.
We're nearly halfway through June, and after more than a week with no direct access to my money, I can say that, other than the NIE and coffee cards, I'm actually grateful this happened.
Because I don't have credit cards (which I pay off every month!), I have been much more conscious about the amount of money physically leaving my hands, instead of simply swiping/tapping to pay. And for this reason, I have spent way less in the (nearly) past two weeks than I normally do in the same period of time.
In fact, I'm on pace to spend about 60 percent of the amount of money on food and drinks in June as I do in a normal month, a habit I hope to continue.
Getting robbed is going to save me hundreds – maybe thousands – of Euros in the long run. Not to mention that I now value material things even less than I would like to believe I already did.
To the guy who stole my wallet and will never read this email: Thank you!