SOMERSET, KY — A traveler’s story. One I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
It was 6:30 p.m. about 12 hours before our scheduled flight home from Rome to Chicago. Gabrielle, Maggie, and I had just gotten off the train from Florence and I was exchanging dollars for euros at the central Rome station. The shoulder bag I’ve carried across six continents lay on the floor at my feet. Inside was $1,000 cash, my camera, glasses, IPad, keyboard, car keys, notebooks, tickets, and the passport I’d just zipped into its secure pocket.
I averted my sight from the bag to the teller to receive the cash. It was a single blink, a lone moment. When I looked down to pick up the bag the space where it lay was empty.
In the course of a lengthening life I never encountered any emotion that encompassed the dissolving, frustrating, infuriating, desperate feeling of that sight. Nothing there but smudged floor tiles. I’ve been emptied and weakened by deaths of loved ones. I’ve been embarrassed by failures and slights. I’ll never forget the electric shock that slid up my spine the morning that my college physical chem professor handed me an exam with the score of 18 scrawled in murderous red ink.
Losing my shoulder bag felt like desolation. In a decade of global travel I’ve lost stuff, twice had money stolen, and once had a wallet and credit cards lifted from my coat in Bratislava, Slovakia. But never something as urgent as a stolen shoulder bag, and especially a stolen passport. I felt stranded. I knew instantly that it meant big trouble for returning to the U.S., and smaller trouble for replacing all that the bag contained.
The next few moments, and the hours spent afterwards in anger and remorse, were studies in unerring helplessness. I screamed for help, ran for the main exit, and hoped somebody had seen something to prompt the thief to drop the bag. No such luck. I alerted Maggie and Gabrielle who were in line for a taxi, reported the incident to the Rome Police, and traveled to the Rome airport to confirm that boarding would be impossible without a passport. Before midnight we holed up in a lousy hotel room near the airport to plan next steps.
We decided Maggie and Gabrielle would fly as scheduled and I’d stay back to gain a new passport. All night I projected the negative consequences and what ifs. What if it took a week to get home. What if thieves could use the digital data and signatures in my Ipad to hack my accounts. What if Gabrielle and Maggie encountered trouble and I wasn’t around to help. What if I’d also had my wallet stolen.
Such concerns raised in the pre-dawn dark dissolved in the morning light. The resolution turned out to be easier than I anticipated. Gabrielle and Maggie had comfortable flights home. I arrived early the next morning at the US Embassy in Rome where personnel were helpful and professional. I had a new temporary passport in hand before noon. Noting I was a journalist one official told me the embassy handles 2,000 stolen passports a year. News reports say they are valued at around $3,000 to $5,000 each. “We did a survey with other embassies in Europe,” the officer said. “It’s a billion dollars in losses.”
I stayed the night in a simple budget hotel near the train station, took the express the next morning to the international airport, and boarded my flight two hours before noon. Everybody I encountered who was responsible for reviewing my passport had a story. Security officer: “My sister had her purse stolen.” Airline gate agent: “Just happened to my brother. Lost everything.” Customs officer leaving the country: “My cousin. His bag was stolen. I’m so sorry.”
Customs officer in Chicago: “Stolen passport, huh?”
“I don’t get it,” I responded. “How do they use it? My picture is on it. State Department cancels the number on the old one.”
Customs officer, laughing: “You have no idea.”
Italy, by the way, is lovely. Rome is spectacular with its ruins and ancient alleys and buildings. Florence is a warren of shops and eateries. Lucca and Assisi are walled villages and flagstone streets between 1,000-year-old buildings. Every place we went boasted great palaces and greater cathedrals. The countryside is largely devoid of suburban sprawl, indicating a reverence for history and rural spaces. Trains were fast and clean. Driving was easy and picturesque. Dining was a nightly pleasure. We attended a stupendously inspiring Christmas Eve service at the Assisi basilica that St. Francis attended. The music was wonderful.
The trip was a kick from start to near finish. And then a return to Rome and the den of thieves at the train terminal. My shoulder bag stolen as it lay at my feet. It is one of those life incidences that I probably will never find amusing.
— Keith Schneider