Double-Take

This morning Michael and I saw the Cours Mirabou for the last time. Our taxi drove under the plane trees, past the Cafe Grillon where we sat for coffee and people watching nearly every day, past the gelato shop that we probably frequented a bit too much. We left Aix-en-Provence  and headed to Barcelona where, in two days, I’ll meet Michael’s family for the first time before we all hop on a cruise ship headed around the Mediterranean for twelve nights. (Tough life. I know.)

However, for five minutes today, there was a good chance we would meet Michael’s family with one less bag in our possession. 

Our Street in Barcelona

Michael and I arrived at our AirBnB apartment in Barcelona a half-hour before we were due to meet the owner. While Michael stood guard over our bags, I headed toward the small market down the street for some nourishment. Walking in, a two-year-old boy’s laughter filled the place as he pulled bags of potato chips from a box and ran them over to his father who was stocking the shelves. I smiled as I dodged the little boy and debated over ramen noodle choices before deciding to go with some sliced cheese instead. I was sad to see my purchase caused the interruption of the little boy’s game, but was sure it would resume soon enough. 

Next, I stopped at a bakery for a baguette. Now I possessed all the makings for what had been my daily lunch along the Camino two years ago: a bocadillo con queso. I walked out of the store thinking of Portomarin, a town whose church steps formed the setting for my lunch one day on the Camino. With my pack on the steps beside me, I tore my bread apart. I saw an Australian couple I had spoken to earlier and they graciously let me borrow their knife in order that I could slice the cheese for my sandwich. By the end of the Camino I wondered if I would ever again want to see a cheese sandwich. Yet here I was, two years later, about to enjoy that delicacy once more. 

As I walked back towards Michael, I saw a young man bicycling toward me. He was steering the bike with only his left hand, a backpack hanging from his right hand. But he had a slight problem: the straps of the pack were getting caught in his front tire. In the front pocket of the pack, something silver was sticking out and caught my eye. In that moment I recognized Michael’s Italian Stovetop Espresso maker, and realized the man was holding Michael’s pack. 

Michael’s Pack–with the telltale espresso maker

 

The bike slowed as the straps got more entangled in the front wheel. I picked up my pace as the man turned in front of me, pulling onto a side street realizing he couldn’t go any further. I caught up to him just as he got off the bike. I could now see   Michael’s water bottle in the side pocket. 

“Is that yours?” I asked pointing to the pack. He looked at me as if he didn’t understand. He squatted down to work at the straps, and I did the same, hiking my purse up onto my right shoulder, and tucking my cheese and bread under my left arm. The two of us spent a good thirty seconds calmly working together to free the straps. “Attends,”  I said, when he was pulling the wrong way and making it worse. I figured out what we needed to do to free the final strap and, pointing to where it was caught, said, “ici” (here). Having been in Barcelona less than an hour, I was till thinking in French. 

I thought to call out to Michael who wasn’t visible but whom I knew wasn’t much further down the street, but in that same moment I realized that would require him leaving all our other bags.

I now realize the thief probably just thought I was a nice girl who stopped to help him. But in one smooth motion, I slid the final strap out with one hand and slid my other arm through one of the shoulder straps, all the while hiking my own purse up on my shoulder using my elbow to hold it close to me. The thief just as quickly had his hand on the other shoulder strap. I looked him in the eye and said, “This is not yours!” 

“Esta mio! Esta mio!” he said, pointing to his chest. He wasn’t angry. He just acted like someone genuinely trying to explain the situation to a girl who was a little too slow to understand. 

“No,” I said, pointing toward Michael’s direction. “It’s my boyfriend’s.”

“Esta mio!” he said once more, pleadingly. 

“No it’s not,” I said, getting louder, standing there defiantly. I pulled a little on my end, and just like that he let out a big sigh and let it go. I slung it over my shoulder as he rode away. 

Five seconds later I walked around the curve to see Michael facing me, but standing across the street from our bags. He walked towards me smiling as if I was just coming back from the store. “Did you not notice your pack was missing?” I said, incredulously.

“What?” he said, looking down at the pile of bags, his smile quickly disappearing as he took in a sharp breath. I dumped the pack onto the ground. 

“Oh my God. The guy on the bike,” he said. 

“Yeah–a guy on a bike,” I said, the words tumbling out of my mouth. “I saw him down there with the straps of your bag tangled in his front tire.”

“Oh my God,” he said, putting it all together. “He distracted me. He was asking if I spoke Spanish, or English, and where the Picasso Museum was. I turned towards him for maybe ten seconds–”

“With your back to the bags?”

“Yeah, but–oh my God. In the blink of any eye! Someone else must have taken the bag. How did you get it?” he asked, the both of us still trying to fit the pieces together. “I’m having heart palpitations,” he said, putting his hand to his chest. 

As we figured, there were two men working together. The guy on the bike distracted Michael while the accomplice took the pack. The bike guy must have then turned around to catch up with the accomplice so he could grab the bag and quickly get away from the scene of the crime. Only he apparently wasn’t so skilled at stealing hiking packs–the ones with lots of straps hanging from them. 

And that’s where all the fates came in. That I left the bakery at just the right moment, that the straps stopped the cyclist just at that moment, that Michael had the silver espresso maker stuffed in the front pocket of his sack. 

We stood there looking at each other, stunned, going over the pieces again and again. 

“Do you know what’s in that bag?” Michael asked. I had no idea. Michael has more luggage than I do, and I’m mystified as to what it all contains: two carry-ons, a trumpet case, and the backpack. “My computer’s in there. My laptop. And my iPad. We might not have been able to go on the cruise,” he said. (Michael is self-employed and works on the internet. He would have had to spend at least a day reporting the crime, getting new equipment, etc.)

He opened his arms to give me a hug. “No, go stand on the other side of the bags,” I said. I still wasn’t convinced something wouldn’t happen again. 

A police car drove by and Michael waved them down. As he walked over to the car, I said, “No!” thinking, “Don’t leave me alone with the bags!” but just as quickly realized how could I tell him not to go talk to the police? 

He told them what happened, but neither of us could describe the thief with much more than his brown hair color and the fact that he was riding a bike. But at least they were made aware. 

Michael and I stood on either side of our circle of bags, legs a bit more than shoulder length apart, going over and over the details. 

Hours later, having settled into our apartment and gone out for a walk, I said to Michael, “I know you don’t believe in this stuff as much as I do. But I think that when you do good things, good comes back to you.” I explained how the previous day I met an ESL teacher for a coffee as I wanted to learn a bit more about teaching English in France. When it came time to leave, I insisted on paying for her lunch as a thank you for her time. She was surprised, but eventually agreed. 

“So wait,” Michael said. “You do something good, and I reap the rewards?”

“Well, it was a reward for me too, because I would have had to deal with you if that bag got stolen.” 

“You know,” he said, “I think you should join the Peace Corps so I can get some more rewards.” 

I laughed. For now, having all of our belongings in our possession was good enough. 

 

 

The Last Supper

A few days ago (or maybe a week ago?) Michael and I had a lovely meal at an Italian restaurant in Aix. As is common here, our table was outside. But instead of a large square filled with people, we were on a tiny side street–so tiny that if a car passed by, it very well could make contact with my knee. We relaxed with a glass of house red, then devoured our meals: penna arrabiata for Michael and gnocchi for me. The sauce on my dish was some of the best I’d had so, on Saturday, Michael and I tried to find the restaurant again, in the hopes that we could eat there one last time before I left for the camino. There was just one problem: neither of us could recall the location of the restaurant. Nor the name. And I have no sense of direction. And Michael claims to have a poor memory. A wonderful combination in this situation. 

But we both love to walk. And Michael loves to track those walks on the FitBit he wears on his wrist each day. So we headed out to 1) see if we would stumble upon it like we had before and 2) reach Michael’s goal of 15,000 steps that day. 

I recalled that after we ate there we turned a couple corners and found ourselves in the “student section,” as Michael and I have come to call it–a square populated with outdoor cafes by day, and with hordes of college students by night. (Aix-en-Provence is a city of about 150,000. Of those, about 40,000 are international students.) 

We roamed every street off that plaza, but had no luck. 

“Did you charge that dinner on your credit card?” I asked.

Michael’s face lit up. “You’re so smart,” he said. 

“That’s why you’re with me,” I retorted. 

“But why you stay with me, I’m not so sure.” (Maybe because he tells me I’m smart?)

We stopped on a street corner and Michael pulled up his credit card account on his phone. His iPhone (after many visits to the Orange store and one call to Apple) was now usable for internet in France. Mine? Nope. (After one visit to the Orange store, two calls to Verizon, one to Samsung, and numerous google searches.)

I thought I’d recognize the name of the restaurant if heard it. Michael read aloud the few places listed. Turns out I was wrong. Undeterred, Michael googled the location of each place and over the next hour we walked by each one, but no luck.

The next day we walked another part of the city. “We should have marked on the map every street we’ve been on,” I said. Michael preferred the wandering approach as opposed to my police-like grid search. I pulled out the map anyway, and we “wandered” in a certain direction. But still, without success. 

It was time for a break. So we grabbed a table on the Cours Mirabeau–an endlessly entertaining place for people watching. Or checking Facebook, in Michael’s case. (Not because he’s addicted to it. Just because he has internet, and I don’t.)

“Mike and Kristin think we’re breaking up,” he said to me as he stared at his phone. 

“Why do you say that?” I asked. 

“You posted that you’re going on the camino. Not ‘we’re’ going on the camino.”

What I posted was correct. Michael was going to stay in Aix while I headed over to Porto to walk the Camino Portugues. We’ve got three months here. What’s a few weeks apart? 

“Maybe we should take a picture of us together so they know that’s not the case,” I offered.

“Nah, let them think that,” he said casually, as the waiter delivered our oh-so-healthy snacks: a nutella crepe (for me) and french fries (for Michael).

“You know . . .” I said, rolling my crepe, “I don’t think we’ve taken a single picture of us together.” I took the first bite of my crepe and momentarily left the earth (nutella has that effect on me). 

“I blame you,” Michael said, with a smile. I rolled my eyes. Indeed, ten days had gone by since we touched down in Europe and neither of us had ever asked another person to take our picture. 

I devoured my crepe, then decided Michael was not eating his fries fast enough and I needed to help. 

Michael, a man who wastes no time on getting things done, called our waiter over and, in a combination of English, French, and sign language, asked the tall, gray-haired man to take our picture. Michael posted it to Facebook then and there. 

We returned to our apartment so I could finish packing. Michael decided to continue on as he was six thousand steps short of his daily 15,000 step goal. An hour (or two?) later, a message popped up on my computer. I opened it to see a video Michael took–of our restaurant. Complete with a hello from the waitress who helped us that night.

A minute later he returned to the apartment, like a man returning from battle–triumphant and exhausted. I greeted him with hugs and kisses and asked where on earth he found the place. “I walked all over, hon, and was on my way home when I thought I’d look down one more street.” 

“Which street?”

“You’ll have to see when we go there tonight,” he said, dropping his keys and a business card on the cabinet in the foyer. He quickly covered the card with his keys, then thought better of it. “I don’t trust you,” he said, as he put the card in his pocket. 

“Is it close?” 

“I’m not telling you.”

“Is it anywhere near where we were looking?” Again, he refused to give any more information. 

That night, we headed to Rue de la Masse. Mere minutes from our apartment, and no where near the student section. Michael paid for dinner. With his charge card. 

A Writer’s Block

“Will you be writing while you’re there?” 

“Yes,” I said. “I’ll be blogging, and I’ll post them to Facebook.”

Ah, the best laid plans. 

Sometimes I wonder what it is that keeps us from doing the things that we say matter most to us? 

I have plenty of unscheduled time. Huge “blocks” of it during which I could write. And yet I have written hardly a word. 

Writer’s block: An extended period of time during which one could write but, for various reasons, does not. 

So what makes today any different? Perhaps that I have four hours on a train with no internet service. Thus, there is no further research I can do for my upcoming camino. Nor can I book my as-yet-unscheduled return flight. 

I read somewhere that what distinguishes a professional writer from an amateur writer is that a professional knows writing isn’t hard–but starting is. But isn’t that true of many things in life? I think of my decluttering clients and students. How often, once we get started, is a task not nearly as big as we, at first, thought it would be? And then we wonder why we didn’t start this sooner. 

So I have no excuses. I have simply neglected to start. 

Until today.