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.
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.
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.