To Catch a Thief

Cafés along the edge of the Jardin de Ville

I’m on the train from Grenoble to Valence, then onto Carcassonne. I’m upset. I’m on the verge of putting my fist through the glass next to me. I am battling acute frustration and helplessness combined with sustained adrenaline production; it is still pumping through my veins, even after almost an hour’s passing…

This morning I awoke at 6:45, finished my last bits of packing. All clothes were dried and tucked away in my large pack. French text books, laptop, camera, and a few odds and ends were in the smaller backpack. Passport? Check. Cash and credit cards? Check.

I went downstairs to the kitchen to retrieve my goods. I was half expecting them to be stolen from the refrigerator again. Thankfully, my repurchased fruits, veggies and homemade sandwich were as I had left them. After all of my posturing, after having my food “stolen” (more likely thrown away by hostel staff), I couldn’t bring myself to steal someone else’s food. I have to go to the store in Carcassonne again anyway, as the inn where I am staying is fully self-catering. I haven’t stolen much more in my life than a few bagels at my coffee shop job or perhaps some food or beer from a roommate at university.

Out the door, I went. The air was crisp, sky clear and gorgeous views of the French Alps were all around me. After a couple days in the urban center of Lyon, I finally had a chance to do some jogging, hiking, and take some snapshots around Grenoble. My days in Grenoble were spent more outdoors and with less wine and fatty (good) food. Even on my to-do list I made for Grenoble, I wrote at the top, “No More Restaurants… you bloody moron.” I held to it, having consumed only a beer or a glass of wine at cafés around the city.

With healthier food and activity, I had a spring in my step this morning. I knew when the bus was coming (no grève today), had my itinerary settled, and was excited to get to the train station for a cup of coffee and a moment to edit some photos.

I made it to the train station with plenty of time to spare and found the nearest open café. It was a good day already. I found a pleasant 20-something willing to not roll her eyes at my elementary text-book French and explained, with a smile, that the coffee that I wanted was a “café allongé.”

There was a little old man with a gut, Velcro shoes and a famous comb-over reading through his morning paper. He was obviously not traveling anywhere today, but he was relaxing at perhaps one of the only open cafés in Grenoble. Who does or did not have a grandfather who went for his morning coffee “with the boys” on a set day each week? We exchanged glances and a nod and we both went about our business. I pulled out the computer and set about some photo-editing. I had uploaded my latest photos from my camera last night so I was working on a Grenoble set. Stunning vistas, more self-portraits, more mountains, wine, self-portraits with wine… you get the idea. It was nice to relive the day prior without the sun beating down and sweat soaking through my t-shirt.

Cafe outside the Marché at Place Sainte Claire

With about 30 more minutes before my train was due to depart, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up to find the kindly gentleman pointing through the window and saying to me in quick French, “Cet homme a ton sac…” He was so nonchalant about it. I, on the other hand, understood the words “ton sac” right away. Your bag…That man has your bag. Crap!

I went to run after him and realized I couldn’t just leave my other bag and my computer. I shut the computer and looked at the man who seemed to have grown more concerned by this point and pointed to my large backpack and made it clear without speaking that he’d watch over it. Holding the laptop, I bolted through the door and after the guy. I didn’t say anything for the first few seconds as he was still walking calmly, though quickly, with his back to me. As he reached a group of locals lounging around the train station, I screamed as loud as I could, “Arrêtes!” “Voleur!” “Arrêtes!”

The thief broke into a sprint, flying by the group of local guys who provided nothing more than a shrug and a chuckle. I picked up the pace, feeling an injection of adrenaline as I continued shouting for the thief to stop. After turning a couple corners, I was actually gaining ground on him. Without looking back, he dropped the backpack just before turning a corner and sprinting out of sight. I grabbed the bag, opened it up, and let out the loudest expletive ever to have escaped these lips.

My camera is gone.

I don’t know if I was more infuriated by the lack of response to the thief by the locals or their apparent disgust for my shouting “Mother F-er.” It’s not like they understood it anyway.

I took a deep breathe, fought back the urge to punch the closest person or object, and jogged back to the café to gather my other items. I was relieved to find the same old man standing over my bag and explaining to the other customers and the server what had happened. They all looked at me amazed to have my bag in my hands. I was irate, but I still provided copious “merci’s” to the man.

I grabbed my things and set out to see if anyone saw anything or where the thief went, though I knew there was no hope. I walked a couple blocks radius and stopped a couple men who vaguely matched what the thief looked like from behind; it was to no avail.

When I returned to the station with only ten minutes until the train was due to leave, I sat down to take stock. My backpack also held the computer charger ($80+/-), terrible 18-55mm camera lens ($100 +/-), iPod ($200), and my passport ($ pain in the …) Everything else was still there.

I huffed, I puffed, I fumed, I fought back tears… I approached the station’s only security guard, standing relaxed staring off into space. I explained to him in my broken French what had just transpired and he replied with complete surprise that I got my bag back. He then said, with the little pouty lips and mini-strawberry an a shrug as only a Frenchman can do, that I should kiss my camera goodbye. If I reported the crime to the local police, they could then apply for a warrant to review the video footage. I cut him off and told him that I was leaving in a few minutes, “Thanks anyway, I just wanted to let you know.”

Once I get into Carcassonne, I will report it to the local police so they can at least be aware of what the guy looks like so there aren’t any other hapless, idiotic travelers to suffer the same, or worse, fate.

Writing this has been therapeutic. I have finally calmed down and taken a moment to reflect. There was one other thing missing from the bag: an apple. Don’t get me wrong; if I had caught the guy I would have had to hold myself back from kicking the crap out of him. No matter the poverty, it is obviously infuriating for people to result to theft. At the same time, he might be hungry.

Additionally, I have to be thankful that I still have my passport and other possessions. I have to be thankful that I was using the computer, as otherwise it too is normally held in the bag. I have to be thankful that I quit smoking (again) and began jogging six times per week, because otherwise there was no way I would have caught up and/or gained on the guy. I have to be thankful for the old man who took pity on me and made sure I didn’t lose two bags in one day.

Finally, I have to be thankful that I continue to disregard the advice of others. Many people expound the virtues of packing light. I have been lugging around the backpack which, in addition to the computer charger and many other items, holds four books: a massive 500 page French textbook, a book of French verb conjugations, two thinner but glossy paged French textbooks from my classes in Prague, and an extremely thick trade paperback I have been attempting to read. In Prague, Lyon, and again that morning in Grenoble I had considered just donating the books to the hostel and lightening my load. If I had, the thief would have been carrying an extremely light backpack and surely would not have had to drop it because it was slowing him down.

Place Sainte Claire

So, with that, I say screw you Rick Steves and your reasonable advice born out of years of experience and desire to help others. From now on, I’m packing rocks.

That being said, I am still a little depressed that my trusty, crappy old camera is gone. I hope whoever the thief tries to sell it to laughs at him. Then boxes his ears for being an ass. I now don’t really have a way to chronicle my travels with pictures. Sure, Nuala has her little compact digital, but it’s hers and I prefer a DSLR. When I get into Carcassonne I’ll have to see if I can find any disposables. I at least want some photographic evidence of my travels.

Lessons learned…