December 2012 – January 2013


Gail Bell

Paseo del Prado

I was robbed in broad daylight, in a milling crowd, in Madrid. It was painless and, in accordance with the warnings of every guidebook and internet forum on the subject of visiting a European city bruised by a sovereign debt crisis, not entirely unexpected.

On a day cool enough for me to break out my new silk scarf, we planned our morning hunched over a map at an outdoor table with coffee and pastries. Some time during the next hour our stash of holiday cash was lifted out of the reputable-brand travel shoulder bag with uncuttable straps I was hugging to my abdomen. Just like that. A feather touch so swift and undetectable you have to admire the skill. What isn’t admirable is my own stupidity. I’m not a tyro traveller. I’ve been doing this sort of thing since I was 25, and I’m often the first to caution friends with plane tickets about three-card tricks and old ladies offering flowers for good luck. And yet, on that day, I could have passed for the greenest greenhorn ever to wander along the Paseo del Prado, carrying all our travel money, in three different prized currencies, inside a brightly coloured Indian purse stuffed into a zipped compartment of my smug pickpocket-proof bag.

I blame my emotional state, and Sofía, the Queen of Spain.

It was the Columbus Day public holiday, Spain’s Day of the Armed Forces, when military glory is on parade and royalty are ushered out of their golden rooms to review the troops and take the salute. We were on our way to the Museo del Prado to see the Goyas when we slammed into this show of uniforms and firearms and polished brass, carried by straight-backed soldiers spiffed up in white caps and gloves and crimson stripes, all underscored by drumbeats and rousing band music. A kind lady waving her handkerchief pointed to a distant spot, out of our sight, where the royals were stationed, and the Queen of Spain was sure to be beaming her wide-mouthed smile at the multitude.

Crushed like cattle in a chute, we stopped and watched. In front of me a beautiful young man stood at ease in full dress uniform, his girlfriend and parents, I guessed, brushing invisible lint from his crisp shoulders, so proud they could burst. When he suddenly stiffened into a salute as a senior man passed, they cooed, looking around to see if others had noticed.

I love a parade. As did my father and late father-in-law, in their different ways. Like my father I melt into a misty-eyed trance as the troops stomp past, backs straight as rulers, eyes obedient, chins tucked. And as much as I detest war, or perhaps because I do, my handkerchief is out within 30 seconds of the pa-pa-pum of a military band.

Pretty soon I got into a tangle of camera straps trying to capture it all. On one side, the quickstepping Spanish Foreign Legion in their sage-green tropical dress; on the other, the slower ranks in uniforms from Napoleonic times. With each new spectacle the crowd wheeled and carried us with them. When the opening bars of ‘La Marcha Real’ galvanised the citizens into patriotic voice, “Viva España, alzad los brazos”, I surrendered my grip on mindfulness and crossed over into the emotional slipstream. Does it matter whose anthem quickens the pulse? Isn’t that why we leave home?

At some point in all that lunging for better camera angles, a hand insinuated itself into the compartment where the cash was hidden. “Viva España” was barely off my lips when I looked down and saw the gaping empty vault and knew instantly the money was gone. And I thought the safe in our apartment had looked dodgy.


It wasn’t the first time I’d been robbed. After a jostle of lads nearly knocked me off the footpath on Glebe Point Road, I roamed around in a bookshop for an hour, totally ignorant of the fact that my wallet had been lifted. Before that, my rented flat in Sydney was done over by a desperate youth on a mission to get enough cash for a fix and, years later, our house at the beach was looted by two teenagers employed by a kind of Fagin character whose recruiting strategy was worthy of a musical. After the police told me what this guy was like, he was in my head forever. I gave him features and a voice and a long dirty coat and, soon, I swore I could have picked him out in an ID parade. Listening to others who’ve been robbed, I recognise my own tendency to personalise an event that (most times) has nothing to do with me. The possessive pronoun “my” figures loudly in all retellings. This hooligan violated my bedroom, I’d say, as if the young thief had nicked my stuff because he had it in for me.

Thinking back to the junkie robbery, I can’t even remember what was taken. Only the drama of it persists. Coming home to find the back door open and experiencing the creepy sense of someone else’s molecules lingering. That’s it. I can’t list the stolen items, other than a gold wedding band I no longer had use for.


In the Madrid police station two young officers, who were stuck inside while the big parade and flyover lit up the boulevard, could barely keep the scorn off their faces as I sobbed and my husband explained. So much cash? ¿Por qué? At this point my husband, who had been emphatically against my idea to carry the loot, tactfully lowered his eyes.

This sort of crime is called, in most countries I imagine, petty theft. As I filled out the badly photocopied form, I tried not to think of our day as smashed beyond repair. As was pointed out, we were unhurt, we still had our passports and our credit cards, we had travel insurance, the sun was shining, and the Goyas weren’t going anywhere.

And this is where the small epiphanies of our rapidly passing lives flash their soda bulbs in our eyes. This is where I got my perspective back. Our word petty comes from the French petit.

On the back of the English-version police form there were descriptions of the types of crime. Beside PETTY THEFT it read: “the perpetrator stealthy steals belongings of another person without his/her consent and not using force, violence or intimidation, you got stolen your wallet or your bag almost unnoticed”.

I got stolen my wallet. That’s all.

Gail Bell
Gail Bell has worked as a pharmacist, educator and writer. Her books include The Poison Principle and Shot: A Personal Response to Guns and Trauma.

Cover: December 2012 – January 2013
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