Jaza's World Trip

The Italian (night train) job

Very early this morning, my amazing three-week detour down to Sicily was concluded by a devastating and highly expensive little episode. On the night train from Messina back to Rome last night, I was the victim of some serious theft — by far the worst theft I've suffered anywhere this year. I didn't anticipate it at all; I observed nothing of the incident itself; and I had precious little help or support in the aftermath of it. Lovely welcome back to the tourist trail and to civilisation, eh? I can at least say that it could have been worse; although sadly, not much worse. They took a hell of a lot.

After I'd finished relaxing in Messina for the evening — and after I'd ended up giving away my bike — I boarded the 10pm InterCity sleeper train, from Messina Centrale to Roma Termini. All seemed fine upon boarding the train: although I was travelling 2nd class, I had a private compartment to myself; the compartment had fold-down couchette seats, as well as curtains and air-con; and the train was only lightly filled, and my neighbouring passengers didn't bother me.

A few minutes after the train departed from the station, they drove it onto the ferry, and I started feeling the very strange (but equally cool) sensation of being on a train that's getting transported over water. Apart from mild seasickness (not common on trains, from what I hear :P), and a slight rocking motion, I wouldn't even have realised that we were crossing that channel, and making our way back to the Italian mainland. While we were on the water, a fellow passenger came and sat in my cabin for a while, and started up a friendly conversation with me: he was very tolerant of my super-crap Italian; and although conversing was difficult, we did manage to understand each other at least a little bit (mainly due to my companion's valiant efforts). He said goodbye once we'd re-docked at Villa San Giovanni, saying that he needed to alight at the next stop.

The arrangement of my modest belongings in the compartment was simple enough: my saddlebags and my big bucket (which were no longer on my given-away bike, but which still held all my things) were up on the overhead suitcase racks; my fleece jumper (doubling as a pillow) was on the seat with me; and my day backpack was on the floor next to me. Most stupidly, my money belt was not around my waist, but was inside my day backpack instead. The conductor popped in at around 11:30pm to check my ticket; and soon after, at around midnight, I dozed off for a while.

I awoke again at 1am, feeling quite hot and extremely thirsty. The air-conditioning in my compartment was on quite strong — and as well as making me hot, it was also seriously drying me out. I reached down for my day backpack — which was still on the floor, where I'd left it — and pulling out my big water bottle, took a long swig from it. I also opened the door to the compartment (which closes, but which doesn't lock), in order to cool it down a bit. Then I put my water away, and settled back down to sleep on the couchette.

When next I awoke, my watch was reading 5:30am. I sat up, rubbed my eyes, and looked around the unlit compartment. All seemed fine. I reached down to my backpack for some more water — only to discover that I couldn't find it. But I didn't panic: after all, this was an express night train; we hadn't made any stops (that I was aware of), so it could hardly have disappeared. Where had it gone? Maybe it had slid under one of the seats? I got down on my knees, and checked the floors underneath them: nothing. My door was also still open — maybe it had slid out the door, and was in the passage somewhere. I had a look around, but saw no sign of it. Perhaps it had even slid into one of the bathrooms? I checked the bathrooms in my carriage: nothing there either.

At this point, I remembered just how much stuff was in my backpack, and I really started to panic. "Oh s$#%", I thought. "If someone's stolen my backpack, and my money belt with it, then I'm royally screwed".

I was rapidly getting extremely stressed: but nevertheless, I managed to keep my cool for the time being; and I told myself that I had to be logical and systematic about this. "As far as I know" (and I knew wrong), I told myself, "the train hasn't stopped since I fell asleep. That means that if someone's stolen my backpack, then they're still on the train, and they're either in my carriage or in one of the neighbouring carriages" (since the others aren't accessible).

So I did what I reasoned was the most logical thing I could do. In lieu of conductors or security guards (I couldn't find any on the train), I decided to take the matter into my own hands: I began opening the compartments of my fellow passengers one-by-one, and systematically searching. For each compartment, I opened the door (if it wasn't already open), said "mi scusa" to whoever was inside, switched on the light, scanned the overhead racks, scanned the seats, knelt down and scanned the floor, said "grazie", killed the light, shut the door, and moved on.

I did this for about 50 compartments, covering 3 carriages of the train, within roughly ½ an hour. I woke up, disturbed, or otherwise pi$$ed off quite a few of the passengers: but I didn't care; my lost backpack was too important to squander at the price of respecting their privacy, especially since every single one of them was a suspect. I didn't have too many issues: most people were too half-asleep to care, or didn't consider my search as being an inconvenience; but some passengers were a bit rude or hostile; and one even screamed at me from inside, and refused to open his door (which he'd managed to seal with a large length of rope, tied from the door-handle to a hook inside the compartment), until I got a nearby passenger to calm him down and to explain the situation. Despite all that searching, though, my backpack was nowhere to be seen.

As you can imagine, it was after this failed searching endeavour that the reality of what happened sank in; and this was when I became really heartbroken and pi$$ed off. How could someone have taken my whole backpack — just taken everything, and left me with squat? Couldn't they have just pulled the cash out (of which there wasn't that much, anyway), dumped the rest, and run? That's what they did back in Quito — this time, had they no sympathy for me at all? And where the f$#% were the railway staff? I could find no conductors, no security guards... nothing! One of the other passengers was (it turned out) an off-duty cop; but even he didn't do much, except tell me that the thief was probably long-gone, and tell me that all I could do was report it when I reached Rome.

I'm not 100% sure what was in my backpack when it got nicked — but here's what I remember being inside, and I think it's almost everything. This is the damage report:

  • Money belt, containing:
    • Passport
    • ATM (debit) card
    • Mum's credit card number
    • Traveller's cheque receipts
  • Sicily map
  • Diary
  • Swiss army knife
  • Camping cutlery
  • Toothbrush / toothpaste
  • Food (fruit and biscuits)
  • Water
  • Book (novel)
  • Combination padlocks
  • Camera accessories (memory card reader, charger, US to Europe adapter)
  • Cash (app. €150)

Like I said, it was very bad, but it could have been worse. Thank G-d, I didn't lose yet another camera on this trip — my lovely Santiago camera was in my pocket. My driver's license and ISIC (int'l student) card were also in a pocket — critically lucky, as these were now the only forms of ID that I had left; and as it's very difficult to get a new passport, to cash traveller's cheques, or even to visit an Internet cafe (in Italy — it's the law here) without photo ID. And fortunately, my Amex traveller's cheques themselves (unlike the cheque receipts) were in one of my saddlebags, as was my extremely valuable Eurail pass (which I haven't yet used or had validated — trains have been too cheap to warrant it so far). Plus, I still had about €20 cash in my pocket.

The thing that pi$$ed me off most, is that so much of what they stole was of little or no value to them, and was of high utility or sentimental value to me. My map of Sicily was a great souvenir of the bike trip. My diary, as well as being a souvenir, also contained all the notes that I use to write this blog — notes that I wrote when my memory was still fresh, and that I had to re-write several days later, with much difficulty. My swiss army knife was a gift from my uncle in Switzerland, and has helped me countless times during this year's trip; and my titanium spoon-and-fork cutlery set has also been very useful. My flashlight has been essential for camping and for night hiking (back in South America), and is also virtually essential for navigating your way around a hostel dorm room at night. My book ("The Big Mango") I'm very annoyed at losing, since I was halfway through reading it, and enjoying it immensely (and since English books are difficult and expensive to get around here). And my combination padlocks have protected my belongings numerous times, in lockers or just in locked parts of my bag. Most or all of these things — as well as the backpack itself, which was a very good bag — will have to gradually be replaced, and that's something I'm not looking forward to at all.

As a very small consolation, I soon found out that I wasn't the only victim of theft on last night's train. In the process of searching all the compartments, I found that a Sudanese lady several doors down from me had lost €550 in cash, pulled straight out of her purse while she was asleep. However, in her case, all they took was the cash: they left everything else, including even the purse that had held it. What's more, in this lady's case, it seems nothing short of incredible that they managed to pull the stunt off at all: not only was the purse underneath and at the back of all three seats in her compartment; she also had three big Sudanese friends in the compartment with her, and the thief evaded the lot of them. At least for me it was understandable: I was in my cabin alone, and my backpack was lying carelessly on the floor next to me, not even under my seat or anything.

In retrospect, although my compartment "seemed" secure at the time, I was actually asking for it: the only safe thing I could have done with my backpack would have been to sleep on it; but instead, it was just waiting to be snatched by anyone who passed by. Although really, even sleeping on it wouldn't have guaranteed anything: the Sudanese lady's case shows that this thief was able to get past significant obstacles; and anyway, train thieves in Italy are known to use chloroform-soaked handkerchiefs (which they put over your face) to knock you unconscious, in which case there's virtually no defence against theft (or against anything else — such as rape, should you happen to be a woman).

It would appear that the train did make at least two stops while I was asleep — probably in Salerno, and probably in Naples — and that whoever the thief was, he got on at one stop, went through the whole section of the train that we were in, and then got off with the booty and ran. Anyway, after I'd done my sweeping search of the train, the Sudan folks were nice enough to let me stay with them in their compartment, to keep me company and to make me feel just a bit safer. The Sudanese lady didn't lose all the important items that I've lost: but I still feel very sorry for her, because she lost an awful lot of cash, and because she clearly isn't made of money.

When the train finally pulled in to Rome's Termini station, at about 7:15am, I got off (virtually) first and watched everyone coming down the platform. Once again, my backpack was nowhere to be seen — the thief really must have gotten off at an earlier stop. Once the train had been emptied, the Sudanese folks and myself went straight to the Railway Police, whose office is at the other end of the station. We knocked on the door at 7:30am: but they told us that they don't open until 8am, and that we'd have to wait until then to file a theft report. As such, I told the Sudanese that I'd be back in half an hour: and I walked down the road (with my saddlebags and my bucket — a very awkward load to carry around) to my old hostel, dumped my stuff there, wolfed down a bowl of cereal for breakfast (which they kindly offered me), and returned.

The Railway Police let me in, and instructed me to fill out a theft report for them. But otherwise, they were completely unsympathetic and unhelpful: they kept me waiting before I saw an officer; they were rude and curt when I finally did get inside; and they couldn't have given less of a rat's about what happened to me if they'd farted in my general frikking direction. It goes without saying that they're going to shove their copy of the report in a dusty filing cabinet on level 16 of their basement, and that the matter of my missing backpack will never be even briefly investigated. Clearly, this happens every day in Italy — and they don't have time to feel sorry or to offer help for every stupid tourist who walks in their door, whinging about having had everything except the shirt on their back nicked, while travelling on the trains that they're ostensibly "responsible" for. Go f$#% yourself, TrenItalia.

In summary, last night's train ride was the worst train ride of my life, and the worst theft that I've ever suffered in my life. It's going to take days — possibly weeks — just to replace everything that's been stolen (especially my ATM card, a new one of which will need to somehow be sent to me from Australia), which will only add to the expense of the money and valuables that I've just lost (as well as adding to the trauma). This is the first night train I've taken on this trip: and considering how it went, I'd be happy if it was also my last. To tell the truth, I'm not looking forward to getting the trains in Europe anymore at all, no matter what time of the day or night it is. If they let thieves just wander on and off them, stealing with impunity, then how do they expect anyone to feel safe while travelling?

Filed in: RomeToo earlyTrainsTheftNot happy Jan