Melting the wicked away

You’ve lost more than you could imagine losing. Your safe world is gone. You need to move on. But how? That was us awhile back, while we were far from home, early in a 3-month journey overseas, on the way to Ljubljana.

Someone in a desperate life stole everything we had. We had nowhere to go, no way to get there, no way to contact home. We needed to recover: salvage our identities and minimize the damage. Block credit cards, wipe computers, disable cell phones, get new passports, and go on. What we had was a police report, zipped in the pocket of my skirt.

A woman in the airport rental car booth let me use her work computer. That was when we discovered the safety barrier we’d built for ourselves could block us out. Without cell phones to provide a code for dual verification, we were locked out of our online world.

So she let us keep our bundles behind her desk til close: a bag of bathing suits, some laundry soap, and a plastic bag of oddments the speedy thief had skipped. We kept the camera with us, the only thing of value left behind, and we went looking for an idea.

Hoping to catch a train somewhere, we found the info desk at Ferrotramviaria SPA. Two women were behind it: one whose hair was blond and long; the other had darker hair, tied up. They each wore crisp white shirts, matching-but-different scarves, and smiles.

“Buon giorno,” said Jake, leaning on the desk wearily. “Do you speak English?”

One nodded yes, “A little.” The other said, “I do.”

Jake started in, “We’re having a really bad day.”

He took a breath. “We were robbed, and we have nothing. No passports, cell phones, credit cards, computers, suitcases, or clothes. We have only a little money.”

They looked stricken. “Where were you when it happened?”

“Pane-Pomodoro Beach.”

Their eyes met. They exchanged a telling grimace.

“Oh no! Pane-Pomodoro Beach is not a good place. It happens all the time there.”

Far from scolding us for having been so careless, they were heartbroken it happened in Bari, in Italy, their home. They began to problem-solve, pouring ideas like water from a spout.

They sent us to get boarding passes for our next day’s flight to Treviso, which the police had said we couldn’t board without our passports. The line was long but we finally reached the window, and the man behind the glass found us in his computer. We walked away with our names and confirmation numbers on slips of paper. Still useless, but I zippered them carefully in the pocket of my skirt.

Returning to the Ferrotramviaria desk, we discovered they — Minoo and Silvia by name — had called the embassy in Rome. It was Friday night, with an English message answering. There was a word or two they’d missed, but they thought it would be open Saturday. They’d decided we should go to Naples, which was closer, and they’d found a train that would arrive first thing tomorrow. And another that might return us in the afternoon in time to fly, if all went well. They’d even called airport security for permission to hang out in the airport overnight — usually forbidden, but security said they’d leave us be.

Minoo and Silvia had others customers to help, so they dialed the embassy for us to listen ourselves. When customers of the regular type appeared, the ones whose lives were still intact, who could get where they were going, they accompanied them to the ticket machine to help them push the buttons. As trains arrived, they watched a video cam on their desk to see their passengers step safely aboard.

We listened. The embassy message was clear: closed til Monday. Minoo and Silvia called again, this time reaching a duty officer in Rome. They passed the phone to Jake. Rome couldn’t help, but he allowed as how Ljubljana, our destination, had an embassy if we could just get there. Ljubljana was 1,000 kilometers and too many euros away.

Minoo and Silvia conferred. While Minoo manned the desk, Silvia marched us upstairs to the airport police and pushed the buzzer confidently. A voice came over the intercom. Silvia was clear and crisp; they buzzed us in. Two policemen met us at the door, and we all stood, circled for conversation, Silvia speaking Italian, while we looked on like puppies that she’d found, clutching our boarding passes.

The policemen listened to her story of our plight. They looked at us askance, with an ounce of sympathy but quite unmoved. Silvia continued: pleasant, persistent, polite, insistent.

The policemen, and another who’d joined them, exchanged skeptical looks and words among themselves. Silvia kept on. She lay the reputation of Bari at their feet — is it a place where travelers are robbed or helped along? They looked uncomfortable, and Silvia encouraged them, respectful but unwavering. They acquiesced. Looking at our boarding passes, they nodded yes, they’d permit us to fly. We had chairs to sleep in and a flight to Treviso. We were on our way!

But Minoo and Silvia weren’t done. By now, their colleague Fabio had joined them, and they started on our recovery, handing me a cell phone to get in touch. But we were calling from overseas, in trouble, needing help.

It’s a classic scam. Someone overseas notifies a loved one that you’re in trouble and asks for money. So while Jake retrieved our bathing suits and leftovers from the rental car booth, here I was, texting messages to our children in the States. From a foreign number, on an Italian keyboard, with Italian auto-correct. I tried our son.

“Hi sweetie! It’s your Mom. This is not a scam. Ask me any private question you can think of. We’re both fine, but we’re having some trouble in Italy. Lots of love!”

No response. I tried our daughter. Silence there as well.

“We’ve decided we want to buy you dinner,” said Minoo. Fabio spoke up, “Do you like pizza?” A corner of their desk became our dinner table.

Since we’d be able to fly now but had no baggage to check, Jake gave away his knives: the Spiderco to Fabio, the Swiss Army knife to Silvia.

“Minoo, I wish I had something more to give.”

“Oh, that’s alright,” she said.

“Could you use some laundry soap?”

“Sure,” she said. “I have two boys. Especially if you autograph it.”

I don’t think he signed it, but the laundry soap found a home, and we all laughed.

I tried messaging again. This time, for my daughter, I opened the Italian menu of emoticons — there were so many shades of feeling, I could imagine wild gestures to match. I chose five or six: horror, perplexion, a shrug, wry grin, some hearts. It worked.

For son Conor, specifics were the key. In several texts, broken into pieces: “Could you please go into your dad’s study and get his old computer out of the locked box (combo 5555)? Also collect his old iPhone 4 from behind his desk chair (passcode 5555)…” With the Italian auto-correct, it was excruciatingly slow, but his response was quick.

“Sorry for the delay.”

We texted back and forth until we’d exhausted the battery and international messaging on two borrowed phones. While we texted, Fabio, Minoo, and Silvia decided they didn’t want us to spend our night in airport chairs. They reserved a hotel room. Fabio would drive us there at midnight after his shift. When the cell phones died, he arranged for the hotel to accept a call from Conor at 1:00 am so we could continue the planning. All this, despite our protestations of “too much!”

By now, we’d had time to chat about where they lived and who had kids, second jobs and where we’d been, how they should come to Seattle someday. Before we bid a sad farewell to Minoo and Silvia, as their shift ended at 10:30, I took their picture: our Italian angels, who turned an evil day to good.

Minoo, Fabio, and Silvia — our Italian angels at the Ferrotramviaria desk

We went upstairs to wait, grateful we wouldn’t be wandering the terminal all night. We might have bought Jake a cup of coffee to celebrate. Maybe not, since we’d only just begun to make our way.

At midnight, we met Fabio back at the Ferrotramviaria desk and watched him close the station for the night. He invited us to see the platform now that all the trains had run. It was an extension of the desk: pristine. A clean inviting place for travelers to transfer home. Then he drove us to the Victoria Parc Hotel — a nicer one than we usually choose ourselves. He checked us in, substituting our police report for passports. This was key. Done once, it worked again, as we moved along: “The hotel in Bari accepted our police report as passports… they made a copy.”

With plastic bags for luggage, we rode the elevator up, turned the key to privacy, and closed the door. And breathed. Usually it’s just a look-around, a “yes, this’ll do.”

But “Wow. A bed. A shower. Sheets. Wow.”

We inventoried our tiny pile of things. Conor called. He and Jake continued brainstorming. As they talked past the first half hour, I fell asleep. A 90-minute call from Seattle to Bari: $276, but priceless.

Conor dropped his life and set to work on ours. He got the old computer and a stash of cash from the locked box at our house, collected an old iPhone 4 from behind Jake’s desk, found credit cards in the safe. Using One Password on the old computer, he stopped our credit cards and wiped devices. And then he went online, applying for a replacement driver’s license for Jake, making passport appointments for each of us in Ljubljana. He built a briefcase and transferred it to friends, who were scheduled to meet us in Ljubljana on Sunday.

Next morning’s breakfast in Treviso was included (thank you, Fabio!) and a shuttle to the airport (thanks again!). We were on our way, but with miles yet to go.

Waiting for the shuttle, I thought to take a picture. There was an awning overhead, a darker blue than the turquoise water at Pane-Pomodoro Beach where we went swimming. Printed clean in white against the blue “Victoria Parc Hotel:” a place of clean white sheets, a few hours sleep, and kindness. Behind the awning, a grey sky threatened rain, but we were safe and dry. I didn’t take the picture because the charger for the camera battery was somewhere in a stolen bag.

Our police report served as passports through security. When we chanced to meet our policemen again inside, they recognized us and greeted us like friends. We flew.

As we continued on the way from Treviso to Ljubljana, I took three more pictures...

Kadosh, Ervina, and Marie

The first is Kadosh. Without cell phones, we couldn’t contact the shuttle to Ljubljana for details of where and when to meet, so we went to the airport to try to flag one down in the rain. Kadosh was standing near us, waiting for a bus to Padua, when we asked for help. He took us to a cafe nearby, borrowed a phone, explained in Italian to the shuttle folks that we didn’t have our phones. He left when he could tell us where and when to wait for them to come.

That shuttle never came. It left without us, because we couldn’t answer their call. Many hours after it didn’t come, a bus pulled up, and a woman stepped off. She called our names. She was looking for us, her lost customers. That was Ervina, the second picture. She listened to our tale of woe and the kindness we found in Bari, all the way to Ljubljana.

And then, Marie. One stop ahead of ours in Ljubljana, a woman gathered her things to get off. She’d been silent in the seat behind us all the way. As she passed, she handed us a 20-euro note.

“Please, I want to help,” she said.

“Oh no, thank you, but we’re OK now! We’re here. Because of all the help we’ve had, we still have euros left. Really, we’re OK.”

“No, please. Just take it. I won’t sleep tonight if you don’t. If you don’t need it, pass it along.”

In thanks, I took her picture. That was Marie.


Back on our intended schedule, we joined our friends when they flew in that night, carrying the briefcase Conor had filled: the old computer, spare cash, a credit card, the old cell phone. On Monday night we bought a carry-on and a change of clothes. By Tuesday, we had passports. On Wednesday we found a charger for the camera, and we were on our way again.

We have thousands of photos of the trip from there, but none more treasured than these.

I think of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. There she is, skipping and singing down the yellow brick road in her new red shoes. Then the forest grows thick, with trees that grab, and darkness closes in. But she has companions: the lion looking for courage, the scarecrow wanting brains, and the tin man hoping for heart. Traveling together, their friendship melts the obstacles they meet.

On this journey of ours from a dark place to Ljubljana, there was grabbing, and it felt dark. But we found people who helped us along our way. The generosity and kindness we found in Bari and beyond gave us the heart and courage to use our brains and travel on. They melted the wickedness away.

My love & thanks to Jake for helping me get it straight!