We parked in front of the lighthouse on Cap de Creus, a peninsula on Spain’s Mediterranean coast.
It was a bright, chilly day in February. The lookout was quiet; we saw only a couple of other cars. I didn’t want to carry my purse so my husband, John, stuck it in the trunk with his backpack, locked the car and we headed down the rocky path. It took maybe 15 minutes to reach the sea. I crouched, as I always do, to touch the icy water. Then we walked back up, single-file: me, John, and our 26-year-old son, Max.
I got in the car and John went to the trunk. A minute later he rapped on my window and I opened it. “We’ve been robbed,” he said.
Now let’s agree that John and I made a mistake. No way should we have opened the trunk and stowed things in plain sight. But that wasn’t the only thing we did wrong.
We’d traveled to Spain at a terrible time.
Our older son, Andrew, died unexpectedly in fall 2016, and the three of us had spent three months paralyzed, huddled inside. Leaving Minnesota seemed the only way to move forward. We decided to take Max to Barcelona — where John had gone to grad school — so we could warm up and figure out how to live again.
Catalonia felt safe. We’d visited many times; John is fluent in both Spanish and Catalan. We had that veteran traveler’s smugness about this being “our” place and planned a full tour. But in hindsight, we shouldn’t have been so ambitious. We were consumed with grief and as unguarded as 3-year-olds. This was not the time to negotiate airports, currencies, crowds and especially car rental. Nevertheless, we did.
On the overnight flight to Spain we promised Max nothing but sun, music and tapas. We also warned him about pickpockets. Living in Barcelona, John had learned to be careful in plazas and carry his wallet in front. Max, who is 6 feet, 3 inches tall, blinked and said he’d be fine.
We landed on a sunny morning and for three days, we relaxed. We ate patates braves and fuet and great piles of mussels. We walked from market to monument. John took us up to the Arab section, where for five euros Max got what he said was the best beard trim of his life.
Then we took a train to Figueres, the beautiful, boutique-filled town that was Salvador Dali’s home. The next day we woke up early, rented a car and drove to Cadaques.
After fresh fish at a dark bistro where Catalan TV news shouted excitedly about Trump, we headed to Cap de Creus. Cue the scene above: parking, tossing my bag in the trunk, hiking to the water. Discovering that everything was gone.
And by everything I mean: two computers, two cellphones, two passports, my wallet, cash and credit cards, and my glasses. Here’s what wasn’t taken: Max’s wallet, his cellphone and his passport — all of which he’d kept in his pockets the way John advised.
We rocketed down the hill to Cadaques. A park officer had called ahead so they were waiting for us at the police station, a concrete building the size of a Starbucks. The detective spoke only Catalan so John had to make the report. It took two hours, the detective typing two-fingered and pausing to take phone calls.
Max and I brainstormed. Should we check the dumpsters on our route down? (We did. Nothing.) Could we track my iPhone? (We tried. It had been shut off.) At one point I poked my head in and John was on the phone. Another American had called, he explained; the detective had asked him to translate.
“You’d better get something for this!” I yelled. “It’s 5:30. I could really use a drink!” The detective peered at me like I might be crazy. He was not wrong.
Over the next two days, we called my credit cards and notified our insurance agent (yes, we had travel coverage). Max graciously let us use his phone.
Then we went back to Barcelona and the American consulate, where we communed with dozens of other travelers. Purses snatched from tables, suitcases stolen from hotels, shoulder bags rifled on the train. One officer told me they replace 1,000 U.S. passports a year in Catalonia, mostly due to theft.
Other than losing my glasses — which meant the men had to take turns steering me across streets — what happened didn’t have a huge impact. John and I carry cards from different banks for exactly this reason. Our passports were replaced the same day. In the end insurance covered most replacement costs, plus damage to the rental car.
And the sense of nothing-left-to-lose prompted us to take some lucky chances, visiting a tiny, filthy cafe in Barcelona’s Chinatown that served the world’s best sambal and a tattered brewpub with a wicked Catalan cream stout.
But in a twist I couldn’t have predicted, being robbed lowered the quality of service at our lovely hotel. When we told the smiling clerks what had happened, they scowled and loudly demanded an extra deposit upfront. Only the very kind man at the Apple store would explain.
He told us not to replace our electronics in Spain, due to the import cost and different connectors. He also said theft is rampant and hoteliers in particular are weary: Robbed tourists tend to get angry, wreck or steal things, and skip out on their bills. It’s an awful circle where the victims become the problem.
Clearly, there were notes in our guest file. Night clerks came on, but they continued to watch us pointedly as we trooped through the lobby. When we moved to an airport hotel for our last night, we joked with the desk man about our missing documents.
The next morning at the security checkpoint, however, we needed to change our strategy again. Agents wanted a detailed justification of our temporary passports; then an American gate supervisor came out to hector us about our carelessness and threaten not to let us on ‘his’ flight. Of all our experiences overseas, that was probably the worst.
When you are mourning, you are stranded in no country. Home feels like a dark place and you yearn to leave it — even if you know, rationally, that the terror and sadness will follow. So you run out into the world, raw and dumb. There’s so much happening in your head, it shorts out your learnings and instinct. You’re more likely to get robbed. You’re more likely to step off a curb and get hit by a bus.
After returning from Spain, John and I revised our near-term travel plans. We still feel the need to get away but we’re playing it safe for a couple of years, choosing destinations where we know people and will be looked after. We go by car or train when possible, because air travel is barbaric. We’re also moving more slowly — a long hike in the mountains; a late picnic lunch — and checking each other often. Did you lock the door? Is this the right date? Who has the tickets? For now, multi-city European-city trips are out.
We’ll go back to Barcelona some day soon; it’s one of the most beautiful cities on earth. But we’re waiting for a time when our minds are clearer, our senses more alert. And whenever we go, we’ll definitely take Max.
Ann Bauer is a Minneapolis-based novelist and essayist. Her books include “Forgiveness 4 You” and “The Forever Marriage.”