Remember that time I went to Europe as a teenager? Twice?
A few weeks ago, I alluded to the time I *ahem* almost got arrested in Italy 8 years ago. A few of you begged to know the story, so I dug it out of the recesses of my memory.
It’s not what you might think, actually. In fact, there wasn’t even any alcohol involved.
Whew, okay, Dad, you’ve calmed down now.
My first time to Europe, I was 19 years old. I had just finished my second year of college, and I was (unbeknownst to me), 4 months away from getting engaged to my boyfriend, now husband. I was able to go on the trip in place of college credit, so it actually offset the cost quite a bit, making it more than worth it (like going to Europe isn’t worth it enough!).
The day we arrived in Athens, I felt like I was living in a dream. For a classically educated student who had been studying Italy and Greece since the age of 11, I couldn’t believe my luck. But there were a lot of new things to get used to. I got to experience jet lag first hand on the first evening when I accidentally tripped on a tall flight of marble stairs and fell the entire way down.
However “school smart” I was, I was woefully unprepared for the big bad world. We were given small bits of advice about how to deal with the local culture (in Italy, it was, “don’t look men in the eye or they’ll think you’re coming on to them”), but I underestimated some things about how extra vulnerable a small blonde haired blue eyed girl would seem. It didn’t help that our first week was all spent in Greece, mostly Athens, which is ranked as one of the safest cities in the world. The culture is super warm and accommodating, and most of the population are devoutly religious, keeping crime super low, especially for a large city. But we soon learned that not all Europeans were as respectful as the Greeks.
The first part of my education occurred when our cruise ship (yes, a week of the trip was a cruise around the Mediterranean!) stopped at the island of Rhodes. My friend and I were by ourselves, in the middle of shopping for souvenirs, and a local guy walked by us and made a comment about how much he liked my hair. “So BLONDE” he smiled. I laughed and said thanks, and kept walking. About 5 minutes later, my friend noticed that the guy was following us, about a block behind. We walked faster. He walked faster. It was a pretty crowded market place so we weren’t scared, but we didn’t want an awkward encounter. When he didn’t stop, we decided to run. We got some distance on him and ducked in a small alley/set of stairs. A few minutes later, we saw him run by us, shouting, “Wait! Blonde hair! Wait!” Creepy.
I acknowledged that this was a bit weird, but I thought it might have been a one time thing.
When we got to Turkey, our education continued when we got on the tour bus as a group. Our tour guide, a native, started talking about all of their tourist attractions as we drove around the city. At one point, he said, “Yes, yes, we were all very sad to hear about that 9/11 thing in your country. Very bad for our tourism business over here.”
You could have heard crickets on the bus– we were all staring him down. This was 2005. A bus full of Americans. Um, it was bad for business? How insensitive was this guy? He quickly added, “Uh, yes, we were also sad because it was such a TRAGEDY! Yes!” Jerk.
Later that day, when we were all buying souvenirs (and mom and dad wonder why I ran out of money!) on the main strip in front of the ruins, another friend and I stepped into a small dark shop full of rugs and started looking at their shoes. They had a BUNCH of rip-off brands, and we were mildly interested. After a few minutes, we realized that if we didn’t leave now, we would miss the ferry back to our ship. When we tried to go back up the stairs and out the door, the big Arab dude who owned the shop blocked our path. “BUY SOMETHING”, he said in broken English. We laughed, and said no thanks. But he didn’t move out of the way, he just kept glaring. We went back and forth like this for a few minutes, us trying to leave, him getting in our way in a menacing manner. So I found something that I liked and we bought it quickly, no longer having any fun whatsoever. In the end, we barely made it back to our boat.
I didn’t feel so bad about being forced to buy something when we heard that another Arab had tried to, get ready for this, BUY one of the girls in our group. He offered our leader a CAMEL in exchange for buying her as his wife. WTF???
All this lead to my education as we made our way to Italy. After visiting Rome, we made it to Florence. It was at this point, due to circumstances, that our leaders decided to cut our day trip to Pisa, a 2 hour train ride from Florence.
I was devastated. I couldn’t believe that we were going to come ALL the way to Italy not to even see the Leaning Tower.
Turns out, I wasn’t the only one who was super disappointed. A group of 7 of us were given permission to skip out on one of our days in Florence and take the Fast Train to Pisa. We got instructions, and off we went.
Despite all of my sketchy encounters thus far, I figured I would be safe because we were in such a large group. We even had 2 big guys with us.
Buying our tickets for the Fast Train seemed easy. Too easy. But we didn’t know any better, because, for the first time, all of the signs were exclusively in Italian (everywhere else, especially at all the touristy spots, the instructions were also in English). We were about to learn the hard way why the government does this.
We got on the train. We made it to Pisa and had an absolute blast!
It was on our train trip back that we got into trouble. A security guard made his rounds on the train, checking tickets.
He made it to my friend and me first.
We held out our tickets obediently.
He grinned. “You did not get them validated.”
We were confused. “Sir, we paid for them. No one told us we had to do anything else?” Our friends across the aisle were equally perplexed.
He grinned again, and held up a laminated, ready to go card, ALL IN ENGLISH. It outlined how tickets are not valid until they have been hole-punched by a special machine at the gate.
I felt cheated, as well I should have. There was not a single English sign indicating this, ANYWHERE on ANY of the platforms. I knew then that this entire thing was designed to get non-Italian speaking tourist money.
“Sir,” I tried again. “We were not aware of this, but we DID pay for our tickets, as you can see!”
He grinned. “Rules are rules,” he said. “You have to pay the fee for not getting your ticket validated.”
I looked at the card. The fee was 30 Euros, PER TICKET. That’s $60! For a traveling student on a budget, this was basically my dinner money for the next two days.
But the evil man was not done there.
“If you don’t pay the fee,” he said, holding our tickets in his hands. “I am going to throw these away and tell the police you did not pay at all! How would you like that?”
My friend, who had been holding her temper this entire time (she was a bit fiery), lost it here. She reached up, and snatched the ticket back from him.
“No you won’t!” she hissed.
The guard looked astounded. He tried to grab the ticket back from her.
I kid you not, but they actually got into a tug-of-war contest with the ticket. After a few seconds that felt like an eternity, it ripped down the middle, both of them holding a different half.
Two of our friends across the aisle started singing, in loud voices, “God Bless America.” It would have been hilarious, if I wasn’t so scared.
“QUIET!” the guard snapped. Then he looked back over at us.
“You give me the money RIGHT NOW, or I call the police and tell them you never paid at all!”
I looked down at my purse, wondering if I even had enough money. I knew that my friend didn’t.
Then, I saw the scariest thing yet. My friend’s hand was clenched, fingers pulled in, ready to punch.
I freaked out. In that brief second, I saw us going to jail for assaulting a train guard.
I quickly pulled as many Euros as I could out of my purse and practically threw it at the guard. He laughed and didn’t even count it. At this exact moment, our train stopped at a station. He walked straight to the exit and got off at the platform.
As we pulled away, we saw him on the platform with one of his guard buddies, waving my money and laughing. My friend saw this and yelled some not very pleasant things out the window as we pulled away.
Later, when we got back to Florence and told our tour guide everything that happened, she shook her head sadly and said, “Ah, yes! I forgot to warn you about this. They set it up in order to catch tourists who don’t know any better. I am so sorry.”
Apparently, our professor used to tell this story as a cautionary tale whenever he took other groups of students to Italy.
So….there you have it. The time I was almost arrested in Italy! Anyone else have any crazy stories from traveling?