Roma Stole My iPhone

Roma boy. Turin, February 2012.

He must have been about twelve. Holding a large piece of paper, with the letters of the alphabet written upon it, he walked from table to table, arms outstretched staring intently at whoever was seated. A couple of customers gave him money. Most didn’t. The boy smelled. Perhaps it was that he was wearing a big wool sweater. It was eighty degrees outside.

Finally, he ended up at my table. Feet up, notebook on my lap, I tried to ignore him. He wouldn’t go away. Looking up, we made eye contact. His tan skin was exceptionally dry, an unusually straight line of skin flaking along the ridge of his forehead. Was it dandruff? I couldn’t tell. The only thing I could say to him was “No,” hoping he would go away.

Truth be told, I was out of money. I’d brought three Euros in coins with me, in order to buy an ice coffee. By the time the Roma had arrived, my cup was empty, and I was annoyed I couldn’t afford another. All I wanted to do was finish up my work, and head home. “No,” I repeated. He wouldn’t budge.

It was then that I noticed his alphabet sign was resting on my table. One hand was holding its left corner. His right hand was somewhere behind it. His eyes fixated upon mine, growing wider the more I looked down, trying to discern what his hidden hand was up to.  Eventually, I figured it out. He was in the middle of mugging me.

“Scusi,” (“Excuse me,”) I yelled at the top of my lungs imagining that this would scare him. Within a matter of seconds, the boy had bolted for the door. I rooted through my pockets for my iPhone. It wasn’t there. A quick search of my backpack failed to turn anything up either. “Shit,” I muttered, as it sank in. I’d been robbed by a disabled child.

Losing an item like that in Italy is a big setback for someone like me. I’m self employed,  with little cash at my disposal. I have to plan far in advance to make purchases like that. I’d be without a smartphone for a couple of months, until I could afford to buy an unlocked one in the US, where they’re significantly cheaper. I’d have a friend bring it over. In the interim, I’d rely on Skype. I’d only be reachable when I was at my computer.

Despite the inconvenience, I couldn’t get angry.  The cafe manager made sure of that. “There’s nothing I can do,” he insisted. “What do you mean?” replied the waitress, pointing to a video camera above us. “We caught the whole thing on tape.” “And do what with it?” he responded, with a what the fuck are you thinking kind of look. “Call the cops? Forget about it.”

He was right. Even if the police were helpful, why would they try and hunt down a mute sixth grader in search of a foreigner’s missing mobile? I was going to have to eat this. What won me over me to his point of view was the intense sense of resignation I could hear in his voice. “This is our reality principle,” was his message to my unfamiliar ears. Just deal.

It wouldn’t have bothered me so much if he wasn’t reinforcing negative stereotypes of Italy . No place in Western Europe is as derided for its lawlessness, and its corruptuon. From the Mafia to Silvio Berlusconi, it suffers from the stigma of being a country where everyone is on the make. Never mind that it’s also produced some of the world’s leading leftist intellectuals, many of whom spent their best years right here,  in Turin.

“The economic crisis has finally caught up with me,” I remember thinking, as I sat in the waiting area of the  Questura (state police) waiting to report that my passport had been stolen two months prior. Hassled by a tall, English-speaking African migrant, who’d grabbed my shoulder bag from me, my documents had disappeared, including my visa. I’d reluctantly hauled myself there to get a police report, to file with the Israeli embassy in Rome. Without one, it’d be very hard to get a new passport.

To my left sat a couple arguing in Russian. They looked uncomfortably thin, at least in comparison to the Russians I knew living in my former neighborhood in San Francisco. I wondered if they were hungry. To my right, a slightly older man alternated between French and Arabic, between his hijab-wearing companion, and someone I imagined to be a social worker. He was cradling a baby in his lap, no more than a couple of months old.

“What’s the child’s name?” the Italian asked. “Berlin,” said the man. “Comme la ville?” (“Like the city?”) the woman replied. “Oui,” he confirmed. “C’est merveilleux, non?” (“It’s marvellous, no?) he replied sounding somewhat nervous. “Ahh oui,” said the Italian woman. looking unsure as to why he expressed himself that way. A policeman all of the sudden appeared, shepherding the North Africans into a nearby room.

My turn was next. “Signor Schalit,” said a young policeman. “The translator is ready. Come this way.” The sudden transition to English was disorienting. “Thank you,” I told the policeman, who politely took my arm, and escorted me into a room opposite to where I’d been sitting. A blonde, middle-aged woman in a black leather skirt was waiting for us. We shook hands, and got down to business.

The policeman already knew why I was there. I’d informed the cop at the door to the Questura. “Please describe what happened,” he stated in Italian, the translator repeating to me his request in English. I began explaining what had happened. My passports had gone missing. How? I wasn’t sure. I may be at fault. But it was possible it was due to a run in I’d had with a person outside our apartment, who was hassling pedestrians.

The focus was immediately turned to the migrant. “Who was he?” I’d been grabbed by an African, likely in his mid-thirties. My identification was in an unzipped pocket, and had been missing since then. “Are you sure he was responsible?” No. “What did the African look like?” He was tall, and had a beard. “Any other details?” He spoke English, I made sure to note. “He could have been from Ghana or Sierra Leone,” the translator said. “There are a number of English-speaking African communities in Torino.”

While the policeman finished entering my information into the computer, I chatted with the translator. “So you are a journalist?” she asked. “Yes. I’m writing a book about Europe, that partially deals with migrants,” I told her. “If it turns out this guy is responsible, it’d be ironic, as I’m highly sympathetic.” The translator looked at me and smiled.

“It happens to everybody,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where you come. Just make sure they don’t take your identity away from you.” I’m not sure she understood the gravity of what she was conveying. But I kept her words in mind as I rode my bicycle home from the cafe, wondering how on earth I was going to raise the money to buy a new iPhone.

Photograph courtesy of the author


  1. So much the problem in a nutshell– as sympathetic to a people’s plight as we might be, it does not stop them from desperate, or even very calculated, graft. “Eat it” indeed, in the hopes of avoiding losing our souls to the neo-conservatism that was born very naturally when a liberal’s valuables were first stolen. There is a school of thought/theology that says, give away the rest of your precious resources in the hopes of ending the problem, but it has always been hard to respect principled kindness like that.

  2. I live in Italy, precisely in Pisa, and i see things like this everyday.
    When tourists from all nationalities stop at the central parking zone (for tourist buses) to go by foot to see the leaning tower, a group of 5-10 roma (or gypsies, or nomads, call them whatever you like) camouflage as tourist with little hats, maps and begin walking with the group they choose as their victim. I once saw with my eyes someething like 20 wallets stolen, emptied and threw away in less than one minute. I (a student in medicine, after an exam, tired and elegant) waited for the Romas to go away, and got all those wallets back. There were documents of korean people, and like I said they were a lot: i put them in my bag and went to the korean group that stopped because of the realization that for most of them ALL THEIR DOCUMENTS were i gave those back to them.

    Without seeing that there was one roma that was looking directly at me.

    I usually park my car near the place where all this happened, and fast-forwarding two weeks they identified me and my car: i found all four wheels cut open, glasses broken and a piece of paper where there was written, in italian “Mind your own businness”..

    Romas are a big problem in Italy, and everyone hates them: not because how they are, but because of what they do. All of them.

  3. This reminds me of a scene in Rossellini’s war trilogy “Paisan” (can’t remember which movie exactly). There’s an African American soldier who gets sympathetic with a malnurished Italian child and tries to help him out. This doesn’t stop the hungry kid from stealing the soldier’s shoes

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