How My Phone Got Stolen In Lisbon, Portugal

Derek and I had only been in Lisbon, Portugal for a few hours at that point. We were there to meet Bill for Semana Santa. While we waited to be able to check in to the hostel, we went on a free tour of the city and then headed back to where the tour guide said the “real” food was.

We passed through the “real food” district, with codfish prepared in 5 different ways on every single menu, and the street ahead was plain and stark and unpopulated. We were both disappointed, tired, hungry, and grumpy. Derek wanted to turn around and go back, but I urged just one street more.

I stopped to take some pictures of a tile-shop with adorable hand-painted tiles of different animals, from whales to goats to kitties, as well as tiles with pretty patterns and landscapes.

A few meters uphill was a sign shaped like a giant cupcake frosted in layers of yellow and pink, with a dainty cherry on top.

“Oh, a cupcake shop!” I squealed. “And it says it’s vegetarian!” I felt like I was in Brooklyn. I begged to go.

Derek noted that the shop looked closed, but I insisted that we at least take a look. To our surprise, the door was open, and it was not a bakery at all. The menu of the day listed seitan with gravy and mushrooms on rice, an adaptation of a typical Portuguese dish, plus soup and salad for only €7,50. On the counter were trays full of empanadas. On a shelf in the back were tall, bright, primary-colored teapots. A man was sitting with his back toward the door reading a Kindle. I could not have imagined a more ideal place: the adorability of cupcakes with the real-food-fillingness of real food.

“I want to eat here,” I said.

Derek noted that it looked like the restaurant was closing. A tall, thin boy around our age gently approached us from the back of the restaurant.

“Do you still have your menu for today?” I asked.

“Sorry, no,” he said, jerking his chin back and forth. His eyes were sorrowful. I thought he looked depressed. “The menu is over.”

“Oh,” I said, disappointed. I looked at the man calmly reading his Kindle. “Are you still serving tea?”

“Yes, yes; please, sit,” he said. “One moment, please…” He turned and scurried back into the kitchens.

Derek and I looked over the laminated, tri-folded menu on the table. “The coffee is expensive here,” Derek joked. It was €0,15 more expensive than at that metro station that morning; it was only €0,65.

“I love Portugal! The food is so cheap!” I said. “Oh, the tea is the same price as it is in Spain.”

The tall, thin boy emerged from the kitchen and scurried back to our table. “We can do it,” he said. “We can do the menu.” Quick on his heels was an excited woman with her hair tied back in a simple ponytail. She was dressed in black from head to toe.

“We can do the menu,” she said, “but there is no more soup.”

“Oh, great!” I said. I sent Derek a significant look that said, Do-you-want-to-eat-here?-Yes?-No?-Well-whatever,-because-I-want-to,-and-I’m-going-to. “We’ll do it.”

With expert confidence, she continued to sell us a salad and two empanadas, a milkshake for Derek, and a tea for me. “They’re staying open for us,” I said, justifying how expensive this meal was going to be after all.

The empanadas came out first. The crust was flaky and light, but not dry. I was pleasantly surprised. Then came the salad, with no iceberg lettuce in sight. Tasty greens ranging in flavor from bitter to nutty to spicy were covered in fresh vegetables and sunflower shoots. It was so big, I hoped we’d have room for the entreé.

When my tea came, I was given a pretty yellow teacup that matched a pretty yellow teapot — a full-size teapot, not a single-serving pot with a Lipton bag. I looked inside. It was loose-leaf in a metal tea-ball, and it smelled heavenly. “I loooooove Portugal!” I repeated. “And it’s only €1,40!”

I took my iPhone out of my inner pocket, where I’d had my hand on it all day, and took several photos at different angles. Our entreé came out (“It looks so good!”), so I took some pictures of that, too. Imagining cell-phone radiation mutating my insides, I laid my phone beside my plate to take my first bite. The rice had cilantro in it, and it was so good. The gravy was good, too. And the portions were generous. “I want to come back here tomorrow,” I said.

Derek and I were discussing something — public transportation, maybe, or NIMBYism and low-cost housing — when two women entered the restaurant and interrupted our conversation. They were of the same height, with the same long, dark hair in a single long, dark braid, and billowing white dresses. One was old and fat, and one was young and thin and pretty. The pretty one approached me quickly and started shaking yellowed papers in my face.

“No,” I said. “No!” It was strange; the papers looked like nonsense. Why would they be selling papers? She pressed in on me, touching my arm, and nearly hitting me in the face with the papers. I pushed her arms up, away from my food; I blocked my face. “No, no, no!” I repeated. I was becoming upset. I stared down into my lap, shaking my head, wishing they would go away. Why were they doing this inside the restaurant?

The tall, thin boy stood at the back of the restaurant, watching with his bewildered, sad eyes. He looked like he wanted to say something; he looked like he wished he would say something; but he stood poised, alert, and un-doing. His eyes said, “I’m sorry,” as his body said, “Gee, I hope they leave soon. This is uncomfortable.” The man with the Kindle did not look up.

Derek was starting to yell. For once, I was glad. Usually I chastise him for being so stern with the Roma women when they push rosemary at us in the street. “Just ignore them and keep on walking,” I would say. “You don’t have to yell at them.”

Finally, they seemed to change their minds. The young one moved toward the man with the Kindle, but the old one headed straight for the door. The young one hurried out.

Derek and I looked at each other. “Ugh,” I said. Derek looked annoyed. “What were we talking about…? Oh yeah…” and he began to revive our conversation.

“Wait. I just… I just need a minute.” I said. I was still fuming, wondering what I could have done differently to make them leave faster. I was still confused that they had come into a restaurant. I was angry with the tall, thin boy for not shooing them away. I wished the manager lady hadn’t stepped out to run to the bank. She would have shooed them away.

I pulled myself together, took a deep breath, and decided to enjoy the rest of my meal (even if those dirty pamphlets might have touched my gravy). “Okay, I’m ready. Sorry; what were you saying?”

Derek opened his mouth to repeat himself, but bolted up in alarm. “Megan; where’s your phone?” His voice was tight. His eyes were already at the door.

“Oh no!” I said. Derek hurried to the door. “They took it!” I said. He looked left and right. The street was empty and silent in both directions. Lunch time was over. There wasn’t even anyone to ask which way they had gone.

“I’ll be right back,” he said, and I saw him jog out of sight.

I stood up and paced back and forth. I sat down. I stood up and went to the door. I wanted to run and help, but I didn’t want to appear to be dining and dashing. The tall, thin boy had disappeared into the kitchen. The man with the Kindle didn’t look up.

The tall, thin boy came back into the room. I was angry. I felt he saw them take my phone, and I didn’t understand why he hadn’t said anything. Why was he so quiet? Why was he so sad? “They took my phone!” I said. The man with the Kindle looked up.

“I’m sorry,” said the tall, thin boy. His eyes looked scared. I’m sure he was thinking, “This is bad.” Maybe he was wondering if the noisy American was going to yell at him. “What kind of phone was it?” he asked.

I felt awkward. An iPhone is a very expensive phone in Europe, and it makes me feel guilty somehow. I was very aware that I was a tourist in a country in crisis. “An… iPhone.” I said.

The man with the Kindle said, “What? What happened?”

I explained how the two women had come in, hassled my table, and left; how we didn’t realize they had taken anything until a couple minutes later. “I didn’t even notice they came in,” said the man with the Kindle. “Did they take anything else?”

No; strangely, my wallet was untouched inside my open purse, which was also not taken, even though it was hanging on the back of my chair. It probably would have been easier to take than the phone. I felt like an idiot. Why hadn’t I put my phone in my purse and closed it up? I made a note to myself to always eat with my purse in my lap for the rest of all time.

Derek came back. “Nothing,” he said, disappointed and angry. “They must have turned somewhere.”

I experienced a complexity of emotion; something about “unfair,” “karma,” “Roma!” and “Stupid!” I felt loss, disappointment, bewilderment, anger, guilt, shame, and hope.

I thought to myself, “Well, what do I do now?”

So I decided to finish my meal, again, dirty pamphlet and all. “It’s mostly the pictures that I regret,” I said. “I can always buy a new phone, but I wish I had those pictures.” I was so angry with the two Roma women. How could they do that? How could they just steal… from me? Didn’t I seem nice? I just gave money to a man playing an accordion by the church that morning. I was so happy. I was having a good time. What were they going to do with it anyway? Its face was cracked.

“Well, I’m going to be a lot meaner to the Roma women from now on,” I said.

“Good!” said Derek.

“And I won’t yell at you for yelling at them anymore,” I said.

“Good,” he said again.

I struggled with these thoughts. I thought about all the Roma who froze to death in the street this past winter after being deported to Romania with no where to go once they got there. I thought about the racism in Spain, how they are discriminated against, how they don’t have papers and can’t get legal work. How they risk deportation when they come in contact with the authorities; how it’s unfair to expect them to follow law. They’re not citizens, and they’re not treated with any hope of becoming citizens. What should I expect?

I thought about my privilege, traveling the world well-protected, welcomed, cared for. I have a job in a fantastic city just because I speak English as a native language. I have had an iPhone 4 to begin with, plus a Spanish phone. And a laptop, and health insurance; friends who fly over the ocean just to visit. Every night I sleep in a warm bed. Every day I eat whatever I want to, whenever I want to, and how much I want to. Complete strangers welcome me into their homes for days or weeks at a time, just to help me travel.

As much as being the victim was frustrating and annoying, I knew that overall, I have the way better end of the stick.

But I still wanted my phone back.

Now, having only been in the city for a few hours, and not yet checked in to our hostel, Lisbon seemed dirty and dangerous. I certainly didn’t feel like going out in the evening or drinking, just to have something else stolen. I was more annoyed by the pushy service industry, who walk with you down the street with their menus trying to entice you to their restaurant; if not now, then later. I was less amused by the smiling gentleman who would walk up and down the streets beckoning toward families with stacks of sunglasses and bracelets, but lowering their voices to students to murmur, “Cocaine? Hash? I’ve got good hash!”

As we left the restaurant, I peered suspiciously in every nook, cranny, and side street, wondering where the two women disappeared. When the manager had come back to the restaurant, she gave us the address of the Foreigner’s Police Station. It was across the street from our hostel, just a block away from the street where we had eaten lunch, and I had gotten robbed.

When we arrived, there was a girl with long, dreadlocked hair complaining about being stolen from. She was American. Another pair of girls, younger, probably study-abroad students, were talking to another agent. They were American, too. After the agent had filed my police report, we passed another American couple coming in report a theft.

I was too overwhelmed to make any comment other than, “Is Lisbon just really dense with American tourists, or are we that easy to profile and take advantage of?”

The two American girls finished up at the same time as Derek and I. They caught us in the lobby. “Hey,” said one, breathless. “Are you American, too?” When I affirmed, they said, “I thought so. I heard you say, ‘Well, in the United States…‘” I was offended by her tone. I had been clarifying why I had asked if there would be any fees if I wanted to press charges.

They were still standing there, excited, expectant. I asked, “So, what happened to you?”

“We were on the bus,” said one. “We were talking and I didn’t even feel it, but someone just took my wallet right out of my purse! My purse was on me the whole time! So be really careful to keep an eye on your purse!”

I thought to myself: everyone knows that. Everyone knows that you keep a hand on your purse when you’re in a crowd; everyone knows that you turn the flap toward you, so that it’s harder to access.

They didn’t ask me, but I said, “I was eating in a restaurant when two women came in and took my phone off the table. They waved paper in my face so I couldn’t see. We were sitting near the window of the restaurant, and we were closest to the door. Always sit in the back of the restaurant!”

They looked at me like I was crazy. I realize they were probably thinking the same thing about me as I had just thought about them: “You stupid idiot. Everyone knows…”

I reflected for a moment on how I felt like a victim, but how the experience seemed to give me very little empathy for other victims. “I wish it was just my wallet,” I thought to myself. “It’s easy enough to cancel a credit card or get a new ID.”

This story doesn’t really have a happy ending except that when I wake up, groping for my iPhone to check my email is not the very first thing I do. I’m even considering not replacing my iPhone with another smartphone. I managed to enjoy aspects of Lisbon despite the inaugural experience: the view from Eduardo VII Parque was exceptional, for example.

But mostly, I wrote all of this just to tell you that I’m sorry I don’t have any pictures to share, and that I won’t have any new ones for a very long time. I considered drawing you some crude impressions on MS Paint, but I don’t have MS Paint, so I can’t.

I’m considering taking up ink and watercolors and going around the city making my own pictures… and if that works out, I’ll try to scan them for your pleasure. Until then, keep your purses close and don’t sit by the window.

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4 thoughts on “How My Phone Got Stolen In Lisbon, Portugal

  1. Sorry to hear about the thieves. It is a hard balance between being an “Ugly American” and enjoying the local colors of new places. “We” are seen as having so much (which we do), so sometimes we are taken advantage of, with no thought that really we don’t have all that much and it is a new and facinating
    experience to travel in other places.So the bad experiences leaves us distrustful and annoyed with their law process, and disinterest in being helpful. (I think Americans in general are more likely to speak up about injustices/crime) Would love to see any drawings you end up with, and please continue the fun travel and descriptions of places I’ll probably never get too.
    I loved your description of the rationalization of eating frozen peas (I didn’t really think you added olive oil).

  2. Hi,

    I’ve experienced almost the same story last holidays. Having a coffee on a terrace, 2 Roma women, iPhone on the table, the papers. A bit shocked after they went about what happened.

    Struggling with the thoughts that these women are bad and shouldn’t steal, but on the other side feeling pity because we can afford a new one, they’re just forced to steal to make a living.

    A difficult situation it is

    • Sorry this happened to you as well! It’s interesting that I’ve cheered for this type of behavior when watching old Disney (Robin Hood). We all want to feel like good people, but in this case, we really are the privileged ones with so much more wealth and opportunity than the people who are stealing from us. It isn’t fair to judge them by our cultural own standard of “good” and “bad.” On the other hand, how do I know that they’re not living well? I don’t know them at all. I guess in the end we just believe what we want to believe, even after all this time.

  3. My phone got stolen today too in Lisbon. 3 years later in Alfama, close to the tourist police station there. Even after everyone warned me to keep a close eye on thing. I bought one of those purses that it is supposedly hard to steal from, but I put my phone in the one pocket that is reserved for water bottles and open, since it was easily accessible to me – I was taking so many pictures. I took a picture, put in the pocket, and 1 minute later reached down to grab it and it was gone.

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