How I Got Pickpocketed in Barcelona (& What I Learned From It)

How I Got Pickpocketed in Barcelona (& What I Learned From It)

The last article I wrote, about the reality of what it was like moving on my own to Barcelona to live and work, was received so warmly and I genuinely appreciate all the messages I got after. Some have asked for more stories from Spain (of which I have quite the number), so I’ve decided to write another one— of how I got pickpocketed in Barcelona.

This is not a unique story, I should start off by saying. 

It didn’t happen everyday, but it wasn’t the most uncommon thing to hear about; about how someone had their bag snatched, or how someone knew a friend who’d just got pickpocketed.

I’d actually seen instances in front of my eyes where someone else was the victim, and I’ve gotta tell you. These guys are good

La Rambla— Barcelona's busiest boulevard

La Rambla— Barcelona's busiest boulevard

I remember I was walking down La Rambla once, almost nearing the marina, and a homeless looking man was just skipping through the streets in a sing-song chirp, before momentarily stopping at a mat that was placed on the ground. He lifted the mat, picked up a phone, and continued on his merry way. 

How on earth did he know there was a phone there?? 

I’m going to hope that was his phone and his sleeping spot, but you never know.  

Another far more apparent one, was when I was on the metro once.  

It was crowded, like rush hour busy, the kind you barely have any personal space to move around in. 

The train had stopped at a station, and a group of older women in long skirts and headscarves each took a door and were making lots of noise and causing a great commotion. 

Before I could even fathom what was happening, one half of a local couple had pushed one of the women back, and told her to back off in Spanish.  

The noise and commotion continued, and the women left just as the doors were about to close.  

Two Chinese guys thanked the Spanish couple after, and it was only through hearing the former’s conversation in Mandarin that I actually understood what had happened. 

Turns out that woman had reached into his pockets while they were causing the deliberate commotion, and the Spanish couple had seen it before it happened and told her to back off. 

All this was happening right in front of me and I didn’t even see the opportunity for theft, or the theft actually happening.  

Playa de la Barceloneta

Playa de la Barceloneta

My story though, starts with the almost depressing fact that it happened on Christmas Day.  

I was given Christmas Day off, and I was actually a little peeved about it when there were other colleagues who wanted that day off because they had friends and family visiting, and I didn’t but I was going to have the day off. 

Oh and also, just about everything was closed in the city over the festive period for a good number of days, which means I had absolutely no plans and almost no way of making any.

So a colleague from another department from Northern Spain and I decided to hang out on Christmas Eve.

Like I'd mentioned before, most shops and restaurants were closed so we ended up having an underwhelming tapas dinner along Passeig de Gracia, before heading to the district of El Born for drinks.

I'd worked the morning shift that day, so past 1am my mind was basically shutting off.

We decided to head back after that, and my friend had wanted to walk as she lived in El Raval (literally one of the worst neighbourhoods in Barcelona to live in but I'll save that for another day), which was right next to El Born / El Barrio Gótico. 

Not a problem, I'd walked the Gothic Quarter at all times of night before after living in the city for 6 months, so I didn't think much of it.

But it was Christmas Eve, or well, the morning of Christmas Day now. 

Streets were empty.

If in the past, I got by with not being a target of pickpockets because I blended in and didn't look too foreign (perks of being ethnically ambiguous, I guess), this time there weren't many choices on the street.

We made it as far down to a street where we would hit the main boulevard of La Rambla, and I was fully planning to hop on a cab and complete the rest of the trip home while my friend walked down the other side of La Rambla to El Raval.

On this street there was a man offering tickets to a club, and my friend took one and I didn't.

He then came right next to me, and put his hand on my shoulder, continuously offering the club in Spanish. 

I kept repeating, "no gracias, no gracias."

He kept hollering on about the club and started to playfully trip me, calling me "amigo" and all that.

In 2 seconds, he stopped and whipped back around and walked the other way.

I immediately felt my pocket had been relieved of my phone.

What does one do in that situation? It was a new phone— hadn't even been a full year; I had my whole life on that phone in photographs, notes, contacts, literally everything

Turns out I'm a lot more ballsy than I think I am most of the time.

Because I spun around and said to the guy in a pointed tone, "you took my phone."

"No I didn't," he replied in a heavy accent.

"Then let me check your pockets," whoever the hell I was in that moment, I don't know where that came from.

I proceeded to check half his pockets, or the half he was willing to let me check, and he just went, "you're crazy man, crazy!" and walked down the path and continued on. 

I looked at my friend in disbelief of what had just happened. 

We looked under cars, we looked at nearby bins, thinking he could've chucked it somewhere.

No luck.

A similar looking man (ie. homeless and raggedy), came up to us in Spanish and told us to wait where we were for 5 minutes, while he walked off an adjacent street running perpendicular to the one we were on.

"5 minutes?! And for what?" I thought out loud.

My friend felt this other man might have been his accomplice and was trying to throw us off by confusing us, but my gut had the strongest feeling it was still with the first man.

But there was nothing we could do as we stood rooted on the spot while we watched both men disappear into the night.

That was, I think, one of the moments in my life I don't think I can ever forget.

I felt helpless in every sense of the word because there was nothing I could do.

We decided to make a police report, to at least recover some amount in insurance, and we headed to the nearest police station in El Raval.

At the door, we were told that an incident had happened in the vicinity that night, and they had a couple of people in questioning, with each person likely to be in custody for hours.

My friend had to work the next morning, so we decided to try again later that week.

To wrap up the police side of things, I eventually got the report 2 tries later, because hey, it's Spain! The second time we tried we were told we needed to have an official English translator from the police station given my native language wasn't Spanish, and he had official working times and it was past his working time. The last, and final time we succeeded was 2 weeks after the incident, and they didn't mention needing the translator at all and my friend ended up helping me to translate whatever I needed to. Turns out marble in Spanish is "mármol" (I was describing the pattern on the case of my phone), this was one of the unfortunate ways I learned Spanish, yes. But bottom line, was the translator needed or not? Christ.

Also on the last try, I was taken to a room with a detective, and he asked my friend and I if we could pick out the guy who did it. We both agreed we probably could, so he picked out a file from his shelf of ring folders, and on the cover it described the gender and method of pickpocketing, so he plonked two thick files with the description "Male" and "Tickets to Clubs".

And when I was flipping through these files, I was genuinely shocked.

First, at the sheer number of people they had on file, and some of these they had on file for years. They would get a few photos in every few years, but the thing about these guys is that they don't keep up appearances. So they look drastically different from year to year, more dishevelled, skinnier, a beard, clean shaven, more plump etc. 

Second, how some of the guys they had on file were so young. I'm talking between the ages of 14 and 17. Like it was a family trade. And their lives had already been marked by the police. And they weren't even legal yet. A part of me genuinely felt bad for them.

And lastly that there were so many of these people that they had them separated on file by gender and the method of getting to your pockets, as it were. What is this, Sin City?

We picked out three guys who kind of fit the image we had in our minds, but again, because these guys don't maintain their appearance, we could never be sure just by looking at photos, but did settle on one with an 80% certainty that was the guy. 

The night the incident happened, when I went home I immediately checked my email, and saw "Find my iPhone has been disabled on your iPhone" which didn't help matters, and I went to my iTunes and realised of all the times my phone had been plugged in, it never actually backed up my phone, which meant my last back up was just before I'd changed my phone that year. So I lost months of data and photos.

You know how I said I'd never felt loneliness like I felt in Spain?

Honestly try losing your phone.

I'd never felt so isolated before in my life.

My only window of communication was Facebook Messenger, which was what I used to make sure my family knew I was okay, even though I wasn't contactable. And the moment I left my apartment, I was completely uncontactable. All the platforms we use to communicate and reach out to people, felt like they were all taken away from me in that instant, and that was singlehandedly my worst day in Spain. 

Things I learned? 

Well, I started to become a lot more guarded with my valuables, and placed them in the inner pockets of my jackets which no one could get to but me.

I think I have PTSD when it comes to putting anything in the pockets of my trousers now.

Oh and I think I back up my phone almost everyday these days.

But the biggest thing I learned is who I became in that situation. 

I feel like within my closest social circle of friends, we're the type to avoid trouble. You know how if there's a commotion on the street, a lot of people not involved like to poke their noses in, see what's happening, and talk about it with their friends and family passing judgement? Yeah, no, that's not who we are. We definitely head the other way if it has nothing to do with us, unless someone needs help obviously, we're not monsters. 

But turns out I won't go down without a fight when it happens to me.

I'd talked about this with some of my colleagues in Barcelona, and we actually discussed the aftermath of what happens. Apparently sometimes if the victim confronts the pickpocket, the pickpocket acts like it was a joke and throws their phone back to them. Rookie pickpockets maybe? A pickpocket in a good mood perhaps? I don't know. I was dealing with a professional who lucked out with my phone and wasn't letting it go. 

Before I left for Spain, apart from the too-positive remarks, I did get a lot of people telling me about how dangerous it was going to be, but honestly apart from the one isolated incident? Not a scratch. But I do know of instances where some of the ladies of the night can become confrontational too, but I used to walk fast and just shout, "¡NO!" which hey, didn't lead to them chasing me so whatever works. 

And in all honesty in all my months there, I'd never felt unsafe. I'd never felt like I had to look over my shoulder. Yes, sometimes La Rambla would become shady past midnight, but I never felt like I was in danger. And the truth is, there are a lot of travel forums with questions posed like, "is it safe?" and I always feel like it's such an odd thing to ask. 

There are people in all cities all over the world, millions that live and work in the city. I think if in general, they're fine, there's really not much to worry about? Keep your wits about you, don't go brandishing your money and jewellery wherever you go, don't attract too much attention etc. like you would in any major city, and if shit happens, shit happens. 

I will admit though, I'd really fallen for Barcelona in the time of working there. And when all that happened, I remember thinking to myself, "alright I'm done with this city, I'm ready to move on now."


Ah Barcelona, what a trip.

From my season in Barcelona, I turned some of the photographs I took into my products which you can get on my shop!

Wish You Were Here Postcard

I love neon signs, and this "wish you were here" one welcomed visitors during a pop-up Christmas market at the University of Barcelona that I stumbled upon. 

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You and Me Against the World Postcard

During my very first trip to Barcelona, Spain, we headed to the beaches of the city in the district of Barceloneta. On a clear day, the sun brought the crowds in droves; friends playing beach football or volleyball, joggers taking in their morning ritual, groups of families and friends strolled along the promenade, and beachgoers getting out their towels and getting their best tan on. Whilst making my way down the boulevard, I managed to get this clear shot of these two palm trees right next to each other, and made me think of partners— two peas in a pod.

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Vinyls in a Vintage Store Tote Bag

When I lived in Barcelona, there were quite a few vintage clothing stores around, and this in particular was a chain of them— Flamingos Vintage Kilo. I would always walk into these stores even if I wasn't looking for anything in particular for the vibe of them. Everything about them just felt so damn cool. In this shop, I stumbled onto an area where there was a collection of vinyls, and there really is something about vinyls for me and the way they are packaged. There was no way I was leaving this store without at least a snap on the camera.

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