Monday, June 09, 2008

Twice mugged in Rome

It was my sixtieth birthday the other week and my wife took me to Rome as a surprise present. The surprise turned out to be that I had the unexpected pleasure of being mugged twice.

The first time was the result of Gordon Brown's mismanagement of the British economy when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. It turns out that his long and gloomy interregnum has caused the stealthy devaluation of the once-mighty Pound Sterling abroad. As a result, in Italy at least, a pound is now worth the equivalent of two mouldy lumps of gnocchi against the Euro, and falling fast. We discovered this when we stopped for lunch at a charming tratoria off the Via Dei Gracchi on the way back from Castel Sant'Angelo. A modest lunch for two of sardines and a bottle of white wine followed by several digestifs cost us nearly eighty pounds. After my wife had picked me up from the piano - where I lay feeling like I'd just been run over by one - it dawned on us that her extravagant birthday present to me was going to be exactly that.

For the next three days we wandered listlessly around Rome cursing Brown and envying the free-spending Romanians, Lithuanians and Poles who seemed to be everywhere having a good time. We survived largely on pizza (although once, feeling light-headed with hunger we indulged in spaghetti alle vongole, a few moments of mad prodigality that left us both unsatisfied and appalled at our reckless gourmandising), while we saved up our budget for one final, decent culinary splurge.

That evening on the way to the restaurant - our final night in Rome - we decided first to visit the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, built mostly upon the imposing ruins of the third century Baths of Diocletian. It was on the exit from this enormous building that our second mugging occurred in a manner that was far more professional and slick than any of Gordon Brown's hamfisted attempts to relieve us of our hard-earned cash.

I thought it quaint when - after we had crossed the main transept gawping at the enormous marble pillars - we were suddenly ushered out through a back door in the sacristy by a fag-smoking "caretaker" and found ourselves alone and disoriented in a dusty back alley. "I think it's this way," I muttered when I realised the door back into the church had been slammed shut behind us.

No sooner had we emerged from the alley onto a marginally wider but still deserted road than a car pulled up alongside us. The driver wound down his window and beckoned us. "Where is the main railway station?" he muttered, "Quick, senor, we will miss our train."

I couldn't help even though we'd walked past it a few minutes earlier. I was lost myself. "It's not far but I'm not sure which direction."

"You English?"

"Scottish."

"Where from?"

"Aberdeen."

"Aberdeen! My wife's from Aberdeen!"

"Really! What a co-incidence." We beamed at him. There was a guy sitting beside him with his nose buried in a newspaper. They were both wearing sharp suits. They looked like businessmen.

"You know who I am?" asked the driver.

"No."

"I'm the boss of Armani. You've heard of Armani haven't you!"

"Of course!" My eyes widened. I was impressed. The boss of Armani was someone rich and famous, wasn't he? A jetsetter. Monaco. Supermodels. Fabulously rich. I'd never met a really rich person before. I wanted to curtsey.

"My friend I have a problem. Will you help me?"

I didn't hesitate. It would be an honour. Besides, who knew where it might lead? No harm having friends amongst the rich and famous. "Of course. What's the problem?"

"I've just been at our annual company sales conference. Five hundred of our top guys. My Bentley wouldn't start so I borrowed this car but it's got no petrol left. Of course I don't carry money just like your Royal Family. I must get to the train station before the petrol runs out. Lend me some money for fuel, will you?"

I looked at my wife. Since the first day in that restaurant I didn't have any money. "Give him some money," I said, "Come on, help the guy."

She hesitated.

"For God's sake. He's the boss of Armani. Don't be stupid."

She looked confused but took out her purse.

"How much you got?" said the boss of Armani, leaning forward to peer into her purse.

She held out a five euro note.

He looked unimpressed. "Give me more!"

She looked at me for guidance. I couldn't believe she was acting so churlishly in front of such a distinguished and wealthy businessman, one of the richest in Europe. "Give him more," I urged her, mortified.

"Here's ten," she said reluctantly.

"More," he demanded, "Give me all."

"I've only got a hundred," she protested.

"For Heaven's sake, give him the money!" I exhorted her.

He reached into the back of the car. "Here, look, it's your lucky day." He held up two leather jackets. "Genuine Gucci."

My eyes widened. Real Gucci. They must be worth a fortune. Wait a minute though, didn't he say Armani? Did they own Gucci too? I couldn't remember. Must be. "Give him the money," I implored. I could already picture the envious looks from our friends when we got back home. Maybe he'd even send us a Christmas present or invite us to one of his holiday homes.

Reluctantly my wife handed over sixty euros.

"These jackets are worth five hundred each! Real leather. Hugo Boss!"

"Give him some more!" I said, appalled at her meaness.

She gave him another fifty euros. The driver looked at her, hesitating. "Okay. Good. Take the damned jackets. See you in Scotland!" He flung the jackets at our feet and drove off at high speed.

We stood there looking at the thin, brown jackets. Even to my unpracticised eyes they looked rather shapeless. "Let's try them on," I said hopefully, fighting my misgivings.

They didn't fit us. They wouldn't have fitted anybody. We stared at each other. Gradually it dawned on me. "We've just been mugged," I said slowly, a sinking feeling developing in the pit of my stomach.

My wife stared at me, her eyes full of resentment. "No," she muttered through gritted teeth, "I'm the one who's been mugged. By three men. And one of them was my husband."

She was right. I was such an idiot. How could I act like that towards my own wife? A stupid, willing collaborator. I felt so ashamed. Even the slap-up meal I bought her later with my credit card couldn't erase the bad taste in either of our mouths.

I left Rome feeling a lot older. Wiser too. But the wisdom came at a high price indeed.

4 comments:

  1. What a terrible story, Pund, I am quite overcome.

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  2. Good grief, I am amazed that you haven't heard of this scam before. It is also wildly popular in Milan, but I have also heard of it being performed in Bruges, of all places. Horrible for you and your poor wife.

    Do be careful in Barcelona where they are still pulling the "melted chocolate" distraction. A friend of mine fell for it only last week!

    Mainland Europe, eh? Far better off staying at home. Cordial greetings from the Thames Valley, Mrs P

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  3. Oh my! Designer mugging ...

    Or mugging by design ...

    Or de sign of de times, muggins ...

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  4. Decades ago, my father was approached on the street in NYC by a man who offered to sell my father a camel's hair coat -- cheap. My father, a poor medical student, handed over the money and when he got home and opened the box, he discovered a coat made of camel's hair!!! (This is not a story my father evertold, but my mother was like the town crier.)

    But, really, Bill, I can't believe you fell for that scam. I'm still shaking my head in disbelief.

    Wicked Witch of Publishing

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