A Cautionary Tale

by Shirley B. Moskow

In Madrid, thieves work in pairs. One tells you that a bird has soiled your jacket and offers to clean it. The other slips it off and rubs a spot. When they helps you on with your jacket, your wallet is gone and so are the scam artists. In the Caribbean, some street moneychangers deftly fold paper money so that unsuspecting travelers can’t see that they’re counting the same bills twice. The skills of pickpockets on Rome’s trolleys are legendary.

I’ve listened to many travelers recount such tales of their mishaps. Of course, I sympathized, positive that no similar fate would befall me. I prided myself on taking precautions and always being aware of my surroundings.

At the National Museum of Prague, as I was paying for a book in the gift shop, the lights suddenly went out. The old castle was all confusion as people milled about in the dark. Several minutes later, when the electricity came on, I discovered that my wallet had disappeared.

My husband and I reported the theft to the police. They seemed uninterested. We returned to our hotel and the manager helped us to notify our credit card companies. That’s when I realized that my husband and I shouldn’t have been carrying the same bank and credit cards. We had to put a hold on all of them. Now neither of us had access to credit, and between us we had little more than two hundred dollars in cash. I wondered how long it would take for relatives to wire funds. The answer was never. We were traveling through three countries, staying at a different hotel almost every night. Under the circumstances, no hotel would accept a wire.

A chilling panic lodged in my stomach. It was only the third day of our ten-day trip. Breakfasts were included in the tour, but only a few dinners. We devised a plan. We’d smuggle cheese, bread, and fruit from the breakfast buffet, buy a beverage, and picnic in a park. The first day was a romantic adventure. We laughed a lot as we remembered our early years of traveling on a shoestring. It rained on the second day so we ate in a dingy corner of the cheap café where we bought our beverage. That wasn’t fun.

For the next few days, when others on the tour asked us to join them for dinner or the ballet, we begged off saying that we were tired. I wanted to keep our situation a secret. I didn’t want to keep repeating the details to each person as the story was passed around. Also, I wanted to avoid being the object of conversation. Above all, I didn’t want sympathy. I’d watched when others had been scammed and heard “They should have been more careful” too many times for comfort

Nevertheless, we enjoyed the trip and became especially friendly with one couple. They asked us to have dinner with them. Afterwards, they planned to attend a concert. Would we join them? “No, thank you,” I replied. They looked disappointed.

On our way to breakfast the next morning, they were waiting for us in the corridor. “What’s the matter?” the husband asked. “Something’s changed. When the trip began, you were friendly with everyone. Now you stay off by yourselves. Did something happen?”

“As a matter of fact…” my husband said and launched into the story of our predicament.

“No problem,” said our new friend. He brightened. “How much do you need? I’ll get cash at an ATM.”

“I couldn’t take hundreds of dollars from a stranger,” said my husband. “You don’t know us.”

“In my line of business, you learn who you can trust,” he said.

“What line of business are you in?”

“I’m a minister.”

We accepted his generous offer. It was the beginning of a true friendship. The following year, the couple visited us in New England during foliage season. We plan a trip soon to their new home in the Northwest.


Since leaving daily journalism for the footloose life of a freelance travel writer, Boston-based Shirley Moskow specializes in writing about soft adventure, culture, and the arts, including architecture and jewelry design. Her articles appear in newspapers and magazine around the world. When she is not in pursuit of the next good story, you will find her on the tennis courts.

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