Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Highway Robbery

After returning from Sardinia on Monday afternoon, I unpacked and then repacked so that I would be ready on Monday morning for my next Slow City trip.  When I talked to Manuel in December about the work I had begun to plan, I showed him the map of Spain’s six slow cities.  He quickly zeroed in on one—Rubielos de Mora, in Teruel.  It turns out that Manuel spent his summers in the neighboring town—Mora de Rubielos—from the age of 10 to the age of 16.  “If you go there to do fieldwork,” he said, “I’m coming with you.”  So we planned a trip for this week.  It’s about a 4 ½ hour drive from Barcelona, meaning that we needed to spend a night.  I arranged interviews with the mayor and others involved in the Cittaslow movement, and Manuel picked me up yesterday morning after I had dropped the kids at school.

It was a glorious day, perfect for a road trip, and we both commented on our good fortune to have two whole days together to work, talk, and explore.  We were in that lighthearted mood that comes from driving out of town, away from stress and toward adventure.  After a couple of hours, we stopped for gas and a coffee at a rest stop on the AP-7, the main highway going south out of Barcelona.  After filling up the tank, we had to cross the highway on a footbridge to get coffee, and then resumed our journey.

We hadn’t driven more than a few kilometers before the car starting making a funny noise, and just as we decided to pull over and check it out, the car swerved into the left lane and then back again.  Everything went into slow motion, and I was sure we were going to go over the shoulder and down a steep embankment.  But Manuel handled the car masterfully, letting the car move rather than jerking the wheel back.  He was able to pull it over onto the shoulder safely.  Fortunately there was not much traffic; my stomach flips when I think about what could have happened if there had been a car—or worse, one of the 18 wheelers that frequent the highway—right behind us, or in the left lane when we swerved out of control.

We both got out and clicked into emergency gear.  The right rear tire was completely flat—we were practically driving on the rim.  There was an emergency call booth about 50 meters away, so Manuel put on the reflective vest in the glove box and went to call while I found some reflective triangles in the trunk to put out behind the car.

Within a few minutes a car approached, driven by a guy wearing what looked like an official highway jacket, complete with reflectors.  I couldn’t believe our good luck at getting help so quickly.  I should have realized that things that seem too good to be true usually are.  He pulled up in front of our car and I showed him the tire.  He walked toward Manuel, who was still on the phone, and told me I needed to put the triangles farther away from the car—it made sense, so I started to do it.  When the man approached Manuel, I could tell that Manuel was telling him that we did not need help, and he called to me to stay with the car.  In the meantime, the man had started to come back toward me, and told me again to put the triangles farther away.  I put the first one down, and then turned around to return to the car.  In that very short time—no more than 30 seconds—the man had taken off in his car.  This didn’t alarm me—it seemed odd, but I thought perhaps that he had gone for equipment.

I decided that the whole incident was unique enough that I should capture it on film, and I went to the car for my camera before returning to move the second triangle.  But when I got to the car, I noticed that my bag was not where I had left it on the floor in front of my seat.  I looked in the backseat, and even in the trunk, and only then realized the man had stolen it.

I didn’t panic—what could I do?  I just walked up to Manuel and told him it was missing.  He seemed more alarmed than I did, and immediately called the highway patrol again to report the robbery.  Then I called Alec to ask him to start canceling my credit cards and to shut down my phone.

My bag had the usual things inside—cell phone, wallet, cosmetics bag, etc.  But since I was going on a research trip, it also contained enough electronics to equip a small village—my iPod, my iPad, a very good digital camera, a video camera, and my digital recorder for doing interviews.  It also had my glasses and my sunglasses.  All of these things are replaceable, albeit with some cost and inconvenience.  What is not replaceable is my notebook, which held all of my interview notes, thoughts about my research, and important contact information for various people. My Spanish “green card” was also in my walled, along with Milo’s.  It will take a lot of time to replace it all.

Manuel and I waited in the weeds beyond the shoulder of the highway in the hot sun.  I found some sunscreen in my bag, and Manuel and I both found hats.  He was quite the picture in his yellow vest and baseball cap.  Afer reassuring him that I was fine, we began to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, and the hazards of coing academic fieldwork.

 When the tow truck arrived, and I had had a chance to study the rip in the tire a bit more, I said to Manuel, “You know, this might sound like a conspiracy, but isn’t it odd that we got a flat so soon after leaving the rest area? And that that guy found us and pulled up so quickly after we pulled over? What if he punctured the tire and then followed us?”  It seemed somewhat farfetched, but when we talked to the tow truck guy about it, he said he was sure that’s what had happened.  Just the day before a woman driving from Madrid had been forced out of her car and her car stolen.  So we had been set up. 

We road in the tow truck to the nearest town, where we were dropped at a tire fixing place.  By this time it was 1 o’clock, so of course the place was closed for lunch.  We found a café next door and ordered a couple of cold beers—nothing has ever tasted better—and some sandwiches.  It was 3:30 before we had a new tire and were back on the road. 

Then we had to go to the Guardia Civil to report the incident—I will need the report in order to collect insurance.  The Guardia Civil is actually part of the army here, and the tow truck guy advised us to go there instead of to the police, because the Guardia Civil would be more efficient and professional.  At first it looked like they might not take the report, because the crime occurred just before we crossed the border from Catalunya to Castillon.  But finally they agreed to do it, and to send the report to Catalunya afterwards.  So that took awhile.  The report was quite complete, and even says things like, “Señora Lisa Servon, daughter of Joseph and Lois…”.  So, Mom, your name will live forever in some corner of the Spanish bureaucracy.   After obtaining a dizzying number of signatures and official stamps, we were finished.  I asked the officer who helped us for his name, in case I needed to get in touch.  “Right here,” he said, pointing to the first page of the report.  He pointed to a number, his number, which is I guess how he is known.

It was 5:30 by this time, and we got a coffee at the bar across the street, got back in the car, and set off, again, for Mora de Rubielos—still a 2 ½ hour drive away.  The good news is that neither of us was too fazed by the incident.  I felt a little shaken up once we were in the tow truck and everything began to sink in.  But for the most part, I can take these things in stride.  No one was hurt, and almost everything can be replaced.  Although at first I kicked myself for leaving my bag in the car, and Manuel swore that he should have locked the car, we came to realize that we were actually lucky.  A thief as organized as this one surely would not have left empty-handed, and at the very least we did not have to deal with any violent confrontations.  He might have stuck around to rob Manuel, or take our luggage as well, but the fact that Manuel was on the phone calling the authorities told the thief that he did not have much time.  We were lucky, too, that we broke down so close to an emergency call booth.  Although Manuel had his cell phone, it would have taken longer to reach the right person that way.

We pulled into Mora de Rubielos just after 8 pm, Manuel pointing out mountains he had climbed, forests he had gotten lost in, the house his family had rented.  We had been on the road for more than ten hours.  But the sun was still quite bright and the village felt peaceful and welcoming.  I needed to get out of my dress and shower before I could move another inch, so we agreed to meet in a half hour to go to dinner.  Feeling mostly revived after standing under the hot water for a very long time, I put on clean clothes and opened the corner window onto my tiny terrace.  The swallows were looping and diving, and a few people made their way leisurely through the streets. 

We met outside in the plaza and walked to our restaurant—Melanosporum in the Hotel La Trufa Negra—for dinner.  On the way, we passed a few cafes where people were enjoying a beer at the sidewalk tables.  A little farther on we heard singing coming from behind one of the doors, a group of people singing.  Manuel said it was La Jota, a traditional Aragonese song. It was beautiful, and Manuel sang along as we walked, clearly so happy to be back in this town that he had not visited for 25 years. 

We had a delicious dinner featuring local mushrooms, black truffles, and local cheeses. And some terrific red wine from Teruel.  The events of the day started to slip away.  And then, after comparing notes with Alec once more, I fell quickly into a deep sleep.

1 comment:

  1. Thank goodness you're alive to tell this tale!
    And that you were not alone but w Manuel!
    Will be in touch. Luv.@