Dentoning….and foreign intrigue

In the very first episode of this blog, I reserved the right to write about anything I wanted, even if it isn’t necessarily related to Denton. I don’t do it very often, but the caveat is there. This past week, I was talking to my good friend, Shelly Tucker, the Gran Dame of Denton’s departed citizenry…….AKA….”The Ghost Lady”. We were talking about travel, and I told her the story I’m about to write. She requested that I blog it, so here goes. I guess it’s somewhat related to Denton because I learned a valuable lesson which can be used while Dentoning.

I used to travel……. a lot. I worked for FEMA years ago before it got its undeserved bad reputation. Working for FEMA at that time consisted of actually going to each and every Presidentially-declared disaster in Texas and the adjacent states. With hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, hail and occasional stampedes, we stayed pretty busy. Depending on the size, scope and type of disaster, I’d work anywhere from 3 weeks to 7 months in the field at a time. When the onsite work was complete, I had the choice to come back to Denton and continue working at the underground Federal Center on Loop 288, or……not.
Often, I’d choose NOT….

During the periods of NOT, I’d almost always travel. Sometimes to Mexico, Belize or Guatemala…..other times to Europe or the Middle East. It was during a two and a half month trip to Europe with my brother Mark that the following adventure occurred.

This blog isn’t going to be a travelogue, so I’ll rush through the first part of the trip. Mark and I flew into London, making our way to France, West Germany and eventually into Berlin. This was before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the tearing down of The Wall, so it was an amazing time to be in Berlin. We spent 2 or 3 days in East Berlin, crossing through Checkpoint Charlie early each morning. We roamed through the eastern edge of the divided city, far from touristy Alexanderplatz and the blocks surrounding it. We went to the seldom visited (at that time) Russian War Memorial, with its giant statue of Rodina or “Mother Russia” crushing a swaztika with a huge booted foot. The Memorial is constructed entirely of stone taken from the ruins of Hitler’s Chancellery and contained the Russian tomb of the unknown soldier, which the East Germans called the “Tomb of the Unknown Looter”. It was cool and we were wiped out when we left Berlin to go to Rome.

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We left Berlin at night for the long train trip to Rome, falling asleep after the ride through the countryside of East Germany. It was just the two of us in a compartment designed for 6, so we had plenty of room and both slept well. I woke up to the rhythmic sway of the cars and the clatter of the rail beneath us. Mark woke up soon after and the “fun” began.

We sat in our compartment of the train, watching the countryside whiz by, reading, and talking. During the early morning, the conductor came by a couple of times to check our rail passes and we bought a coke from the train roving drink gypsies. During all my travels I had learned through experience to keep my passport, cash, other ID and camera close to me at all times. I had never had any trouble, but had heard many stories of snatch and grabs……so even while seated comfortably in the relative security of my own compartment, I kept my daypack next to me, never on an overhead shelf or such.

In what seemed like the middle of a conversation, I woke up. Huh? Mark and I had slept all night and were not sleepy in the least, but here I was waking up from a sudden “sleep”. I looked around as my head began to clear and noticed my daypack at my feet……and open. This wasn’t right, but it wasn’t until I woke Mark up and found him foggy and confused that I realized that we had been robbed.

On previous trips, I had heard stories of people being drugged and robbed on the trains of Europe. I really thought that these stories were old wives tales or that it had happened once 30 years before and been blown out of proportion…….Nope. We pushed through the fogginess and went first to the restroom at the end of the train car closest to us. I opened the door and saw my passport, my EMPTY money belt (I never wore it, I just used it as a wallet), and a few other things from my daypack. Mark’s travel debris was there too. We also found a large gauze patch with a very strong chemical odor.

We gathered our things and as we returned to our compartment, we saw a suspicious looking guy standing at the other end of the car. We walked toward him, and the closer we got, the more nervous he looked. The restroom door he was “guarding” was closed. We opened it without knocking and found another guy going through a woman’s purse. The two thieves panicked and ran toward the back of the long train. My brother and I found a conductor and explained as best we could with the language barrier what had happened. He took the purse and locked it in an empty compartment.

By this time, the owner of the purse came out of her compartment as loopy as my brother and I had been 20 minutes before. Another compartment door opened and 4 huge Michigan football players came out and after we explained what had happened, offered to accompany us on a thief hunt. The six of us proceeded to search the train in the direction the perps had fled. Within 15 minutes we’d found both of them, one of them huddled on a chair under a blanket like an old grandmother. The looks on their faces when they saw the “posse” coming toward them was priceless.

The afore mentioned conductor who it turned out was actually a train “policeman”, grudgingly took the two into custody and let the train system know what had happened. There was no sign of all the things the guys had stolen, so we thanked the posse-mates and returned to our compartment still groggy and afflicted with cottonmouth. (For the record, no intoxicants had been ingested by either me or my brother.)

About an hour later, the train made an unscheduled stop at a very small town in Italy called Orte. The two criminals were escorted off the train, accompanied by the applauds of most of the train passengers, who had by then had heard about their misdeeds. It was satisfying to see them led away until the “police” at the station motioned for us to collect our bags and get off the train too. We let them know that our destination du jour was Rome, not Orte, but they were very insistent, so we bowed to authority. Our fellow travelers booed as we were led into the train station…..we really had no choice.

It soon became apparent that the “conductor”, the perps and the officials at the station were all in cahoots (Italian for “partners in crime”). It was obvious that they all knew each other despite the fact that we could not communicate. Mark and I were put in a room with one window which overlooked the track, while the criminals were entertained in the station office by their compadres. They all laughed and drank wine while Mark and I contemplated our fate. No one on the train knew our names. No one at home knew we were on that particular train…….we had interrupted the lucrative “business” of these guys, and we weren’t sure that we wouldn’t soon be in a shallow grave behind the train station. I like Italy, but not enough to stay there permanently.

After about two hours of sitting, pestering the station personnel to allow me to call the American Embassy in Rome, and listening to our stomachs rumble, one of the gang members came to me and ordered me to fill out a “denuncio”. This was an official train system form to report incidents such as ours. I am pretty sure it is not used often. It was, of course, written in Italian, but I understood the jist of it. I wrote about a two page description of what had happened on the train. As an afterthought, the last thing I included was the fact that we had asked the train policeman to lock the woman’s purse into an empty compartment. I gave the denuncio to the station staff and again asked to be allowed to contact the Embassy in Rome……….again they refused the request.

We were getting pretty hungry by this time and asked for food after we saw the thieves being fed. Didn’t happen…………About this time, the guys who now seemed to be our guards found a woman in town who read and understood English. We talked to her for a minute, explaining what had happened and that we were being prevented from contacting the Embassy. She looked scared and said she’d do what she could to help us. She was then led away to translate what I had written.

An hour or so later, the head train troll opened the door to the room we were in and motioned for me to come with him. He didn’t look very happy. As we walked down the hall, it dawned on me that I had something that might help us. I reached for my wallet and pulled out my FEMA ID which had the official seal of the United States on it. I handed it to the guy and told him in broken Spanish (close enough) that I was with the American government. This seemed to get his attention and spark a little fear in him. I took the ID from his hand and buried it as deep as I could in my pocket.

We arrived at a dusty room in the ancient station and there sat the interpreter, the perps and the rest of the train gang. Everyone was smiling except for the woman, who was very uncomfortable. She proceeded to tell me that they didn’t like what I had written very much…………well……chaaaa! They particularly didn’t like the last sentence in which I had documented the fact that the conductor had secured evidence on the train. The guy who, by this time, had become the hardass of the bunch, demanded that I rewrite the denuncio leaving the incriminating part out (not that the entire essay wasn’t incriminating). I bluntly refused. I then pulled out the FEMA card again and demanded a phone to call the Embassy. The ID spooked them enough that they finally handed me the phone after dialing a number.

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Local artist’s rendition of intimidating ID card

The female voice on the other end of the line was a true breath of fresh air. I calmly told her what had happened on the train, how we had been treated in Orte and that we’d not been allowed to call her or leave the station after numerous requests and demands. She was obviously perturbed and said it was a very good thing we had gotten through to her……….I knew that! She asked to talk to the Nazi-like hardass and evidently proceeded to berate him. After about 5 minutes of watching him listen to her, he sheepishly handed the phone back to me. The Embassy employee told me that another train would arrive in Orte in about an hour and that we would be allowed the board it and leave. This sounded great and I thanked her profusely. The train arrived, we gathered our backpacks and headed out to the boarding area. We were surrounded by the train staff before we reached the outer door and were led back to our “cell”.

Obviously we had tumped their boat over and they weren’t happy about it. They strongly and persistently demanded that I rewrite the damning denuncio, and I stubbornly refused to do so. As the pressure increased, I continued to demand additional calls to the Embassy. It seemed we had reached a stalemate, but the FEMA ID still worried them, and I was allowed to make several more calls to the woman in Rome. Each time she said we’d be allowed on the next train, each time it didn’t happen.

Finally, after a particularly heated exchange between hardass and the nice Embassy lady, we were told that we would definitely be allowed to leave Orte on the next train. 45 minutes later, a Rome-bound train arrived and Mark and I boarded. As the train pulled away, we looked back at the station to see the band of miscreants bidding us farewell with the single-digit, International sign of discontent.

Mark and I settled into a compartment and even though we were exhausted from the daylong ordeal, stayed wide awake during the train trip south. As you might imagine, we were a little sick of Italy by this time and decided to go only as far as Milan instead of venturing on to Rome. We arrived very early in the morning and waited in a park for the American Express office to open at 8. When it did, we proceeded to get our stolen traveller’s checks and AE cards replaced and then got back on the a train headed northeast to southern France and then on to Spain. Before boarding the train, I called the woman at the Embassy to let her know we were OK and that we’d decided to cut the Italian portion of our trip short. She had invited us to the Embassy when we got to Rome, but understood how the events of the day had put a bad taste in our mouths. She told me that the Embassy had found out that the two original thieves were illegal Albanian refugees and were to be deported the next day. She also said that the compartment containing the woman’s purse on the original train was empty when it got to Rome…..go figure. I asked about the rest of our “captors” in Orte and she said that unfortunately, that was an Italian problem and out of their hands.

Mark and I stayed in Caans for a few days and then went on to the Basque area of Spain and stayed with distant, yet very close “relatives”. The trip was great, the ordeal in Italy an ordeal and a learning experience.

I claimed a lesson learned at the beginning of this story and that lesson, which should fervently be attached to any Dentoning, is…………beware of Albanian refugees and power-happy Italian train goons.

Enjoy Denton!

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