No, actually you can’t find instruction in ‘any study’ sitting in the classrooms of Ithaca. I believe that every city has something to teach the observant traveler, some hidden pieces of valuable life experience that can only be learned on location. One of these studies is the art of pick-pocketing.
For this, the best school in the world is the old, twisting streets and back alleyways of Barcelona, late at night. You can imagine my excitement to spend four or five days there on my way to Rome. As I entered the subway upon arrival the loud speakers bleared out in several languages,
“Pick-pockets are everywhere: always keep an eye on your valuables.” Indeed, the very first night, several came to try their art on me during my requisite walk down Las Ramblas, the main street of pick-pocketing in the world.
I didn’t do anything too active that first night; I only politely observed as one pickpocket after another came up to me, each with his own method of artistry : requesting a cigarette, asking where I’m from, handing out leaflets to some non-existent bar or club, even the can-can dancing scam.
I allowed each proudly to show off his attempt for up to 30 seconds since after all, expertise in anything is only gained through much time spent in assiduous study. Of course I never actually let any of them take my wallet, which was easy to prevent since I wear jeans so tight and carry a wallet so bulging that even I have troubling getting it out of my pocket (incidentally, the best way to avoid being pick-pocketed is by carrying large amounts of money since the fatter your wallet is, the more difficult it is to extract).
By the second night I was giving a guided tour on the way to a bar near the beach to a French tourist I met, explaining the modus operandi of each of the pick-pockets who inhabit that stretch of Barcelona.
However, it was all becoming rather dull and after a while I became jaded, having noticed a great lack of creativity among many of my would-be pick-pockets. Then, the last night I was there, as I was walking back having given up trying to find a true artist in a city that claims to be teeming with them, a man in his mid-20s and a little larger than myself came up to me with his two friends and offered me hashish.
Not being particularly fond of the drug, I politely declined and was going to continue on my way when he asked me where I’m from. Always proud to be an American, I answered the United States. (note: never tell anyone you’re from the United States except in those situations where being classified as rich and reckless is to your advantage).
He instantly goes into the can-can and tries to slip his hand into my pocket. Disappointed at his sheer unoriginality, I decide to mock his crudity by reaching into his pocket.
Apparently the man didn’t find my satire too funny, because the next thing I knew, his right arm formed a hook-like arc and met my left eye at a velocity equal to or exceeding that required to accelerate my face into the chain-link fence beside us.
I did not find that very amusing, so I got up and charged at him as he backed away from me while at some point shouting what I’m pretty sure is Catalan for ‘WTF!’ He blocked my preliminary punches until his friends ran up to him, and they made a surprisingly speedy exit considering they were walking backwards, unwilling to lose sight of me in case I charged at them again.
I realized that the entire element of surprise was gone it was hard to pick-pocket these pick-pockets, so I went back to my room to staunch the flow of blood coming from my eye and cheek (policemen saw me on my way back but apparently a man walking around with a black eye and cut-up face is not unusual enough in Barcelona to merit their attention), having passed this class quite well, I think.
Oh, and I’ve heard Barcelona is also great for studying architecture, if you’re into that.