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I was recently beaten and robbed in Catania, Sicily.
The highlights included being thrown to the ground by six young Italians who couldn’t manage to kick or punch through my grip on my bag; my wife having her camera bag, a recent Christmas / birthday / graduation / Valentine’s present, ripped off her shoulder; her screaming “Polizia! Polizia!” and her brief but courageous pursuit as our assailants fled; two futile visits to the police, where we learned that most young male delinquents in Catania have protruding ears, which may be significant but not to this story; and the ensuing period of resisting the urge to paint broad strokes of judgment all over Sicily, which would be a even larger injustice than the mugging. Aside from one chunk of ground in Catania, I highly recommend visiting the island.
I’m still puzzled by those three minutes. Aside from the first blow, I don’t remember any physical pain. The strongest memory I retain is the feeling of disbelief towards the events as they unfolded. That something could be taken from me (or, more accurately, something could be taken from my wife and from us) felt so unreal. This thought, along with muscles strengthened by years of playing guitar, may be why I simply refused to let go of my bag. But what did give way under those kicks and punches was my grip on my self-narrative.
We travel and we take. This is true for most travelers. Confession: I enjoy taking, but not as much as I used to. I still like how my thumb magically causes cars to stop, and I still enjoy those warm beds strangers offer me. (Couchsurfing? More like “Here’s the keys to my apartment,” or, “Let me show you around the city, feed you, and give you this nice bed” -surfing.) But the focus changed as I slowly realized these were opportunities to share a piece of life with others. I felt I had reached a place where responding with hospitality isn’t an obligation but a reflex and an opportunity…and then I was beaten and robbed and confused in Catania, Sicily.
I felt the change the next day when we returned to the scene of the crime. The daylight gave the nondescript street innocence. Mothers were hanging laundry and old ladies were returning from grocery shopping, plaid rolling bags in tow. But to me, everything and everyone seemed guilty. Each car that passed was for a split-second the blue getaway car our assailants piled into. I felt fear as teenagers zipped by on mopeds. Unable to shake the role of victim, accusation became a salve for helplessness, and I had to fight the urge to view everyone as a potential threat.
The store we had stumbled into the previous night was closed. The shop owners had refused to call the police or help at all. Their eyes had been full of fear and complacency. To some extent I empathize with them, but only because a few times in life that come to mind when I didn’t help those who needed it. That time I was walking to my apartment in Prague and saw a man beating his wife. Or that time in the Republic of Georgia when my co-teacher’s drunken husband kidnapped her at knifepoint in the middle of a 10th-grade English lesson.
I don’t excuse the shopkeepers — or myself.
I still feel helpless when I tell this story. Retelling it is easy, almost boring. It happened, it’s part of my life, but I still don’t understand it. I’m still waiting for the, “And the moral of the story is…” moment, if it ever comes.
I can’t think of a feeling worse than helplessness towards the past. I’ve chewed over the whole Catania business countless times, and I still don’t know how to approach its memory. But I am rebuilding trust — night is less dark, long walks are regaining their status as God’s gift to mankind, and strangers are less strange. I have to. If I don’t continue using travel as a means to live better in this world full of humans, then a lot more was taken than just a camera.