Barcelona Thieves Guild

…busy neighbourhoods and architecture that seems to melt and flow even as you’re watching it…

My Spanish road trip wound up in the vibrant seaside city of Barcelona.

It’s a city of tree-lined streets, busy neighbourhoods and architecture that seems to melt and flow even as you’re watching it.

I liked the place because it has a cocktail culture. Residents stop for a drink on their way home from work. And classic cocktails aren’t just on the menu—they’re actually ordered.

I liked the tradition of tapas—small bite-sized morsels served fresh on the bar.

And I liked the fact that Barcelona dwellers are night people. They don’t go for supper until 10pm. And at 9am the cafes are silent. People sip their coffee in peace, with a pained look on their face. That fake morning cheer so prevalent in North America is entirely absent. It’s my kind of place.

In fact, we were just talking about how much we liked the city when three guys lifted my wallet on the subway.

… I liked the tradition of tapas—small bite-sized morsels served fresh on the bar…

The setup was obvious from the beginning. A crowded train, and three burly guys pushed in close to where we were standing by the door. One pressed up right behind my wife, as though he were trying to catch a grope (in Tokyo that would probably have been the case). She said, “Excuse me!” and tried to push past, but he kept his arm locked on the handrail and pretended not to see her. She had to duck under his arm to move away.

The other two were close to me, and within half a minute I noticed my wallet was gone. At the same time a kind passenger sitting next to my wife whispered a warning to watch that group.

I leaned in close to the biggest and meanest looking of the bunch. “Which one of you took my things?” I asked.

He faked an innocent look and said, “I don’t know what you mean. My friends and I do not steal.” But he didn’t get indignant or confrontational, and he didn’t tell me to fuck off like any normal person accused of theft.

“You’re the only ones here,” I said. “So one of you has it.” I didn’t raise my voice or make a scene. I started checking his pockets instead.

He pulled out his own wallet with a show of innocence when I patted him down. In hindsight I should have taken it hostage.

We went back and forth like that several times—him professing innocence and me grabbing their pockets—until the train stopped and all three jumped out. It was a minor station, and otherwise deserted. I stepped out the door and hesitated a moment. If the one carrying my wallet was still on the train, I risked losing him completely. But there was no one else standing by the door. The choice was clear.

And that’s when the pickpockets began to look distinctly nervous…

…cruising through the Gothic Quarter in a hot pink shirt…

I was wearing a pink shirt. I never raised my voice. And I’ve got a stare that can bore holes through metal. They had muscular bodybuilder frames and were all much larger than me. And I didn’t hesitate to follow them into a deserted station alone, with only my wife chasing behind.

“I want my fucking stuff,” I said as I caught up to the quickly retreating group. I thought for sure I’d have to fight at least two of them, and I’d already decided which ones to hit first. I don’t like violence, but I’ll get it out of the way as quickly and brutally as possible if I have to.

“We don’t steal,” the biggest one said again, but he didn’t look so certain now.

I walked past him to shake down the others, but he kept talking and trying to get my attention. And that’s when I saw the fourth guy scuttling away. I’d never even noticed him on the train. He was smaller than the rest, and he didn’t look back despite the argument going on in low sinister voices. He had to be the one who was carrying.

I walked a little faster and grabbed him by the shoulder. He immediately pulled out my wallet and handed it to me. I took it and shoved him away.

My wife grabbed his backpack as he turned to scuttle off. “Check it!”

“I didn’t take anything!” he said, an edge of panic creeping into his voice.

“It’s okay,” I said. “He didn’t have time.” There was nothing missing.

All four of them walked out the exit in a hurry, and we went back in to catch the next train.

…city view from the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya…

It was only later that I noticed how all the women in the city walked with their bags clutched under their arms, and when walking alone they had hunted eyes.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the city’s galleries: the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, and the abstract patterns and sculptures of the Fundacio Joan Miro. I miss that sort of thing on my tiny island in the Mediterranean. It’s a place steeped in history, but there isn’t much art or culture to enjoy.

Spain seems like a very good contender for life after Malta. I love the people, the sound of the language, the beaches and mountains. The variety of food, and tannic wine the colour of dried blood.

It feels like a good place to spend a few years. But I doubt very much we’d end up in Barcelona. It’s a great city to visit, but I don’t have any patience for thieves.

Photos ©Tomoko Goto 2012

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.


  • Great material, Ryan. Felt like I was there myself. Couldn’t stop reading ’til the end — a hallmark of fine writing. Keep going.

  • Interesting method of dealing with thieves there, Ryan. I guess it only really works if you have some kind of intimidation factor going for you 😉

  • Brussels is where I had my wallet stolen. I was coming off the train during rush hour. It was very crowded and a woman was pushing against me instead of by me like everyone else. I quickly realized I was minus a wallet once I was upstairs in the main waiting area.

    I had made the rookie mistake of putting my wallet in a purse that was in front of me while holding on to the shoulder straps of a heavy backpack while I struggled through the crowd.

    On the plus side I had my wallet back (without cash of course) five minutes later when a police officer found it in the park. It’s the same wallet I use today (which was stolen again a few years later and found in a trash can).

    Moral of the story: Get a magical wallet that keeps getting returned to you.

    • yeah, brussels is terrible for thieves. my wife had some stuff taken there as well. the worse thing about losing a wallet is all the id, credit cards, etc you end up having to replace. i no longer carry that in any places where I’m expecting pickpockets.


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