Don’t Get Too Comfortable: a cautionary tale

Admittedly, after six years I felt pretty savvy with the whole expat thing. I had lived in two major German cities (Dusseldorf, Hamburg), spent two years living near Zurich, Switzerland, and had travelled to ten other European countries. I even felt comfortable go at it alone, having hiked nearly twenty Swiss Alpine peaks, solo. I offered newbies advice on how to adapt and stay safe, and had loads of tips and tricks for them, requested or not. I even wrote about expat life here on this blog. Oh yeah, I was a real pro.

And then, it happened. I was ultimately humbled in the most direct, even cliché-like, manner. Like some common tourist, I was pickpocketed on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg.

It was the end of my husband’s latest hockey season. If anyone knows any type of pro athlete, the end-of-season party is a pretty important tradition, and one that can last days and often includes a variety of venues and degrees of partying. So after a dinner out with teammates and spouses, drinks at a nearby bar in the Hamburg Hafen area, a few of us (non-parents) decided to carry on into the wee hours down on Hamburg’s most popular party strip, the Reeperbahn. A few Irish Pubs, table dance clubs (see more on that here), and a Thai Karaoke bar later, we ended up partaking of what I had been told was the best burger in Germany.  After what was indeed an incredible burger at the famous Hesburger, I was right ready for my bed. My husband was just finishing up and so as I waited I took a quick look at my phone, scrolled Facebook, checked emails, and then he was done. I put my phone in my jacket pocket and we headed out.

Both of us a little sleepy, perhaps a little wobbly, we stepped out onto the busy Reeperbahn to head toward a cab. My husband went around to the other side of the car as I opened the door closest to the curb. Just before I was about to step in, a small man rushed up to me holding a map. With my back up against the car he held the map up to me creating a full barrier between my top-half and my lower half. He excitedly asked me something in a language that I did not understand and before I could even say, “I’m sorry I can’t help you” to this seemingly lost tourist, he was gone. Feeling a little perplexed but thinking nothing more of it, I hopped in the cab and off we went. Within a few moments however, it dawned on me, I think I had felt a hand in my pocket. I couldn’t have though, that was using two hands to hold up that map. Or was he?

Little did I know, little miss expat expert, fake hands are a very common tool for professional pickpockets. This little man had one fake hand holding up that map as he used his real one to go under it and take my phone out of my (stupidly) open pocket. Once this was realized my husband and I went back to the scene of the crime (for what reason I don’t know as there were hundreds of people on the popular strip that night, and thinking we were going to find this guy was crazy). After realizing the guy was long gone, we spotted some policemen who were standing no more than twelve feet from where this had all gone down, and sought their assistance. We told them what happened and they barely blinked. Apparently this is just so common, and these guys are just that good, that even the cops have given up on doing anything about them. We were told we could go the office and make a report but likely nothing would come of it. We went home.

Needless to say, I never got my phone back, nor has my confidence ever fully returned. The lesson of this tale, of course: never get too comfortable (or cocky) in this expat life. Being fully aware of your surroundings is traveler tip number one! Though we are expats, we are still guests to some extent, and so we must continue to respect the ways of our foreign land, and never assume that we are “fully” adapted. It’s important and wonderful to finally feel at ease in this often-tumultuous lifestyle, but in order to really thrive we must continue to be cautious, continue to learn, and most important, continue to be respectful of our role as expats.

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