Pickpockets on Lisbon’s Tram 28


It’s been years since I caught a pickpocket red-handed. The last time was on a rush-hour subway in New York during the bad ol’ 80s.

Today it was on the #28 tram in Lisbon.

But that was just one of today’s surprises. First was the 3-flight walk-up my husband booked for me. A grueling step-by-step climb with heavy luggage. (Thanks, honey!) But my room is nice and quiet, and the young mother at the reception desk had an adorable infant and nice manners. She, too, suggested the 28 tram for a circle around the city.

It’s not the official tour bus; that costs four times as much. This is a rickety old yellow tram that both locals and tourists use. For $8.50, you can buy an unlimited day-pass, which also includes subways and buses. Not bad. Even though I’ll be hiking the Alps in a few weeks, I just didn’t feel like schlepping up and down Lisbon’s steep hills today. So the tram was great.

But I soon realized that Lisbon isn’t particularly tourist friendly—not like, say, Florence, where city maps are posted all around town spelling out “You Are Here!” In Lisbon, it’s tough to know where the heck you are. Given its age, the tram doesn’t have overhead signage indicating upcoming stops. But neither does the conductor bother to say a word. And even if you could see out the windows (which is impossible when standing in a densely packed car), the stops outside keep their identity hidden, having no conspicuous signage. You have to just guess where you are. And did I mention the free city map sucks?

Which is why I ended up all over town and missed the Castle of San Jorge, Lisbon’s most conspicuous landmark—twice.

But today was a Zen day. It was the journey that counted, not the destination. Maybe it was my jetlag, but I took everything in stride, even when the tram driver drove off with the front door wide open, despite a straphanger just inches from disaster; and even when I finally found my castle but it was closed due to a strike.

The Zen state temporarily fizzled, though, when a horde of middle-aged French tourists jeered at a North African woman who was trying to board the tram with some unwieldy bags. She let them have it, but jeez, people; lighten up.

More unpleasant still was when I felt someone lean heavily against me when the tram careened around a corner.

Maybe it was a sense memory from my early days in New York. (I’ll always remember one time when an elderly black woman on the subway kept nudging my foot and signaling with her eyes towards my purse. Once I figured out what in the world she was trying to communicate, I caught the teenager red-handed. And that wasn’t the only time I foiled a robbery attempt.)

So today I instinctively looked down at my purse, which was strapped across my chest and held tight against my front. Nonetheless, it was half unzipped. What skill! What cajones! I turned to look eye-to-eye at the pickpocket—a paunchy man in a polo shirt standing right beside me.

“Get your hand outta my purse,” I said. He just stared back, then inched away, exiting the tram at the next opportunity with a frizzy haired woman (an accomplice? I wonder how they tag-team it).

Given the fact that the tram had “Beware Pickpockets” signs posted all over, I thought it’d be redundant to scream “thief.” Or maybe it was the fact that he went away empty-handed. Or it was my New York nonchalance. Or my jetlagged Zen state of mind. I now think I should probably have made a fuss, rather than let it be between just him and me. Alas, that’s water under the bridge.

But here's the funny part: When I later recounted the story to the night clerk at my pensione, she said these pickpockets gather every morning for coffee in a nearby cafe. Just like they're going off to work. "They probably divvy up the turf," she said.

At least someone has a job, of sorts. She mentioned how many people she sees nowadays eating garbage when she looks out the pensione window that faces a restaurant kitchen. That's a sad state of affairs.

I hope to do my part to flush some cash into Portugal's economy this week—starting tonight with some crispy grilled sardines and fresh vinho verde. I can't fix the world, but I can try to keep the economic engine of tourism grinding along.