European adventures and misadventures in the Summer of 2002

 by Chuck Doswell (travelling with Vickie)

Posted: 13 August 2004 Updated: whenever

This is aimed at making you aware of certain unpleasant aspects of European travel. Most Europeans are wonderful people, but like us, they have some bad apples in the barrel. Travelers should beware.

Travelling in Europe has proven to be both interesting and troubling.  The most obvious trouble has stemmed from the apparently widespread prevalence of street crime ... particularly, theft.  We (Vickie and I) seem to have needed much more experience to prevent this.  First of all, we seem to be marked easily as potential victims.  My "cowboy" hat (actually, an Australian Akubra hat) was apparently a dead giveaway, but our shirts and shorts also seem to mark us.  It seems a shame that I would need to change my appearance in order to "blend in" and avoid being a target.

We managed to avoid any serious trouble in the U.K., although Vickie thinks we came close on the Tube several times.  The presence of numerous police in Picadilly Circus seems to have limited the notorious pickpockets there.


Rotterdam, Netherlands

Upon arriving in Rotterdam, though ... the train station was a cesspool of drugs, prostitution, and thieves.  We managed to avoid being boosted there our first night, despite spending considerable time there trying to figure out what to do.  The station staff was clearly unwilling or uninterested in being helpful.  In fact, a bored woman sold Vickie the wrong phone card ... one that would not work at all within the station!  By the next morning, we wanted desperately to escape the Rotterdam train station and we were ready to board just about any train for any destination ... our original plan had proven unworkable and we had no clear notion of what we were going to do ... hence, our indecision.

Finally, we were going to go somewhere ... I forget where, now, and were on the platform about to leave, with our bags at our feet.  A train arrived and we were distracted, trying to figure out if it was the right train or not.  Perhaps 5 seconds passed, and when we looked to pick up our bags, my camera bag had vanished!  The speed and stealth of it was amazing.  Neither of us had seen anything!  We reported the event to the local police, whose first question was "Are you insured?"  After a lengthy process of making a report, it was clear that nothing was going to happen and we had to regroup.

The loss of my medium format camera, the lenses, all my gear, and my Sony video camcorder was bad enough, amounting to probably about $7000 worth of equipment.  Even more discouraging as the loss of the exposed film and videotape coverage of our trip.  Having lost cameras and film before, you would think I would have learned to keep exposed film and tapes separate from the gear, but ... not yet, apparently!  Thus, all the images I had captured during the previous 3 weeks or so, including the special experiences of Scout camp ... all gone!  No doubt the thieves would dump my film and tapes, interested only in the cash they could get from selling the gear.  Someday soon, perhaps on E-bay or on some Dutch camera market, someone will be getting a bargain on my gear, and be unconcerned for its provenance.

We had been targeted in our dazed meanderings through the sewer-like Rotterdam train station (full of drug dealers, prostitutes, and thieves).  Everyone seemed to talking via cell phones, which probably facilitate the coordination of gangs of thieves.  Perhaps the police even get a share of the profits?  There was zero police presence on the platforms, and no one from the trains to provide either security or information to the travelers.  It seems to me that the level of security was as low as it is possible to be, giving free rein to thieves.  How can this be without police collusion?  Are they so stupid as to not be aware of the deterrent effect of police patrols?  I wonder ...


Hamburg, Germany

            Having been traumatized by that, we went on to Brussels and obtained tickets (or so we thought) for a sleeper train to Hamburg, Germany.  We boarded the train after hours in the Brussels station, and it began to roll.  But we found out that our sleeper cabin was already occupied by Germans and the conductor informed us that our tickets were for the next night, not that night!  Suddenly, we were on a packed train with no reservations.  After much angst, they found us berths in the 2nd class sleeper cars ... in separate rooms!!  Vickie was in a room with 5 strange men, mostly boys in their 20s who were getting drunk at the time in the club car.  I was in with a family of some sort who were already in bed.  A woman sat next to the toilets at the end of the car Vickie was in ... this woman spent the night in the corridor, with her luggage and her dog.  More on her later.

            Needless to say, neither Vickie nor I got much sleep.  Perhaps 30 min or so as the train rattled and rocked through the interminable night.  I awoke inside the German border and spent the rest of the night in the corridor, staring our at the gray dawn with the German countryside passing.  Unknown to me, Vickie had been talking with the woman in the passageway ... her story was remarkable enough.  She had booked a first class sleeper, only to find herself with five strange men.  Having attempted to sleep, she awoke when one of those men ejaculated onto her face!!  No more sleep for her, so she was spending the night in the corridor.  This story so disturbed Vickie that no more sleep was possible for her, either.  Vickie's compartment-mates had some in drunk and were snoring and farting after their excesses - one even peed in a corner of the compartment!  At last, Vickie rolled back into her bunk and tried to doze, but about that time, I came and woke her up.

Part of my problem was a concern that one or both of us would not be awakened, and we'd be separated.  Since Vicke had the tickets, that would be unacceptable and so I had been too worried to sleep, afraid of not being awakened at the right time.  The whole experience had been a nightmare. 

Finally, we got to Hamburg.  The woman in the corridor had recommended a hotel ... the Four Seasons.  Her sense of the cost sounded reasonable, but it turned  out to be a very fancy hotel with a room charge of 225 euros (about $250) per night!  Too tired to argue or seek another hotel, we paid it and collapsed for several hours on the bed.  Then, we got up and wandered about the area, enjoying a nice meal and some German pilsner beer in a restaurant on a boat in the lake near the hotel.  Then, we returned to the hotel and had a late, expensive supper with all the fancy touches (for about $110).  Expensive, but after our trauma of the day before, it seemed reasonable.  Then, to bed.

Next morning, about 7:30 am, I was awakened by a noise.  Looking up, a strange man was in our room, crawling on his hands and knees in our "living room" next to the bedroom!!  He saw me look up and he quckly took off.  He had dived out an open window into the courtyard within the interior of the hotel ... a window that WE had not opened!  Looking about, it seemed we had surprised him before he could take anything, but we found out later that he had succeeding in robbing us, yet again.

Upon reporting this incident to the staff, we were assured that such a thing had never happened before, and they were seemingly embarrassed and amazed.  Since no loss was apparent, we let the matter drop and checked out.  Days later, Vickie looked into her purse for her traveler's checks.  The empty package was still there, but the checks were gone, as was about $30 in US$ that she had kept in her wallet.  This discovery was made while we were in transit between Stockholm and Barcelona, with our tight train connections not giving us any time to report it.  When we got to Barcelona, we found the American Express office and reported the loss, receiving new checks to replace those lost (stolen in the hotel in Hamburg).  At least this loss was only temporary

 It seems likely now, thinking back on it, that the theft in the hotel was an inside job - done with the help of the hotel staff.  I have serious doubts that it was the first time.  Rich tourists are easy prey and putting them on the first floor in a fancy hotel gives them a false sense of security.  The thief knew which window to open ... perhaps it was unlocked earlier to give him easy access ... and how to escape.  The staff insisted there was no way out of the courtyard but through the hotel, yet they had seen nothing.  I wouldn't recommend that hotel to anyone ... their room rates were robbery and they compounded it with literal robbery, as well.

Europe is certainly not unique in having thieves, but their attitude seems to be that it is up to the tourists to look out for themselves.  Rich Americans have insurance, so where is the harm in preying on them?   Only in the U.K. have we seen enough of a public police presence to deter at least some of the most blatant preying on tourists.

The presence of thieves is obviously not limited to southern or eastern Europe, in spite of some negative publicity about Italy, Spain, and the eastern European former members of the "Soviet bloc". Northern Europe - apparently especially so in the Netherlands - has its share!

I have friends who have warned us about gypsies and gangs of children who are expert at thievey through distraction. They are likely to engage in some ploy to distract you as confederates frisk your pockets, handbags, and backpacks for expensive items and cash.


Some advice, based on our experience: