Spain Roundup: Pickpockets and Otherwise

There were a few experiences unique to Spain that I wanted to write up. They’re more observations than tips per se; or a little of both.

Beware the aggressive pickpockets. Having lived and traveled in many major cities, I’m a bit paranoid about getting mugged or pickpocketed, so I seldom carry much cash on me. The one time I did get pickpocketed (in New York), whoever took my wallet only got a payday of about $22. Take that, sucka. Surprisingly, whoever did it (or a good Samaritan) sent me back my wallet, credit cards, IDs, $100 gift cards untouched. But that’s an aside.

When J and I tried to get on the subway at Atocha Renfe, a girl got on in front of me and stood smack in the center of the train car, refusing to budge. I was trying to push her and/or get around her, but there was a lot of tussle going on behind me too. Once things settled down, J pointed out a group of three girls huddled together. One was the girl who’d blocked my path, and the other two had gotten in between me and J, cutting us off. The second girl hid her hand under her sweater while she tried to rummage through my bag. Acting fast, J pushed her hands off, which she then threw up in the air defensively.

When J explained the situation to me, I was surprised but unfazed. I’ve had worse subway experiences in New York (you name it: people vomiting, getting confrontational, following me off the subway, masturbating in front of me, trying to get handsy), but I’ve never been targeted for a premeditated caper quite like this! Being who I am—just short of confrontational, but not afraid of public shaming—I pointed directly at the girls who were standing about six feet away, glaring at us. “Who, THEM?” I asked loudly. “Seriously??

One of the girls started inching towards us, and J suggested we move to the next train car because it was making him uncomfortable. When we did at the next stop, we saw the three girls get off the subway and walk off together. Better luck next time, ladies.

Lights out. The lights in many Spanish bathrooms are time-sensitive, not motion-sensitive. The first time the light in my stall timed out, I started waving like crazy, to no avail. I could hear a girl outside washing her hands, and I was sitting in pitch darkness thinking how mean it was of her to turn my lights out. I realized later that every stall has a light switch, so you just have to locate where it is beforehand, just in case.

Tipping. I amend what I said in a previous post about tipping in Europe. The 10% rule applies in the UK, but in Spain and Germany (where I was last week), rounding up to the nearest Euro or about 5% is fine. I still don’t mind tipping well for good service—particularly given that it can be a rarity in Europe—but great news! More money to enjoy other things while traveling. :)

Geography 101. I feel a little ignorant saying this, but I didn’t expect Spain to be quite as dry a climate as it was. Our host, P, said that Madrid is sunny about 300 days of the year; the climate is arid and desert-like, rather like Southern California. So it would be warm, up to the high 60s/low 70s during the day, and freeeezing in the wee hours! Luckily I had brought plenty of layers, but it was still tricky to manage summery weather by day and wintry weather by night. Not until our train ride back from Segovia did that famous line from My Fair Lady finally click:


23 thoughts on “Spain Roundup: Pickpockets and Otherwise

  1. Pickpocketing is a huge issue in Spain indeed – I remember 20 years ago driving from Lisbon to Malaga via Seville. Portuguese cars were always targets – we almost always got done on the traffic lights (with a little stone and there would go my mother’s handbag with all the cash.. credit cards weren’t very popular then).

    Good point about the tipping, spot on. As a rule of thumb, I do €5 for lunch and €10 for dinner, assuming it’s 2 of us.

    Where are you off to next?

    1. Yipes! That’s unbelievable. Hopefully the situation isn’t quite so bad anymore?

      The next set of writeups will be about my trip to Germany & Austria, and I’ve got to get those done before I go to Paris & Versailles next week! It’s a good life :D

      1. hahaha cant complain! Not sure if so bad as no need to drive through seville. I remember we once stayed overnight, by a police station… car boot full.. and empty following day! Have fun

        Im off to Lisbon and Barcelona in the next coming weeks, looking forward to that :)

      2. Oh dear! I had been considering traveling to Italy by myself, but the experience in Spain made me reconsider because I’ve heard even worse stories about pickpocketing in Italy. Similar to yours—cars getting looted while families spent 2-3 hours in a museum. So terrible!

        Have so much fun! Those are two places I also want to visit sometime.

    1. Such a great film! I used to parrot that movie so much it drove my parents crazy :) Have a wonderful time in Spain!

  2. The red line is notorious!! Actually, any line that goes through Sol is scary. I used to live in Madrid but since I have Asian features, people think I’m a tourist. The first time it happened, my friend and I were in that middle part of the train that bends. We were both standing against the train’s wall on opposite sides. Two guys came close to me, way to close, that I crossed my arms over my chest. They seemed to be looking/pointing at something outside the window. As if there’s something to see underground!!! It turned out to be a distraction to attract my friend’s attention. So while she was busy watching what was happening to me, a third guy opened her bag. She felt it a bit too late – she looked at her open bag and screamed “My wallet’s gone”. Then instinctively, she lifted the jacket of the guy standing next to her. Lo and behold, her bright red wallet was in his back pocket. So she got grabbed it. A local saw the whole scene and started screaming at the guys. But they got off at the next station as if nothing happened.

    1. Whoa what a story! Well, at least these Spanish pickpockets don’t seem to be on top of their game—or we’re too quick for them :) Kudos to your friend for keeping sharp in the moment!

  3. Jacqui and I were targeted by a two-person team in Rome. I had a lock for the main compartment of my back pack but they were going after one of the side pockets. Our default stance throughout the trip would be to face each other and literally watch each other’s backs.

    1. Yeah–I remembered you had told us about that when you were showing us pics from your trip. I think I’ll save my Italy trip until I’ve got some travel buddies to go with!

  4. When my mom and I went to Spain a few years ago, a group of girls targeted us. They stuck their hands in my mom’s pockets on the metro, luckily there was nothing in them but my Mom surprised them by screaming “NO!” really loudly and aggressively at them. They got embarrassed and left us alone. One girl we saw kicked the girl who trying to pickpocket her really hard in the stomach. Yeah, no one bothered us after that. It seems the trick is to call them out in a very public way and they get the hint. ;)

    I still adore Spain though, regardless.

    1. Gosh, from all these stories it really does seem to be a problem! But I’m with you, no harm done (as long as you stay aware of your surroundings) and it’s still worth the visit!

  5. you are lucky your friend had his eyes peeled! Unfortunately I learned the hard way… I put my handbag down next to my chair in a Starbucks in Madrid. Of course I was with 3 other American girls and speaking in English and they probably thought I was a tourist (which I technically wasn’t, this was last year while I was getting my master’s). Somehow, the couple seated at the table next to us managed to grab my bag without me or my friends noticing. It was a very traumatizing experience for me but I definitely learned my lesson. I now use a bag that goes over the shoulder and I watch it like a hawk. I never take my bag off in a restaurant. It usually stays on my lap!

    1. That’s ridiculous! I can’t believe the people next to you at a restaurant would do that! Although, I will say that in the anecdote about the time I got pickpocketed in NYC, I was convinced that it was someone in the restaurant who had stolen my wallet. When I noticed it was missing, I kicked up a HUGE fuss to the restaurant management in TWO languages (this was at a Korean restaurant) hoping that whoever took it would be shamed into giving it back. Which is why I think that whoever stole it took my cash and mailed it back to me. That’s my version of the story, at least! :P

  6. Hey! I’m off to Spain very soon (Alicante) and recently watched My Fair Lady for the first time, so I thought the coincidence was worth a comment! I love the blog, by the way. I live in Europe and love having so many cultures within a 2 or 3 hour flight time. Looking forward to hearing about your next adventure!

      1. Thank you, we had such a great time! We were there for the start of Semana Santa so we got to see some of the amazing religious processions. I love travelling out of high season too; it feels so much more relaxed. I’m in Ireland so we need to escape the small island sometimes!

  7. The timed lights would be baffling until you figured it out. I recently traveled back in February and the place we stayed at had the weirdest position of light switches – what you thought would turn on the kitchen lights since it was next to the kitchen turned on the dining room lights – after a few days got the hang of it luckily. Thanks for sharing!

  8. TIPs? Are you kidding? I’m not going to tip any European nation or any other nation that uses the EURO. The Italians are rude, and tricky. The French…well…they’re the French.
    The Spaniards? Forget about it. They think they speak a better version of Spanish because of the lisp. They’re a little friendlier than the Italians. The Germans have never appealed to me even though they ARE part of my family. There’s still the stigma and stain of their predecessors. They don’t deserve my tips. Oh then there are the Greeks. Their food is just like the diners of New York City. The only difference is the lack of good working Mexican waiters. These people deserve the tips they receive from me.

    And to make matters equal…none of the Europeans know what good service IS.

    I tip in the US of A up to 30% if the service is exceptional, otherwise 15% show suffice.

  9. Pick Pockets are scary… it is such a feeling of violation of your personal space. I was pick pocketed in France on a subway by a couple who pretended to be making out. His coat was over his arm to cover up what he was doing. He reached into my bag, but only tissues, mini camera tri pod and a few other non important items were there. A local lady got my attention and said to me in French what was happening… I somehow understood and turned around as the items came flying out of my bag. Then the pick pocketers had the nerve to say to me “Stupid Girl!” I was pretty shaken… even though nothing was taken. I thought I was smart because on an outside pocket beside the zipperI had a water bottle that was a very thin plastic, every time you touched it it would make a crinkling noise… I thought I would hear something, but they are good and if it wasn’t for someone calling out I wouldn’t have known. Lesson learned… be careful and conceal documents!

  10. Nice post and I’m glad you escaped the pickpockets.

    I just hope you’ll avoid the mistake of thinking a country is just it’s capital city! From what I read, did you only go to Madrid? I studied in Northern Spain and it was completely, completely different. Very wet and cool-cold in the right seasons.

    And obviously, pickpockets are mostly a big city thing. I lived in Spain for six months, I probably got lucky but I never got pickpocketed or even had a close call – and I did visit Barcelona and Madrid briefly, but I was careful there and elsewhere I didn’t usually even feel the threat (although I still kept some common sense.)

    Madrid’s a cool place, but it’s not ‘Spain’ by itself… one of the biggest things I’ve learned in two years abroad is how much internal variation there is inside various European countries… and Spain maybe most of all, with the four different languages and just huge differences in culture, landscape, climate. I think it’s mostly the amazing food that unites Spain! :)

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