The inside of a Hungarian police station is what you’d expect – uncomfortable chairs, harsh fluorescent lighting, and long wait times with dodgy people.
It wasn’t how we would have preferred to spend our first day in the beautiful city of Budapest, especially with the blue skies and wide boulevards calling out for us to explore. But the journey doesn’t always go as you expect, and this was definitely true of our trip to Budapest.
After goofing off for a week with our friend Almut in Germany (including a brief appearance of Warren’s creepy 70s-style “porn-stache”), we left for the train station. It was going to be a long journey – an overnight train to Vienna and then a 3-hour train to Budapest – so we decided to go out for a last round of pilsner and a pretzel before boarding the train. It was a festive Friday night with people celebrating the end of the work week with friends. We were in a great mood.
On the train we met an English doctor on her way to the conference, and we all sat in the dark in our compartment looking out the window at the castles along the Rhine lit up in the night sky. It was a quiet and enjoyable evening, broken only by our stop in Frankfurt where Mr. Snore-a-Lot took the top bunk.
“Oh well, things could be worse,” we thought. Little did we know!
We parted with our new friend Phillipa in Vienna and waited just a few minutes for our connection to Budapest, and we were looking forward to some gorgeous scenery. It was a clear morning, and this is an incredibly beautiful part of the world. We remembered our train ride across Germany and Austria last summer and couldn’t wait to see it again.
Plus, this was a really nice train! (That isn’t always the case, you know.) We settled into our comfy seats and had plenty of overhead storage for our backpacks. There were very few people on the train, and we settled in to read, daydream, and look at the scenery.
About 30 minutes in, we stopped and 4 older ladies boarded the train with huge suitcases. We smiled like we always do when people SEEM to bring everything they own on a short trip and it’s still more than we require to live on the road full time. We got up to help them put their bags overhead and that’s when we made the discovery…
My backpack was gone. In it was my passport, credit cards, driver’s license, brand-new Macbook Air, ancient iPod from 2006, camera, and my favorite lipstick and chapstick. There was also some pretty tasty German salami and bread we saved for lunch.
Those of you who are veteran travelers know it is a rookie mistake to leave your bag unattended on public transportation, no matter how nice the train or how empty the car. But I let my guard down, thinking because it was a lazy Saturday in Europe it would be fine. Truth be told, it didn’t even cross my mind that it was a danger. I just did it.
This picture below was taken around the time of the theft, when I was engrossed in a book about Turkey and Warren was playing with the camera on our new cell phone. I can just imagine how tasty we appeared to a hungry thief.
What thieves do in this case is to find unsuspecting travelers and take their unattended bags before they notice, getting off at the next available train stop. They often work in teams, with one pushing the bag back with his own bag so another person can take it from behind the mark.
The goal is to not ever let us know what’s going on so we can never determine when the theft happened. Had those ladies not boarded the train then I would not have known my bag was gone until we arrived hours later.
When I discovered the bag was gone I immediately went through all the cars looking for it in the overhead bins, floors, and bathrooms. And then I found the train attendant, who smiled sadly and told me it was a not-uncommon occurrence on trains going into Budapest. He pointed me to the information desk, who then told me to go to the police station upon arrival to report it.
Disaster Recovery Mode
This is the kind of thing that can ruin a mood or even a whole trip. But focusing on how unfair it might be or how angry you are is counterproductive and can make the situation worse. This is easier to say than do, of course.
While I went looking for my backpack and the train attendant, Warren immediately pulled out his laptop. The train had wifi, so he started changing my passwords and making a list of what was in the bag. When I came back he said,
“Well, at least you have your passport and credit cards on you.”
I had broken the cardinal rule of not carrying these on my person on a travel day. They had been in my pocket, but since we slept on the train the night before I put them in my bag to be more comfortable and just never put them back in my pocket.
This is when it would have been really easy (and justifiable) for Warren to get mad and yell at me, but we’re firm believers in a “be the hero” strategy when it comes to disasters and stressful situations. And he came through like a champ. He knows that this was a big enough lesson for me and he didn’t have to hammer it home.
We went to the embassy website and made an appointment for first thing Monday morning to get a new passport.
(Find out more about how to respond in any emergency from disaster recovery expert Shelby Edwards on podcast episode 18 of An Action Plan for Dreamers.)
The Kindness of Strangers
One thing I hate to do is arrive in a new city at night. It taints your perspective of a place to have difficulty upon arrival, and that often happens if you have to find your way at night or interact with the kind of people who hang out around train stations at night. So we try not to ever do that.
But how do you preserve your perspective on a new place when you’ve just had your most valuable possessions stolen by one of its citizens?
I wasn’t sure we’d be able to stay in Budapest and still enjoy ourselves, but then I realized without a passport and with ongoing plane tickets already booked to Istanbul in 2 weeks I’d have to stay, at least until I got it sorted. Right now I’m a no woman’s land without identity and can’t go anywhere.
We arrived at our apartment rental to meet our landlord Helga. She was upset to find out what happened to us and immediately offered to take us to a police station to file a report. We took a shortcut through a dodgy area of town to get there, and I was feeling less and less excited about Budapest.
The officer on duty let us know it would be at least an hour’s wait, if not more, to file a report. We decided to leave for some food and meet back up in an hour. Helga suggested a restaurant and told us we should have a beer, too. When I said I didn’t think it was a good idea to have beer breath when we talked to the policeman in an hour, she said, “No, really, I think it’s a good idea to have a beer.”
A belly full of goulash and a cold beer later, we were back at the police station in the waiting room…waiting. The hard plastic chairs and echo-chamber of a room made it even more uncomfortable, but we passed the time by talking about things to do in Budapest.
When the officer finally came out to help, I filled out my information on the form, including my mother’s full maiden name (yes, Mamacita, you are now logged into the Hungarian police system!). Then Helga and I sat down in the room, he closed the door, and we began working on the report.
Warren stayed outside with the loud drunk people and tried not to get drunk from the air.
You have to know that at this point I had no expectation of ever seeing any of this stuff again, and in my mind we were just filling out the report so I could get a new passport. At first I thought the office was taking his time because he liked Helga, who is very pretty, but I slowly realized he was actually planning on investigating this crime. He wanted to know exactly where it happened so he could send officers out to check the stations for discarded bags. He thought there was a slim chance I’d get my passport and non-valuable personal items back.
We began joking with each other through Helga’s translation. He asked about our travels and the books we had written. I told him my little brother was a policeman in the US, and he said things were very different over there. When Helga told me the delay in processing the report was that he didn’t have internet access and couldn’t figure out the exact jurisdiction without going into another room to check the database, I understood part of what he meant.
Can you imagine investigating crimes without access to the internet? To even a basic Google map?
Helga spent hours with us, making sure we were sorted and had what we needed. She even gave her own phone number for followup questions. And our policeman even spoke a little English to me at the end and gave me additional resources for victim’s assistance programs since we were staying for so long.
Remembering What is Important
We left a little frustrated at the time spent, but more lighthearted than we had been at the start of the day. People are basically good, and in the end we only have stuff to replace. It won’t be cheap – in fact, we estimate it will be about 10% of our annual travel budget, which stings more than just a little.
But it is also a reminder of our good fortune. I joked that at least I didn’t have any money in the bag. When Helga translated his response, I was chastened. He said “It’s all relative.”
What I had in my bag in possessions alone was a small bit of wealth to most Hungarians.
As we left, I said the few words of Hungarian I learned before my iPod full of lessons was stolen:
“Sajnos nem beszélek magyarul. Köszönöm.”
“I’m sorry I don’t speak Hungarian, but Thank You.”
My faith in humanity has been restored, and I’m reminded again of my good fortune and ability to recover from setbacks. The world is still a beautiful place, and we are living a charmed life. After all, we sped back to our apartment from the police station to meet up for drinks with our online friends Drew and Will, whom we were meeting in person for the first time after a year’s acquaintance through a mutual friend. They live in a beautiful apartment on a wide boulevard, and they welcomed us with hugs and kisses.
Having a supportive partner, a minimalist lifestyle, and friends all over the world means even the worst days are not so bad. Especially when they end with a nice glass of wine.
Stuff is just stuff, and when you detach yourself from it you can live a more free and enjoyable life. Learn how to decide what belongs in your life and what’s just complicating it with our multimedia course, Declutter Clinic. Then learn how to do something about it. The introductory price goes up by $50 on Monday, September 23, so get it now.