You've heard of human trafficking... how about bicycle trafficking?

Saturday, 12 May 2012

I received a text message, from my special friend, at 8.15 in the morning:

Your bike is gone. They left your lock in my basket.

I'd locked my rusty, fixed-gear bicycle to a lamppost outside the house. And surely enough, as I shuffled outside (with bare feet and shit hair) to investigate, the bike was gone.
The bicycle lock, a sturdy plastic number that had cost me 13 euros, lay on the floor on the other side of the road; its network of metal threads hanging out from the place where it had been met by a pair of bolt cutters.

Padova is a flat city with a good bicycle lane network and very little space in the old, medieval centre for parking cars.
Many students or professionals who arrive from the outskirts of the city by train or bus then take their bike from outside the station, and cycle into town. Thus, there's always a market for cheap bikes, and plenty of fodder for the bicycle thieves.

Regarding my bike, I should point out, firstly, that it wasn't worth much. I acquired it gratis, thanks to my good friends Simone and Djurdjija. But I've always been rather fond of its off-plum colour, its cheerful rattle and its elegant, plunging frame line. I defended it against friends or colleagues who suggested that it was 'a girls bike', and even named her - La Dolce Vita.

Plus, I'm not one to let things lie.

So, I packed the broken bike lock into my bag, first checking to see how sturdy my strangulation grip would be on the smooth plastic, and then headed to work. On the way to work I made a little detour through Giardini Dell'Arena - the Padova park famous for La Capella Degli Scrovegni (A small chapel which houses some 800-year old Giotto frescoes) and also famous, on a local level, for being the place to buy stolen bikes.

I imagine the park to have been much more inviting in its former days. Now, the three entrances are often manned by surly malcontents who eye you suspiciously as you approach. The tower of the chapel and the lines of cypress trees cast long shadows over the park, and a new fence (inside the already-existing park fence) has been built around the chapel itself, shielding tourists from touts and thieves.

As I walked around the Garibaldi statue stationed at the main entrance, an orange-haired, Eastern European woman, her head rested against the arm of a blank-eyed Italian man, glowered at me, as though asking me what business I had in her shady little park.
I'd been inside the park for roughly 20 seconds when a North African man with rotten teeth cycled towards me on a white mountain bike. He fixed his stare onto my face and asked, half invitingly and half-threateningly, "Bici?".
"15 Euro?"
I kept walking.
"Ok - 10 euro. Hey!"

I walked on further, being circled by a younger man, possibly from Central Africa, who sat on a black BMX.
"Che vuoi Capo? What you want, Boss?"

The park is clearly a refuge for the desperate - a hive of unemployable locals, career-thieves and illegal immigrants - (the latter perhaps having come to Europe believing that the streets were paved with gold) so anxious for their next 10 euro note that they're willing to risk arrest, jail or even deportation, day after day.
I didn't see my bike, so I left via the eastern exit and went to work.

I passed through the park again on the way back, this time with two friends. The Eastern European woman with dyed hair was still in the entrance, and this time looked positively offended that I was entering her park for a second time. She whispered something into her boyfriend's ear and scowled at me some more.
A ferrety North African man approached us, on foot, came close enough to us to take a good mental photo of our faces, and then ask "Bici?", before promptly walking away without waiting for an answer. I was about to suggest that we leave when I saw her - La Dolce Vita - with her recognisably rusty frame and broken wheel spokes, being straddled by a burly, balding Slavic man who resembled nothing more than a baked potato in a denim jacket.
To add insult to injury, he was wearing denim jeans too - double denim - and on my fucking bike.

I had been keeping my broken bicycle chain to hand, fantasising about the beautiful irony of being able to garrotte the thief from behind with his own handiwork, before making off with the bike.  This one was a big fucker though, and was flanked by two other men, also on bikes. It was time for a change of tactics.

I sent my special friend out to flag down a passing police car, then sat down on the grass with my Australian chum, Brock, in a place where we could survey the huge, hairless potato that was sitting on my bike. The ferrety man, now with a battered mobile phone in each hand, had followed us into the park until we placed our bags down, at which point he promptly span back around and walked off to make a phone call.
"Did you see the way he was looking at us? Who's he calling now?" asked Brock, staring after him.

We waited. Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, trying to look as casual as possible, but keeping an eye on the Double Denim Spud and his cronies at the same time. They hadn't moved, evidently because they were sitting in the parks prime location - the crossroads which leads South, East and West - meaning that they could trundle off in 1 of 2 directions at the first sight of the police.

I kept an eye on the main entrance to the park, and kept Brock's bike, and the bike chain, to hand.
I receieved another text message:

We're coming, now

I stood up, stretched leisurely, placed the chain into the bike basket and sat on the seat. After a few moments, I saw a police car mount the kerb outside the park, and I set off towards the Slavic man. He didn't notice the police car until it accelerated into the park and skidded to a halt in front of him. By the time he'd put his feet on the pedals and started to back away, I grabbed his bike from behind and began shouting at him in shit Italian.
"E mio bici, certamente, e mio!"

He stood still, confused, looking from me to the police car. One of the coppers walked over, put a hand on his shoulder and lead him towards the car. The bicycle thief evidently couldn't speak Italian, so he spoke in broken English instead.
"I found it. What happen? I found it."

The police checked his pockets, finding one flick-knife, one small pair of bolt cutters, but no I.D or valid passport. They handcuffed him and put him in the back of the car. The other bicycle thieves, who had initially stood watching in surprise (most Padova residents simply go to the park and buy their old bike back each time it gets stolen) were now starting  to slink away, perhaps fearing that they might face jail or deportation, too.

Brock and I cycled to the police station, where I gave a description of the bike and had it returned to me, with a police document detailing the episode and referring to La Dolce Vita as Un bici per donna (A girls bike).

I prefer the term 'unisex'.


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marie said...

so far this is my favorite story. :)