Eau du Thief

Don’t quote me on this because I have no idea what the hell I’m talking about, but there was this study somewhere, at some time, done by some psychologists. Basically, these psychologists set up two rooms – Candy Shop A, and Candy Shop B. Both Candy Shop A and Candy Shop B were virtually identical; both were loaded with lots of tasty-looking sweets, and neither had a clerk at the till. There was one difference between the two candy shops, however; Candy Shop B had a large mirror behind the empty till, and on the mirror there were two large, angry eyes.

The subjects were let loose, allowed to roam freely between Candy Shop A and Candy Shop B. Kids in a candy store! And the psychologists were able to confirm their hypothesis: subjects happily pocketed candy in Candy Shop A, but kept their hands to themselves in Candy Shop B. While they were technically free to steal candy in both shops, the mere suggestion of a disapproving conscience was enough to reign in any impulses to commit the crime of theft. But in the absence of that disapproving conscience, in the absence of those disapproving eyes….

This is a little bit what living in Italy is like.


I’ve become quite the little thief since moving to Italy!

It wasn’t an overnight transformation, like moving to Japan and gleefully abandoning any American impulse to tip the hot second I learned that tipping wasn’t customary in the Land of the Rising Sun. It took a lot longer for my morals to give way than it did for my generosity.

I learned early on that laws in Italy are plentiful but rarely enforced.  And then, much later – via an extremely unpleasant family court case – I learned that the Italian legal system is designed to protect the criminals and punish the innocent. Doctors, lawyers, and engineers don’t make the big money – politicians do.  Taxes are high and citizens do whatever they can do avoid paying them. I am no longer fazed by employers declaring only a portion of what they pay me; this is normal, this is expected. I am no longer fazed by anyone’s stories of being ripped off by bosses or getting screwed over by servicepeople: Yep. That sounds about right. When will this work be done? “Thursday!” Don’t forget to specify the year.

When I moved to Italy I was your basic red-blooded American law abiding citizen. I had to be; in New York if I wanted to ride the bus or subway, I couldn’t get on without a Metrocard or dropping coins into the machine. If I wanted to park streetside, I had to feed the meter or be given a fine. If I sped or committed a traffic infraction, chances were very high of being pulled over.

Not so in Italy; I picked up on this right quick. Police presence is intermittent; here, speeding is largely controlled by the AutoVelox speed machine traps, but many don’t work, and if you know where you’re going, you know where they are and you regulate your speed accordingly. Now and then you’ll find police cars parked at the intersections of busy highways, ready to catch a perp, perform a random license and registration inspection, or casually chat with a prostitute. In Terracina, the cops come out on rare summer nights. Same for the meter maids and regional train conductors; if I park without feeding the meter, chances are very high that I won’t get a fine, and if I ride a train, it’s highly likely that the conductor won’t pass through to ask for my ticket.

So what did I do with all this unsupervised candy? I thought: awesome. The “thief” sequence in my Italian DNA lit up. Long lurking deep within, itching to be ignited. Parking “for free” wherever I wanted, speeding when I felt like it, passing on a double line – and how many years did I drive dirty, without an official Italian driver’s license? My long-suffering American self is too ashamed to tell you, and it is thanks to her – who after *cough* five *cough* years *cough* of whizzing by police cars and pretending she didn’t speak Italian any time she got stopped; suffering the throes of Yankee conscience; sweating like a whore in church every time she caught sight of those blue and white vee-hi-cles – that this body sucked it up, paid the 700 euro, took the stupid driving classes and got that stupid license.

But don’t be fooled. Wherever she grew up, the thief is strong in this one.


It was my Hungarian friend V who hipped me to the TrenItalia scam. You buy one BIRG, she said. And you don’t validate it so if the conductor comes by, you just tell him you forgot to validate it. Or you do validate it, and you show it to him anyway, because they never actually look at the date. So you just use the same one over and over, you see?

This was pretty early on in my Italian life, when I was just starting to realize how often foreigners get screwed, so I thought: Good. Screw them too.

I tried it once and it worked; the conductor never came. So I tried it again. It kept working. And after more than ten times that it worked, the conductor came by. My heart pounded as he looked at my used BIRG, and then galloped when he simply handed it back to me and went on to the other seats.

I used this system more often than not; every now and then I bought a new BIRG if I had an attack of conscience, but if I was running late, if I had to park too far from the station, if I was mad at Italy… I rode bareback.

Until the damn horse bucked me off.

Italian officials – they don’t do a damn thing until the day they get a wild hair and decide to work. And then, because you’re used to them not doing their jobs, you don’t do your job as a citizen either. And that’s when they get you. Boy, do they get you.

A 600 euro fine for stealing a train ride. I forever maintain that I committed a crime and I deserved a punishment. And I also maintain that 600 euro is preposterous. The Italian police “system” breeds criminality, and then brutalizes the criminals it creates.

Well, that scared me straight; I’ve never, ever again stolen another train ride. But I happily hop on a bus without presenting a ticket. I skip feeding the meter near work at least twice a week. Maybe once a year I get a parking fine – 17 euro. I pay it. Business as usual.


This is not to say that I’ve abandoned all of my morals, no no. There are still plenty of things I won’t do. To date, I’ve never killed anyone. I pay my bills in full and on time. I delete any and all messages from married or taken men. Even at the ripe old age of 37, I am still unable to separate love and sex. And twice this past week, I turned down individuals who approached me, wondering if I would help someone they knew cheat on an English exam. One of these people was the father of a student who wanted me to write his son’s graduate law thesis for him in English. The other was the principal of my morning school.

The goosebumps on my arms still raise; my nose still sniffs in indignation. WHO do these people think they are? How DARE they think I would ever be party to something so corrupt? Do I have “dirty mistress” written on my forehead? What about me suggests that I – an EDUCATOR – would override the academic system and risk being held liable for fraud for fifty euro, or whatever ridiculous amount you were going to offer me? 

Is there something on my skin now that other criminals can smell – Eau du Thief? Cool and crisp, with undertones of adrenaline?

I’m driving home from work one Saturday afternoon – singing at the top of my lungs, having a ball – when suddenly I notice that there’s a police blockade up ahead, and an officer waving a red and white pallet. At me.

I pull over. He comes to the window.

Is there anything wrong, officer? I beam.

Yes, he says. You passed on a double line.

I did? I try to think back. I did pass another car, but was it over a double line? I can’t remember. I’m so used to doing whatever the hell I want on the road that I barely notice.

Step out of the vehicle, he says.

So I get out. And I see that there are at least three other cars parked behind the blockade: other perps pulled over for various offenses. Oh, the police are having a field day! It must be the First Day of Fucking Cop School! I stand next to my fellow transgressors and recognize Carlo.

Hi, I say. You’re Carlo, right? I’m your brother Andrea’s friend. I met you at his wedding last year.

Carlo’s face remains a stony block. Oh. Right.

We fidget on the side of the road. Other cars zoom by, all of them passing over the double line.

Well, I say. Tell Andrea I said hi!

I will, says Carlo.

The policeman comes back. He’s flustered and fidgety.

Signorina, he says to me. Because you are a neopatentata, this transgression is even more serious. It’s customary in these cases to revoke the driver’s license. But! – he sees that I’m about to shit a kitten – But I’m going to just give you a speeding ticket. You present this at the police station, you tell them that it’s a speeding ticket. But because you’re a neopatentata I have to take 10 points off your license and the fine is double. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry about this. But this is what is going to happen.

I’m quiet. I recognize that the policeman is for some reason doing me a solid. This is not the time to argue; this is not the time to complain that I might be a “neopatentata” under Italian law, but I’ve been a license holder for the past 20 years and surely the laws for new drivers don’t apply to me.

He looks at me, waiting for my response. I look at him, about to give it. And then, for the first time, I notice that the cop is handsome. Chiseled features. Dark hair. Olive-colored eyes.

Thank you, officer, I say. That’s very kind of you.

Never pass on a double line again, he says. Never break a traffic law again.

I won’t, I promise. I won’t.

He rips my ticket off the pad and gives it to me. As he does, he grips my hand and doesn’t let go. His olive eyes pierce mine.

Good bye, he says. I truly wish we had met under different circumstances.

His hand continues to grip mine, and I begin to sweat. His hand is large and warm. At last, he lets go and I get back in my car. I gun the engine and leave the police blockade and the officer behind.

And maybe this compassionate olive-eyed cop is the man I’ve been waiting to meet; maybe, like me, he lives his life to a soundtrack written by Lucio Battisti. Maybe he would be only too thrilled to be woken up in the mornings with pancake breakfasts, and happy to be put to bed with burrata and asparagus lasagne. Maybe he would be charmed by my passion for Mondays, maybe he builds things real good and is the hairy-chested bear I’ve been yearning for my entire life.

So many things could be possible for me and this olive-eyed policeman. Were we not on opposite sides of the law.

2 Replies to “Eau du Thief”

  1. Davvero divertente e realistico. Bravissima!

  2. I just read your article at BBC. I don’t think the person in question overestimated their language abilities. I hold 3 C2 certiticates, one C1 certificate in Chinese (HSK6 – the highest level) and am on my way to becoming a proficient speaker of 2 more languages, including Italian (which is easy-peasy to me as I already speak Spanish). every time I learn a new language, it becomes my special interest. I immerse myself in its culture, read news in it and make new friends with whom I can speak it. I’m sorry, it might not be fair that I was born a polyglot. but it also happens that I was born autistic and my different neurotype is stigmatized in this neurotypical society despite the fact that it has endowed me with such nice intellectual abilities. which I suppose is the case of 90% born polyglots, probably that US candidate too. so yeah, he probably didn’t overestimate his possibilities, but you might have underestimated his.

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