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In Milan, “The Usual Unknowns”

Di Antonio Caneva, 4 Febbraio 2005

Have you ever thought of being in Tokyo or Beijing, or – better still – in Osaka or Shanghai (which are industrial cities but not capitals, and therefore do not host foreign embassies) and all of a sudden realising you have been robbed of your wallet, where you kept not only money, but also your credit cards and documents? If I found myself in such a predicament, I can imagine my terror. I would be looking around for help, only to see unintelligible ideograms; the passers-by would quickly walk away from a westerner who is uttering incomprehensible sounds they do not understand; I would be feeling dismayed.
Well, if you reverse the roles, this is what continually happens to many unlucky easterners who visit the centre of my city, in particular the tourist area of Castello Sforzesco. Outside the drawbridge a group of boys, children, girls with infants in their arms on in prams, is stationed to wait for Japanese (and now also Chinese) tourists, in order to get near to them and try to pickpocket them. Almost as a minuet, the groups of tourists who have been advised by their guides squeeze together to protect themselves, while these people deploy all possible techniques: from soiling a person’s clothes to covering the victim with a newspaper or cardboard, or getting close in the posture of sharing the sightseeing.
On Sunday mornings I usually take a stroll in that area of town, and with increasing annoyance I notice the presence of such organised and shameless pickpockets, who operate in the light of day, without in the least worrying that passers-by may see them.
This circumstance would have probably just prompted a passing consideration, and I would have walked on as usual, accustomed as we are to the thefts perpetrated in the hotel lobbies, at the expense of customers who are arriving or leaving, and to purses being snatched away from unprepared tourists in dark corners, had I not witnessed, last week, a scene that seemed to be excerpted from the movie “The Usual Unknowns”. A girl was trying to pickpocket an unfortunate Asian tourist, but he had adroitly driven back the attack, and had quickly walked away. Nothing exceptional with that: it was quite normal. But this time, on top of it, a young woman who had been waiting nearby intervened resolutely, and shouted violently at the girl in a language that was probably Slavic, in the obvious attitude of reprimanding her for her ineptitude, while she mimicked the pickpocket technique with the cardboard that was used to distract the attention of the potential victim, and had the “pupil” repeat after her. If it had not been sad, it would have been exhilarating.
Every Sunday morning you see this type of show. How much does it cost us in advertising, in foreign countries, trying to persuade people to forget these things, and that we are not only the country of “mandolins”?

Translation of the Italian
editorial by Paola Praloran

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