This post was originally published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader.
Last night at 2am, after a long day at the Share Foundation’s conference about digital freedom where I moderated a panel on EU copyright reform and got to meet so many smart people, I came back to my apartment to find it had been burglarized. I’ve never had my home space violated in that way before, so you can imagine my surprise when I turned on the light and saw the window gaping ominously open above the fallen curtain rod and boot prints on the couch cover.
My mind instantly auto-generated a checklist of items in order of importance as I scanned the room. I saw two of my journals peeking out from underneath the curtain and breathed a tiny sigh of relief. Aside from the obvious, it meant that the burglars probably didn’t know or care who I was—that it was just about money, and not some kind of scare tactic or assault on my freedom of speech. I didn’t even need to look at the spot where I’d left the professional camera Olympus gave me to know it was gone.
I flipped the light on in my bedroom and my jaw, and heart, dropped. The room was turned upside down. My clothes and papers were strewn about, cushions ripped off the tops of the storage couches to explore inside and tossed haphazardly aside. Fortunately my leather-bound journal remained on the ledge above my bed. After once having a journal stolen from inside my motorcycle seat while I was at a restaurant in Formentera, I took proper security precautions with the most recent version.
I realized how fortunate I was to have been exactly where I was that Saturday, because obviously I’d never go to a tech conference without all portals to the internet (my laptop and two smartphones) affixed to my person. If I wasn’t such a nerd, I’d really be up a creek right now.
I then thanked my lucky stars for the good tidings of Linda Marion, my friend Amira’s mother. The day before I left the US for my first lap around the world, she came over to my apartment in Ann Arbor despite my protests that I was frantically packing and running late, and dropped off a few important items she thought I might need—among them, a passport case and a safety pin. “Never let your passport leave your body,” she lectured maternally. Ever since that day, I’ve kept that case pinned to the inside of my travel bag, and have carried it with me every single time I’ve left my residence.
So, despite the present suck-fest, it’s not Embassy time quite yet.
I’ve gotta admit, it’s times like this when I wish I was a normal person with normal parents or a long-term partner I could call and seek comfort in. Someone who would tell me everything was fine and not to worry, and tell me what to do before asking “hasn’t this travel obsession gone far enough?” and wouldn’t I just come home already? But I’m not a normal person, and I’ve never had anyone like that in my life, so I did what I’ve always done and just handled my shit myself.
Both of my phones were dead and, not wanting to rummage for my chargers, I left the apartment exactly as it was and walked to the hostel down the street. There I asked the night clerk if she could call the police for me. After relaying what I’d told her to the operator in Serbian, she muffled the phone and asked what nationality I am. “American,” I grudgingly said. After she relayed the translation, whoever was on the other end promptly hung up so fast it made the clerk raise her eyebrows in surprise.
One thing about Belgrade that I wouldn’t have ever understood before coming here, is that they have a better reason than most to dislike Americans. I was only 13 when the US-led NATO forces bombed Serbia, and nobody ever explained why in any history class I ever took. But I vaguely remember the Clinton administration talking about “human rights violations in Kosovo,” “Yugoslavia,” then “former Yugoslavia” on the major news channels, and I remember adults getting tense and arguing whenever the topic came up at dinner parties. Slobodan Milošević is a name that’s stuck in my head all these years, but absent any context. Like so many Americans, I didn’t have any idea what happened here—until the past few months I’ve spent exploring “the Balkans” AKA “former Yugoslavia.” Now I find it rather criminal that this wasn’t a part of our basic historical education. I’ll write more about it later.
The cops came quickly, spoke with me as little as possible, and told me to be back at 6:30am so a forensics team could take fingerprints. I thanked them profusely, and went back to the hostel to charge my phone, call the landlord, who was on Holiday in Greece, and nap for two hours. It seems they never actually relayed the message to the forensics team, so after waiting outside for an hour, I had to get the nosy old neighbor lady, who seemed to be having the thrill of her life from this scandal, to call them again. Finally they came, dusted for prints, and told me to go through my stuff so they could take an inventory of what was missing. When I dug my suitcase out and opened it, I couldn’t believe it.
They literally robbed me blind. I never really thought about the origin of this expression before, but they took everything—including my glasses, my backup glasses, and two months worth of contact lenses. Additionally, my hard drive was gone, all my chargers and random electronics stuff, my flute, all the sentimental stuff I’d been collecting along the way like my post card collection and the sand from various lakes I’d been saving for my friend who collects it. Even my toiletries and makeup were stolen. I’ll probably be realizing things are missing for months. Now my previous Beacon entry seems less funny.
I’m staying with a friend now, still in a daze and unsure of how to proceed. I’ve been hassled on the streets quite a bit in my days, but it’s a whole other level of odd feelings knowing someone has targeted you for a premeditated crime. You wonder who would do such a thing, and why. My prime suspect was the Tinder guy I hung out and blazed with but simply replied “what!” to his facebook message suggesting we have sex. More sinister is the thought that someone wanted my hard drive, and stealing all the other stuff was just a distraction. After all, what kind of criminal breaks in and steals someone’s fucking tampons but leaves the TV?
I’m going to try to not think about it. It brings me some comfort knowing I did everything right with respect to keeping myself and my few possessions safe, and this happened in spite of it. Instead, I need to focus on what to do next. I was going to head to Russia and write my book proposal while riding the Trans-Siberian railway, but I think right now, what I really need is to be near friends, family and the familiar. After having just lost about $2k of gear on top of already being in a tight financial situation, that’s going to be difficult.
If anyone has any suggestions (outside the Schengen zone, since I can’t return there until December), or just plain moral support, I’d love it if you’d drop me a note to firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you want to do something more to help, I’d really appreciate donations to my Vision Restoration fund—somehow I need to come up with a fast $1000 replace the 3 kinds of lenses that were stolen (glasses, contacts, camera) in order to continue being your eyes abroad. Donations can be sent via PayPal to email@example.com.
Thanks for reading and continuing to support me on this journey <3