Robbed in Rome

November 7, 2011 at 9:02 am 60 comments

I flew to Rome last Monday with a single black backpack containing everything essential for a week-long romp through Italy.

To be completely honest, I’d been having a bad week. It didn’t help that before Rome I was in Berlin, where dying leaves littered the ground and the clouds poured rain whenever I forgot my umbrella. For the first time this semester I wanted to go home. Even though I knew how lucky I was to be abroad, I continually battled stress and exhaustion. Italy felt like an escape, a chance to find myself again.

My friend J- and I arrived in Rome on Halloween night. We navigated the train station and a few tram stops later we arrived at our apartment, where J-‘s childhood friend A- had offered her couch. It was small, but centrally located, and in our excitement to explore Rome we dropped our backpacks down on the living room floor and rushed outside.

I fell for Rome in the hour we spent outside – how could I not? We wandered past ancient ruins in the middle of cobblestoned piazzas, leaping fountains, a blur of arches and columns. The night was so warm I wore a short sleeved t-shirt and a skirt. I had nothing with me. No passport, no wallet, no cell phone. For the first time in weeks I felt free.

We walked back, ready to fall into bed. The barred metal gate to the apartment building was ajar. Inside, the door to our apartment stood wide open. First, I saw my clothes on a pile on the floor, my journal tossed a couple feet away. In one hazy moment I realized my backpack was nowhere in sight, and without thought I opened my mouth and said, “I think we’ve been robbed.”

I sat on the couch and experienced my first real panic attack. J- had his arms around me as he tried to help me breathe again. A- ran from room to room. Laptops, cell phones, cameras, even expensive headphones and cologne – gone. I cried and cried as A- called the police and the seven people living in the apartment, whom I hadn’t even met yet. I’d been in Rome for three hours.

When the police arrived, we made lists of everything we lost. I sat on the steps outside with my torn piece of notebook paper and a pen, absolutely numb. The thieves had taken my backpack itself, leaving only my clothes and my journal. I lost my toiletries, souvenirs from Berlin, and worthless but sentimental things – a friendship bracelet from a dear friend, a bag from my dad, my favorite earrings.

My laptop was stolen. So was my Canon DSLR and 50mm lens. The moment I realized they were gone, I also knew I couldn’t afford to replace either. J- held my hand as I repeated, over and over, “I don’t know how to live without my camera.”

In the morning, J- and I ate a quick breakfast and left the apartment without a map or itinerary. We just wanted to wander. When we stepped outside and I saw Rome in the light for the first time, I exhaled all of the negative energy inside me and knew that everything would be okay. Being robbed was terrible, but in a superficial way, I’m glad it happened.

Honestly, things are just things. All I lost was money, and convenience. Nobody was hurt. We returned to the apartment so early last night, we’re lucky we didn’t run into the robbers, who I’m sure would have been armed. I can live without a laptop. And while it was painful to explore Italy without my camera, I used my iPod instead, and that’s where the photos in this post are from.

Most of all, the robbery provided an emotional outlet I’d needed. For weeks I’d been feeling miserable, but I supressed everything in an effort to appreciate the opportunity I’d been given. But the emotions I experienced during the robbery were so intense – fear, anger, depression, confusion, hurt – that I woke up cleansed the next morning. A blank slate. Ready to embrace Rome fully and whole-heartedly.

And we did. Rome is my favorite city of the five countries I’ve visited, and this trip – robbery included – has been my absolute favorite.

J- and I ate gelato twice a day. We walked through the forum in silence, absolutely spellbound. I stood beneath the Sistine Chapel, and I peered over the stretch of Rome from the St. Peter’s Dome. I sat beneath the Italian pine trees, soft and strong and older than I can imagine, and wrote in my travel journal, which I am so grateful to still have.

Whenever I snuck an olive off J-‘s pizza or borrowed his pen, he wrinkled his nose at me and said, “I’ve been robbed!”

Sometimes, you have to choose to laugh.

The next day we filed a police report with the seven other people who were robbed. As I sat in silence in the Roman police station, that familiar numbness seeping through my skull, I wondered, “Since when is this my life?”

J- and I decided to treat ourselves to a fantastic dinner. We wandered until we found a beautiful restaurant, with outdoor seating and twinkling Christmas lights. We were the only people there but the prices were affordable and the fragrant air beckoned us to sit down. I ordered a seafood spaghetti with mussels, clams, and cherry tomatoes; J- ordered gnocchi with arugula and cream sauce.

I think I may have cried when our food came out. I wish so badly I had a camera to take a picture, because it was the most beautiful plate of pasta I’ve ever seen. J- moaned when he took his first bite, but I thought mine was even better. We split a bottle of chianti and then treated ourselves to dessert.

If that night, that conversation with J-, that astounding plate of spaghetti, doesn’t turn out to be the highlight of the semester, I don’t know what will be.

I’m back in the Netherlands now. Classes start again tomorrow. Life moves on.

I’m writing this in the computer lab, which is drafty and continuously buzzing. The internet is spotty and I am missing my laptop more than ever. When I head to Morocco for my next travel weekend, I’ll ache for my camera until my heart bruises.

But my life isn’t made rich by money, or by photographs. I have all the memories I need, and as long as there’s wifi, I’ll continue to share them with you.

Entry filed under: Travel. Tags: , , , , .

Edinburgh Gelato Withdrawals

60 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kathleen A. Niemer  |  November 7, 2011 at 9:12 am

    So sorry to hear you were robbed. It feels like a violation, doesn’t it? Hope you enjoy the rest of your travels.

  • 2. Denise Rambo  |  November 7, 2011 at 9:18 am

    You amaze me Sweetie … you amaze me. (((Elissa)))

  • 3. Denise Rambo  |  November 7, 2011 at 9:19 am

    On a practical note … your camera and laptop may be covered under your parents’ homeowner’s insurance.

  • 4.  |  November 7, 2011 at 9:48 am

    oh honey, i’m so sorry about your robbery- when i was in italy in september, before i left i got my camera covered by my house insurance- find out if yours is covered under your parents- if you have a receipt for it (or even a credit card record), you may just be able to get a replacement faster than you would think :) chin up sweet girl. in the meantime, if you have a moment, check out ebay- there are many many trustworthy sellers that have DSLRs for sale and terrific lenses- i got all mine for half price and they were in mint condition- even L-series lenses. so, there is hope. xoxo feel better soon. xoox

  • 5. Maja  |  November 7, 2011 at 10:16 am

    wow! I guess Rome (or Italy) really can cure any ache! I’m so glad you had a such a great trip after all.

  • 6. Cookie  |  November 7, 2011 at 10:50 am

    You are such a wise woman to be so young. Usually we have lived a much longer time before we can find the beauty in our situations and move forward. You immediately saw this as a release of your burdens and then thoroughly enjoyed your trip after that. I admire your quick recovery and your ability to see the beauty in all of your life situations. This was a beautiful life lesson that you will never forget. I’m so glad you still allowed yourself such a wonderful time!

  • 7. Amanda (onceuponarecipe)  |  November 7, 2011 at 11:49 am

    So sorry to hear about the awful robbery, but good for you for making the best of it Alissa. Your iPod pictures are beautiful!

  • 8. Kristi @ 30 Pounds of Apples  |  November 7, 2011 at 11:58 am

    Thank you for your story. We’ve had robberies in my apartment complex over the last several months, and the only objects I think I would really miss are my laptop and camera. I hope you enjoy the rest of your time abroad! It will be a time you will never forget. Stay smiling :)

  • 9. peevishmagnifyingglass  |  November 7, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    Who knew pictures from an ipod would be so good. Way to not let a bad experience get in the way of enjoying Rome.

  • 10. Margaret  |  November 7, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    That experience sounds so horrible–but your perspective on it is enlightening. There is much to be gained by making the most of cathartic moments. Yours is no exception. Thank you for sharing your optimism. It is contagious!

  • 11. Issy  |  November 7, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    oh no!! I am so sorry about your laptop and camera! I can imagine how upset you were….but I hope that maybe, instead of photographing your memories this time, you captured them by smell, taste, and by eye. I know that when I photograph, I am sometimes so worried about ‘the shot’ that I forget to be in that moment to fully enjoy it.

    That being said, if you have travel insurance or are still under your parents insurance, check to see if your loss is covered.

  • 12. morethanhalfofmyheart  |  November 7, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    I am so sorry to hear that you got robbed! I don’t know what I would do if I had my camera stolen from me. Just knowing that you’re abroad without it seems quite devastating and I admire how you have managed to put a positive spin on the situation and still enjoyed Rome in spite of that experience. The pictures you took are beautiful.

  • 13. Jen  |  November 7, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    I studied abroad in Rome last year and loved everything about the city. I’m glad you could appreciate it for the short period that you were there, it’s hard for some people to get past the tourist side of it and find the hidden treasures. I look back on study abroad and only have good memories despite ups and downs, its a beautiful thing to live in a different culture.

  • 14. Tina @ bitemeshowme  |  November 7, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    This blog post made me so emotional. I am so sorry that it happened to you, but we grow and become stronger from such things. Life isn’t revolved around money, it really is what you make it.

  • 15. aprillou (@aprillou)  |  November 7, 2011 at 6:51 pm

    I’m a lurker and I rarely comment. I just want to say that I’m glad you are OK and that you did not get to catch the robbers in the act or something worse could have happened.

    Good thing they didn’t get your passport.

    My aunt was robbed earlier in March in Rome as well. They took her entire luggage. Good thing her insurance covered everything.

    I’m not so lucky though, my car was broken into and the thieves took 500 dollars, my laptop, and even my folder with some of my important documents in it (school transcripts, insurance papers, and a copy of my social security stuff). Got scared about identity theft more than the material losses. Was paranoid about it for months.

    Just remember that when suck-y things happen, something good will replace it ten-fold. I should know, I won a trip to Maldives and got pampered like crazy a several months after that robbery. ;)

  • 16. Linka  |  November 7, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Studying abroad has taught me a lot of things. Among them were to remember to breathe, and how to roll with the punches. I’m sorry to hear that you were robbed, but you’ve handled it with grace and maturity. You can be proud of that :)

  • 17. Emily R  |  November 7, 2011 at 8:24 pm

    So sorry to hear you were robbed. You handled it much better than I ever would. I’m glad you still enjoyed your trip. :)

  • 18. Judy Utsler  |  November 7, 2011 at 8:42 pm

    This is an exquisitely written post. You are so self aware–I am really looking forward to reading about your future adventures!

  • 19. wanderingeducators  |  November 7, 2011 at 9:17 pm

    i love that when you stole the olives, he said he was robbed – that sense of humor saves everything, doesn’t it? i hope your insurance covers your losses, at least monetarily. the photos are amazing!!

  • 20. Jessie  |  November 7, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    sorry to hear about the robbery. ive been robbed many a times in europe too (most of the time my fault) so i know how it feels. you’re right though. without your lens, you get to fully take in the scenery, rather than just focusing on capturing the “memories” to flip through later on.

    you ipod photos are exquisite though!

  • 21. Elizabeth  |  November 8, 2011 at 1:47 am

    This is such a beautiful post. You have a great talent with words, and in separating the important from the inconsequential. I hope the rest of your travels bring only good things. Thanks for sharing.

  • 22. Erica  |  November 8, 2011 at 2:41 am

    I’m so sorry to hear about your experience! I’m from Italy and I’m always sad when something like this happens. I think my country is beautiful and I’d like everyone could see it!
    But you’re a great girl and I’m happy you enjoyed the rest of the trip :)
    Beautiful post!!

  • 23. Danielle  |  November 8, 2011 at 3:33 am

    Sorry to hear of the loss of your beloved camera. Your photos are still amazing.

  • 24. SeraSera  |  November 8, 2011 at 10:47 am

    But you still have your wonderful gift of words! I feel for you Elissa, but I hope that you can still enjoy your time and – even though I’m sure you’ll be worn out by the end of the trip – feel refreshed. Best wishes from a Kiwi living in Austria :)

  • 25. Lynne @ 365 Days of Baking  |  November 8, 2011 at 11:16 am

    So sorry to hear aout the robbery, Elissa. But very glad you’re ok and didn’t catch them in the act. Things can be replaced.
    It is such a feeling of violation and so very hard to shake.
    How wonderful though that you were able to make something positive out of it and really enjoy your time and experience there. The pictures are wonderful. Italy is on the top of my list of places to visit.
    Good luck with your classes.

  • 26. Julie B.  |  November 8, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    Hang in there! I’m glad you are okay.

  • 27. Tesei  |  November 8, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    Sometimes life gives us little unpleasant surprises, but keep your spirits up and things will continue getting better. It’s so good to hear you were so mature about it, congratulations and I’m sure you’ll restore your lost things very soon.

  • 28. Melissa Daams  |  November 8, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    Wow, I’ve never been to Rome, but my good friend tells me it’s wonderful. You’ve captured it nicely. I keep wanting to go to Paris, I still haven’t made it there yet, but having just got back from Spain, I’m not really in the mood to travel just yet… and still my friend says – Rome is better than Paris – trust me… but Paris is closer!

    Anyway, earlier this year I finally made it back to the states and it was so good to be home with family and friends and the morning we arrived home to our house, the front door was busted in and the cops and a few neighbors stood outside… had we come home one day earlier – wouldn’t have happened.

    It wasn’t so bad that a lot of our valuables were stolen, it was bad that people – we don’t know were wandering around in our house – you know just rummaging through our stuff – sickens me really.

    I never cried though – mostly just shock… now we have like 3 locks on each door, and extra “inbrekers strips” and when we went to Spain this last time – we got a house sitter – we are extra careful now!

    So, I feel your pain in a nutshell.

  • 29. Melissa Daams  |  November 8, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    By the way, how do you like the stroopwafels? they are great aren’t they! You should try some Herfst vla also – i love it together with gingerbread – or ontbijtkoek – one of my most favorite treats. How much longer are you here? maybe you will be here long enough to see the Zwarte Piets and Sinterklaas! Have you had the oliebollen yet? What about pepernoten? I’m crazy about Dutch goodies :)

  • 30. GStark  |  November 8, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    My daughter’s in Utrecht abroad and I’m glad her holiday break doesn’t include a jaunt to Italy. Sorry that happened to you.

  • 31. jenjenkay  |  November 8, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    oh my…i’m so sorry to hear that – but you are far more mature than I could ever hope to be!

  • 32. Marta  |  November 8, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    Elissa… I don’t know what else to say to you – what a beautiful post, what a beautiful young woman your are… ((((hugs))))

  • 33. blisstwelvephotography  |  November 8, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    Wow! Your a great writer! I love the photos! This is so inspirational! I just started my own blog this week with my cousin about photography! It’s so great to be able to share with people your experiences and photos! If you would like to check out our blog please go to! :) Thanks!

  • 34. Melissa Towne  |  November 8, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    This reminds me so much of my experience abroad in college in 2004. I was in Copenhagen and at one point I was feeling really down about the whole experience. At that point I took a trip to Rome and it’s weird seeing how your photos have that same quality of both darkness and luminosity that the ones I took did. Sometimes difficult times become memorable too in their own way.

  • 35. Elaine  |  November 8, 2011 at 11:40 pm

    My parents were robbed in Rome too. It was kind of their fault — my mother was carrying all the important stuff in a PURSE, on her outside shoulder, and it was stolen by a thief on a moped. They lost passports, plane tickets, all their traveller’s checks, and the keys to the car parked back in the US! Still, once time had passed they loved telling the story — and loved showing the passports with their sunburned faces after the million trips up and down the Spanish Steps by the U.S. Embassy. At least that didn’t happen. Good for you for rolling with the punches so well!

  • 36. annakristina28  |  November 9, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    I’m sorry you had to go through that, but I admire you for making the best of it! My mouth watered when I read about that fantastic dinner of yours (I think I’d have picked the gnocci :D). I have my fingers crossed that some form of insurance will cover replacing your camera, lens, and laptop – definitely check with your parents’ homeowner’s policy!

  • 37. annakristina28  |  November 9, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    I’m sorry you had to go through that, but I admire you for making the best of it! My mouth watered when I read about that fantastic dinner of yours (I think I’d have picked the gnocci :D). I have my fingers crossed that some form of insurance will cover replacing your camera, lens, and laptop – definitely check with your parents’ homeowner’s policy!

  • 38. CulinarilyCourtney  |  November 9, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    I’m sorry to hear that you had to experience that robbery, but your post shows just how resilient you are :)
    Your pictures are really beautiful, even if they are just from your iphone.
    My dream is to visit Rome some day with my Mom and this post just increased that wanderlust!

  • 39. Janet  |  November 10, 2011 at 3:48 am

    Sorry:~( I’m glad it didn’t ruin Rome for you. You have wonderful perspective, but I know it’s hard. Hope you figure out how to replace your laptop and camera soon….

  • 40. Jessica  |  November 10, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    Oh I feel just awful for you. I live in mainland Europe now and I have become so paranoid about clutching my bag against me at all times. I really feel your pain about your camera and lens, that’s awful and not something any good photographer like yourself should have to go through. At least you still have your journal xxx

  • 41. kyleen  |  November 10, 2011 at 11:32 pm

    I’m sorry for the loss of your camera! Last year, my phone and a lot of other people’s phones and wallets got stolen in the gym changeroom because the teacher forgot to lock the door and I remember feeling like I lost my hand. I’ve since grown less attached to my cellphone (and more attached to my camera) but I remember that feeling. Still, I can’t imagine what it would feel like to have your camera and laptop and everything else stolen–gone, just like that. I hope you have fun for the rest of your semester abroad.

  • 42. Dana  |  November 13, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    I’m so sorry you were robbed! Just a word of caution about Morocco though – hang onto your things tightly. I spent a semester abroad in Florence and traveled Europe like you without any issue. Morocco is beautiful and amazing, but we were all pickpocketed. Don’t let your things out of your sight!! :) Enjoy!

  • 43. Hannah  |  November 13, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    Wow – you turned a traumatic experience into a beautiful post and perspective. I’m so sorry about the loss of your belongings, especially since their worth clearly went beyond monetary value for you. Enjoy the rest of your time abroad. We’re going to Rome in December and are really looking forward to it – and I know now to keep an extra sharp eye on my bag.

  • 44. Jen @ keepitsimplefoods  |  November 14, 2011 at 10:29 am

    Oh nooooo! I’m so sorry you had to go through that. I was once robbed on an overnight train from Lucerne to Nice. It sucked, but luckily nothing important was stolen and my stuff was covered under my parents home owners insurance, so I was able to replace nearly everything. Good luck sorting things out!

  • 45. Michelle Canfield  |  November 15, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    You have such a great outlook on life! The photos turned out gorgeous- before I read the post, they immediately caught my eye and I wondered what you did to get that antique-ey look. I suppose theft is almost a guaranteed part of traveling if you do it more than a little, I think you did the right thing to just frame it and move on, it’s part of the fabric of the experience.

  • 46. VK  |  November 15, 2011 at 10:57 pm

    I don’t visit your website very often, but I just wanted to say that I think you’re such a beautiful writer, and that you craft out such a lovely personal story each time. Such great anecdotes, so vivid and detailed in all the right ways. All the best to you, and may your next travel experience be a more pleasant one!

  • 47. Anita Menon  |  November 16, 2011 at 4:26 am

    You are such a heart warming writer. Inspite of such sour experience, you are tuned in to only the positive about life. I take that away from your post today. Thank you for sharing. I hope you are able to save enough, soon, for a wonderful camera and laptop.

  • 48. Nick  |  November 16, 2011 at 4:36 am

    You are a writer. Very pretty pictures .. from an ipod

  • 49. Bridget  |  November 18, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    i love this post.. the imagery is great. but geez lady! glad your home :)

  • 50. devonshire  |  December 1, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    I share other reader’s amazement at how you dealt with the robbery. Your attitude is definitely something I wish I could absorb.


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Elissa Bernstein

I'm Elissa: a 17 (now 21) year old baker in Seattle Boston juggling creative nonfiction workshops, subway maps, and my passions for writing, baking, and photography. Photo above © Michelle Moore

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