The Suspicious Man with the Backpack at the Cafe in Rome

by Elison Alcovendaz

I want to tell you a story called, “The Suspicious Man with the Backpack at the Café in Rome,” but before I get into it, I need to set the scene, so to speak. I’ve always been fearful of some things – that spider lurking under the couch, for example – but generally speaking, I was not what you’d call a scared person. So in the days leading up to our trip to Europe in July, it surprised me how nervous I felt about the news of ISIS being just a couple hundred miles off the coast of Italy. Were they targeting Americans? Did we look like Americans? We’re an obvious mixed-raced couple. Will that make us easily identifable as citizens of these United States? Oh, God. I’m fat. Americans are fat. Why did I just eat an animal style In-N-Out Double Double? I’m such an easy target.

I casually brought it up to Patty. “Hey, did you hear about ISIS being off the coast of Italy?” She made a sarcastic comment, seemingly unworried. I nodded in response and told myself that of course I was being paranoid. I mean, I’d checked the Department of Homeland Security’s webpage the night before and the very bad, evil, bloody color red was nowhere near Italy. Neither was it near England or France, our other two honeymoon destinations. Of course, the U.S. Embassy travel warning site did make mention of the somewhat recent Charlie Hedbo shootings, “strongly” recommending U.S. citizens stay “vigilant” and hey, have you ever thought about signing up for the Smart Traveller Enrollment Program (STEP)? If you haven’t, you should, because… safety and stuff.

By the time I came face to face with the suspicous man, a few events had already taken residence in the back of my mind:

·      The day before our departure, I saw on TV a purported suicide bombing at an Armed Forces Day parade in London had been thwarted. Thwarted. Such a strange word to say aloud (try it), and not really a word that makes you feel all comfortable and safe and warm inside.

·      Two days before our train from London to Paris, the Chunnel was shut down. Ferry strikers were setting fires to the tracks. A few days before, the Chunnel had also been closed after some migrants who’d attacked trucks on nearby motorways tried to get into the UK via the Chunnel. The news reported one or two truck drivers had actually been killed.

·      Our hotel in France was in a rather non-descript alleyway a mile away from the Eiffel Tower. There was literally nothing on the street except for two hotels and a grocery store. And yet, one morning, when exiting the hotel to meet our tour bus, we came face to face with three soldiers holding the kind of automatic rifles you see in action movies. They were standing there for no apparent reason, unless the unmarked building across from the hotel was a secret military site.

·      In our first day in Rome, after finding the Trevi Fountain closed for repair, we walked back to our hotel and came upon a beautiful building. I raised the camera to my eye but was stopped by a honking car. I lowered the camera to find a man leaned halfway out of the passenger window, waving his arms and yelling something in Italian. I smiled, snapped my picture, and walked toward the building.

There were no markings on the building to tell me what it was, though tall, iron gates, some covered in green plastic-like material, surrounded it. As I approached, I prepared once again to snap a picture when I heard a siren. A police officer stopped on the street and pointed at me. “You cannot take a picture,” he said. “Okay,” I answered. “You cannot take a picture,” he repeated.  I finally lowered the camera. He nodded and drove off. It wasn’t until our last day in Rome that I discovered the building was the U.S. Embassy. Here I was, snapping pictures of world monuments – the Colosseum, Michelangelo paintings, the Pantheon – and I, a U.S. citizen, was not allowed to take a picture of my own Embassy. If the U.S. government, with all its bravado and all its social conditioning about how un-American it is to be afraid, is scared of the average citizen snapping a photo of their own embassy, shouldn’t I, the individual traveler, be scared as well?

The next evening, we were sitting outside at a café in Piazza Navona. The plaza teemed with street artists and next to us, just a few feet away, a young man played Sinatra on a piano accordion while an inebriated lady tried to dance with him. After a hot day at the Vatican, the sun had finally decided to lower itself, and aside from Venice, the air was the coolest it had been during the entire trip. A perfect atmosphere, one that made me forget about how afraid I was supposed to be, until a man took the table next to us. He was sweaty, looked nervous, and gripped a black backpack in his hand. When the waiter asked what he wanted, he said “Ice cream.”

Okay, let’s stop here. No one in Italy says “Ice cream.” Even if you’ve never heard of gelato, in five minutes in Italy, you’ll know what gelato is. So the fact he said “ice cream” really screwed with me. After the waiter left, he carefully lowered the backpack under his chair, and sat there for five to ten minutes just staring ahead. Not people watching. Not looking at his phone. Not reading a book. Literally just staring ahead. Then he stood up quickly, left his backpack, and walked inside the café.

My chest tensed. If he said “ice cream,” that meant he wasn’t Italian, and no foreigner I’d seen at any point in our trip had ever left their bag unattended, anywhere. Never. I rarely even see this in America. So I was tripping out. Patty was talking about something, but I couldn’t hear her. I looked at the bag. Maybe there were shoes in there? A box of some kind? It definitely looked bulky. But why did he go inside? If what I thought might be there was actually in there, he wouldn’t have gone inside the building, right? No, of course he wouldn’t.

I’m still not sure what made me do it, and in retrospect, it was a terrible idea, but I followed him inside. I didn’t have a plan. He was climbing the stairs in the back of the small café, turning the corner. I smiled at the wait staff behind the gelato bar and followed the man up the stairs.

The staircase ended with a larger dining area to the left, which was empty, and the restrooms to the right. I found him in the men’s restroom, washing his hands. Why was he washing his hands? There hadn’t been enough time for him to have stood at the urinal, done his business, and then get to the sink. Maybe he was just a conscientious guy washing his hands before he ate? I stepped past him and for a moment, our eyes met in the mirror. He held my eyes for what seemed like a minute. No headnod, no acknowledgment. It was so stupid, me in that restroom, having a staredown with a man who I thought, though didn’t really think, might’ve been in the middle of some nefarious plot. What was I really going to do? He turned away from me to grab some napkins. My head burned. Seriously, what the hell am I doing here? I mean, what was I really doing in that moment other than letting some strange fear take hold of me? There was nothing in the backpack. I moved past him, hurried down the stairs, and sat back down at the table.

Thirty seconds later, he arrived back at his table, where a bowl of gelato awaited him. He picked up the backpack and gently laid it on the other side of him, between he and the wall. He didn’t glance at me as he sat down. He quietly finished his food, paid the waiter, and left with his backpack. As soon as he left, the tension in my chest dissipated. Back to vacationing as normal.

You may have noticed I didn’t mention what the suspicious man looked like. While you were reading, did you imagine him in a light, pink shirt, the top two or three buttons undone, revealing way too much chest hair? Did you imagine his khaki shorts and the loafers? The perfect tan? Did you imagine him being husky, with a combover? Did you imagine him as a retired Floridian?

Chances are you didn’t.

The reason for that is we’ve been taught what fear looks like. Maybe it’s a person leaving their bag somewhere when, in reality, they’re just a trusting person who doesn’t expect bad things to happen to them, like someone stealing their bag. Maybe it’s a Muslim. Maybe it’s a black teenager walking down the street with his pants a little low. Maybe it’s the “loner” white kid who doesn’t seem to handle social situations well.            

But these are all wrong, and we all know they’re wrong, and yet many of us continue to carry these fears with us as though rooted in fact. I know I do. While watching the latest Mission Impossible movie the other day, a young man walked in with a black bag and sat in the front row for about ten minutes before leaving through a side exit. I watched him intently, making sure he didn’t leave that bag there. Turns out he was an employee on his way to the dumpster outside but just decided to cut through the theater and chill for a bit.

When we talk about terrorism or war or gun control, the thing that both “sides” don’t realize is that both are usually talking from a position of fear. You want gun control because you’re scared of getting shot up at a theater. You don’t want gun control because you’re scared of getting shot up at a theater and having nothing to defend yourself with. You want to listen in on the phone calls of Muslim Americans because you’re worried about planes crashing into buildings. You think listening in on citizen’s phone calls is despicable because you’re afraid about losing your privacy or about the power of government.

I once heard someone say that fear is necessary. It drives your fight or flight response. It keeps you safe. But the moment you talk about your fear, someone pops out of the woodwork and says “you shouldn’t allow terrorists, domestic and otherwise, to make you live in fear.” In other words, you’re an American and not supposed to be scared. And even though I know, okay, I know, that the media constructs these narratives, I’m still afraid. Afraid that there might be an active shooter at a college a friend teaches at or on a campus my wife teaches at. Afraid of theaters with no metal detectors, afraid of a TSA agent who maybe didn’t get enough sleep, afraid of a random stranger leaving a backpack while he went to use the restroom.

I don't have an answer and I don't think any of us do, not yet, anyway. But I do know that we'll get nowhere until we admit that when it comes to terrorism and gun control, our highly intelligent opinions aren't based on some deep love of the Constitution or some high moral ground or an unwavering belief in the sanctity of human life... it's usually based on fear. I just admitted it. My question now, is, will you?