Innocence lost. When the bike is stolen.

Well, it was bound to happen at some point. Since my arrival in Amsterdam, the most consistent warnings have related to bike security.  So even with the rusty bike, I relatively consistently followed the locking best practices – locking the back wheel with a key and using a chain to lock the bike’s frame and  front wheel to something, like a bike rack, a light pole, even another bike (if I knew the other owner, obviously).  I lived in constant fear of losing a bike that was only slightly more than 2x the cost of the lock that secured it.

I upgraded over the summer, thinking it would improve my quality of life. Nothing fancy. But it had one of those new kickstands, a shiny silver color, and all of the words on its side were in tact. It was like a bike version of my Jetta (from the recent U.S. years) – whereas Rusty was more like the ’85 Maxima we had when I was growing up, except about 25 years after its heyday.

I think the shine is where I went wrong. Even though it wasn’t glamorous, it was obviously new. And a new bike catches attention. And comments. Even from people I didn’t really know.  Like, “oh, is this a new bike?” But I would hear it on the defensive, as if they were saying, “ooohhh, someone’s fancy ass is trying to get robbed, huh?”

By the time I left for Suriname in September, I still hadn’t gotten rid of Rusty. I thought a back-up bike couldn’t hurt. Or maybe I would even sell it. In the meantime, while I was away, Rusty was parked outside, across the street from my apartment, for more than 2 months. Back wheel locked. Front wheel and frame chained to a rack. Shiny was parked in my friend’s garage, then back to my hallway when I returned home (Rusty stayed outside for a bit longer with barely a visit).

Then, after a miserable couple of weeks filled with snow, rain, and healthy doses of cat mourning (and on the same day I picked up Zora’s ashes), I decided to spend time with fun people doing fun things. So not too far from my place I met some friends for dinner, and later a party. I parked Shiny across the street from the restaurant. Back wheel locked. Front wheel and frame…well, uh, tucked next to the rack. I was rushing and my chain lock had been sticking (maybe because it was sitting outside with Rusty for all of that time).  So yes, I admit it. I didn’t lock the front wheel or frame.

Continuing on my rampage of carefree carelessness, I left Shiny behind to receive a ride to the party. Turning down the ride didn’t cross my mind – especially since my friend offered to return me to the bike at the end of the night.  And she did.

I held the Shiny’s key in my hand, waved goodbye, and watched my friend drive away. I thought I was standing at the right rack, where Shiny was tucked into the middle. But it must not have been. So I walked down the street. Checking each one. Maaaaaybe….no. Coooouuuld it be…no. Is thaaaat…no.

Then, returning to the original rack – the actual rack, I happened to look down at the other side of the sidewalk. There was my chain lock. Ripped from Shiny and tossed aside. Shiny was gone. Maybe I asked for it. But Shiny didn’t deserve it.

Robbed and feeling violated, I walked home to a faithful Rusty with a chain in my hand, my frown to the ground, and a brewing enthusiasm to leave Amsterdam for a bit.

This black girl is about to be gone again…

A journey’s end

Zora died on Saturday night. In spite of what looked like a speedy and impressive recovery from a brief and bitter battle with cancer, a sudden turn had the final say.

After staying with my friend for about three weeks, we were finally able to return to my apartment last week when the subletters moved out.  I was sure this would be exactly what Zora needed to complete her recovery.  Once she could sleep in her favorite spots and return to her routine, all normalcy and happiness would be restored.

But even though we were at home, she stopped eating her prescription food. Then she wouldn’t eat her favorite (pricier) food, even refusing her treats – which normally would be the only thing to get her to break into a jog.  So on Friday, her doctor ran some tests to reveal that her kidneys were the issue – or was it the strange thing they felt in her tummy? – or was it just an infection?  They wouldn’t be sure until Monday when her test results would be returned.  In the meantime, Zora and I were sent home with a bunch of needles and medicines that I would administer over the weekend.

But within a couple of hours of returning home, Zora was different.  She no longer seemed sick.  I could tell she was dying.

Her eyes became a bit glazed.  Alertly disoriented.  Barely blinking, she didn’t sleep for the entire night.  She stared into what seemed like another dimension.  And although she was still aware of me, she also seemed to become aware of something – someone else. She would look up, somewhat startled, as if looking at someone who entered the room.  I wondered if (or hoped) it could be my father – coming to greet her, take care of her for me.

Awake through the night, I was strangely calm.  I understood our time was ending.  I understood that the battle was lost.  I just wanted to treasure every remaining minute.

But it wasn’t until the following evening when I forced myself to let it end.  Knowing this would be the last time she would be at home, the last time she would look out of her favorite window, the last time I would place her in her travel bag, I closed the door behind me and we went to the emergency room.

They prolonged it with some more tests, poking her belly, taking blood and x-rays, and giving me some small percentage of hope that she could come back from where she was going.  But finally they told me what I already knew.

I held her in my arms.  Although she was still disoriented, she looked up at me with recognition.  She was tired. Very calm.

The doctor explained that she would receive two shots – a sedative, then the euthanasia.  As the sedative was given, she curled up to me, turning her face into my chest.  And she was gone before even the first shot was finished.  Perhaps she was relieved.  Warm and far too still in my arms, finally she was resting.

I was broken.  I am broken.

Now the burden of recovery is mine to bear.  Just as she was doing her best to adjust to losing a leg, figuring out how to navigate without being whole, I’m suddenly doing the same.  Eventually my tears will dry.   But right now my heart just aches.

Zora and I were together for almost six years (my longest relationship to date).  She made some major moves with me, remaining patient through (almost) every life change.  Jobs, friendships, and scenery have been different at every turn.  And I’ll admit that sometimes I haven’t felt at all stable – financially…well, yeah, or emotionally.  But Zora was my stability – my consistency.  In spite of our nomadic lifestyle, Zora and I had a feeling of home wherever we went together.  And when I traveled alone, including the recent sojourn to Suriname, Zora still represented home.

Some people may think these types of love and family relationships should be reserved for humans.  But no.  The love of an animal can be given and received quite deeply. And the pain of that love lost is just as deep.

Reaching the end of her journey, Zora decided I would be strong enough to handle the next steps of my journey on my own.  I’m not so sure I agree.  But I have no choice.

Rest in love, Zora.

Zora

Please pray for Zora

Dear friends,

If you know me even just a little bit, you know that my cat, Zora, is the love of my life.  She means the world to me. And the only bad thing about being in Suriname for so long has been spending so much time away from her.

Well, the universe has dealt a blow that reminds me, once again, that when things are going well – moving in a positive direction – other forces may have plans that differ greatly.

Today I learned that my sweet Zora is very sick, with a vicious tumor on one of her legs. If test results come back favorably, the best we can hope for is that she will only have to lose that leg.  Otherwise, well, I’m not sure I’m prepared to think about the worst case scenario.  But I’m sure you can imagine.

I don’t often like to ask for help. But in this case, I’m not sure what else to do.  So if you’re reading this, I just ask that you pray, or chant, or call on your spirit guides (whatever your process entails) that Zora will be okay.  I think I can handle most things that are thrown my way.  But losing Zora right now just isn’t an option.

Thank you, friends.

Image

Criminal Activity

When I was a teenager, I took the train from Philadelphia to NYC to visit my sister.  At the conclusion of my trip to the big city, I found myself at Penn Station, smushed in an unacceptably large group of people as we all tried to avoid a single-file line at all costs.   I carried a bag in my hand and another on my back, shuffling along with the crowd.  Down the escalator, onto the platform, and eventually onto the train.  I thought I made it out of the city unscathed.  But alas, when I went to the front pocket of my backpack for my ticket, I saw that it was already wide open.  And although my ticket was still there (some mercy was had), my wallet was gone.  Long gone.  All I could do was sulk for a couple of hours as I sat in angry train silence.

That was my first truly lesson-teaching theft experience.  I’m pretty sure this girl in my 5th grade class stole some stuff from me back in the day.  But this was the first time I can remember falling victim to and being outwitted by a complete stranger.  Traumatic, yes.  But I learned two lessons: 1) Sometimes thieves win – can’t sweat it too much; and 2) front pockets are not meant for wallets…or maybe backpacks aren’t meant for wallets.

Fast forward a few years and time zones, I found myself walking down a street in Amsterdam, delighting in the fact that I felt so safe walking alone after dark.  Maybe I didn’t want to walk down the street with headphones, but I was still impressed by the unfamiliar feeling of…

…swish…

scream

scatter…

Although several people were around, the night was quiet.  Waiting for the tram, she was dressed up – skirt, heels, that kind of thing.  She was carrying a bright yellow clutch purse.  I heard him grab her purse in a quick motion before I registered what I was seeing.  He ran almost silently across the tram tracks in my direction, continuing down the street I had just crossed.  She chased him all the way – perhaps on instinct more than reason.  In English she screamed things like, “thief!” and “stop him!” But with the exception of one guy who was in the way and made a faux attempt at heroism, none of us helped.  Her frantic footsteps and screams just faded down the street.

I was shook.  Standing at that tram stop, that woman easily could have been me (though her style wasn’t exactly my taste).  And since I was in for a 10 minute wait for my tram, I stayed shook.

The biggest threats around these parts seem to be bike theft and pickpocketing/mugging – though no one else seems to have witnessed a mugging in such a way.  Perhaps I needed to witness that poor woman losing her yellow clutch purse.  Because although I carefully double-lock my (inexpensive) bike every time I so much as turn my back on it, I was getting a little too relaxed about everything else.  Now, whenever on the street, I try my best to stay conscious of what’s not strapped on and locked down.  The bike also helps me stay out of harm’s way, keeping me off the sidewalks and moving at a much faster pace.

Fast forward several more months, a new problem presented itself.  Sitting in a cafeteria, on campus, with three other people, among once trusted student-colleagues, I placed my laptop at my feet.  Okay, I’m absolutely certain I would have treated such a valuable item with far more care if I were in an airport or somewhere of the sort, keeping it in my sight and attached to me in some way at all times.  But I was at school, with school people, discussing school stuff, with laptops and large bags all around.  I felt safe.

Too bad I wasn’t…or rather, my laptop wasn’t.  I have no idea how it was done.  But although four of us sat at the table, someone managed to steal it from under me.  A sad story, I know.

A student may have been the culprit.  Or perhaps someone from outside of the school preys on careless and distracted students.  (But I think it was a student.)  Regardless, I need to get it together.  I’m just not secure anywhere, at any time, around anyone.  Got it.  And I really can’t afford many more of these tough lessons…literally.  I literally can’t afford this.

Not So Bright

So it turns out I didn’t get a Fulbright.  But as Tracy Chapman once eloquently put it, “it’s okay.”

And it really is.  Super disappointing, yes.  And unexplainable, certainly. But it’s also okay.  Nothing has changed and my life is filled with no less dopeness.  I just don’t get any U.S. money to fund that dopeness.

I’m actually just glad to finally know. The question had begun to quietly consume me.  I didn’t mention it to anyone (well, maybe my mom), trying to give the impression that I thought about it as little as everyone else did.  But in reality, I was thinking about it more and more everyday.

Obsession was not my intention.  I planned not to think about it until the news came.  And I thought that would be easy – you know, with all the distractions of life and everything. I had put the application pretty much out of my mind from september until january.  It felt quite remote and out of my control – silly to worry about it. And the fact that I was planning a move also helped to keep my mind off of whether the powers-that-be liked me or not.

And then, at the end of january, I received an email telling me I was a finalist.  Suddenly it became a real possibility.  Someone actually read my application, thought it made sense, looked at my transcripts, wasn’t amused, and decided I potentially could be worthy of a fulbright.  I was recommended by the institute for international education (i think), along with about twice as many people who could actually receive a grant.  So although I had gotten over a huge hurdle in the first round, I was estimating about a 50 percent chance of getting it. Not the worst odds. But nothing to plan a life around.

For the first couple of months I was good. Knowing I probably wouldn’t hear anything before april or may, I barely thought about it.  But then one fateful day in march, I googled some combination of words to end up on a forum of other finalists.  Hundreds of posts about each of their worries and restless nights as they awaited news in the mail.  And to make it worse, it came with a google spreadsheet. It listed country after country, each attached to a screen name and the hopes and dreams of people I felt suddenly akin to.  Their obsessive comments only stated what I hadn’t been allowing myself to think or feel until then.  How wonderful it would be…how long and challenging the process has been…how much money is it, actually?  But the major theme was when we would receive our letters.  Volunteers took turns emailing the fulbright people to ask for notification updates for the various countries.  Mail delivery trends were discussed at length.  A few countries’ finalists were notified early, in february and early march. From them we learned that acceptances arrived in large manilla envelopes. Rejections and alternates received small white envelopes. It all played out in the forum and the spreadsheet. Although I never posted anything, I was hooked, checking both pages multiple times a day.

They seemed to be mostly college students – some applying for english teaching assistantships, others applying for full grants, which is what I applied for.  And as they discussed the subtle inconveniences of the campus mailman’s limp, and whether or not they would have lives after graduation, I read each post as if it pertained to me.  It dramatically increased my anxiety.

The worst of it was when someone posted a message to those of us applying to the netherlands. First I was just happy to see something relevant. But then I read on to learn that our letters had been sent out that day – a friday.

My mail is forwarded from my brooklyn address to this mail receiving company in texas.  Once they receive something, they list it in my inbox with a description of the envelope, including the sender and the weight.  So although I would have to wait for them to actually forward the letter to me in amsterdam, I knew I would basically know if it was good or bad news once the letter arrived in texas.  And based on my best guesses about the post office, I estimated I would hear by the following thursday or friday.

The following friday night I received an email notifying me of new mail received.  I knew what it was.  After a little pep talk, reminding myself that circumstances will be great no matter the outcome, I “checked my mail.”  It was a letter. And only .125 lbs.  Nothing special about it was listed.  It was definitely not good news. My heart sunk.  My secret forum friends wouldn’t hear about this.

And sure enough, once the letter finally reached me, it was still bad news. Not even an alternate. Just a flat out rejection.  It certainly put the f-u- in fulbright!

Hmph.

But yeah, so, anyway….

I strongly believe in a universe that has plans for me. And ever since I stopped fighting it (sometime last year, I think), allowing myself to trust the process, things have become more sensible and much brighter.  But it’s been easy to trust the process when it brings one good thing after another.  The challenge is seeing the long-term good intentions of the process when in the short-term it feels like a blow.  But that’s all it is: bad news for now that will somehow lead to something else great. I’m sure.
 
Thanks to all of you who have been so supportive and currently have a sympathetic frown on your face. It’s felt and much appreciated.

And it’s okay!

Black Girl Done Gone and Got Scammed

Warning: The following contains some appropriately vulgar language.

I’m not sure if this has come across in earlier posts. I’m not even sure I was clearly aware of it until earlier this happened. But I’m an idiot. If “idiot” offends you, feel free to refer to me as a dummy, foolish gal, stupid head, whatever you prefer.

Remember back when I almost got scammed when looking for an apartment in Amsterdam? Relying on online research led to nothing but mystery and heartache. I learned my lesson from that…or so I thought.

Immediately after I nailed down a place to live, which I’ll move into on February 1st, I set my sights on finding a place for my first couple of weeks in Amsterdam, during which time my Mom and her husband will be joining me. We were looking for a place with enough space for three people, ideally located in central Amsterdam. Hotels are great. But they’re pretty pricey. Especially considering that we’ll be staying for two weeks.

So, as I always do, I turned to the internet. I researched short-term rentals to find a number of websites advertising apartments throughout Europe – with most of the companies based in London. The system seemed to be that apartment owners work with agencies to rent their space out to vacationers. The agency does the leg-work, receiving a cut of the rent received by the owner. Sounds like a good idea. And it may actually happen.

I found a website with a cute place – two bedrooms, nice bathroom, centrally located. Comparing it to the other, similar websites, the prices were pretty much the same. So I was happy with this choice. I submitted an inquiry form, providing my name, email, and dates I would need the apartment. I received an email not too much later. The place was available. And after a bit of back and forth to clarify the cost, deposit, contract and payment process, I sent the deposit and 50% of the rental fee via bank wire transfer.

Receipt of payment and signed contract in hand, I checked this item off of my to-do list – until several days later when I received a message from the rental guy. He was sorry for the inconvenience, but the owner of the place changed her mind and now needed the full payment for the apartment in advance in order to hold the place for me. If I sent the remainder of the rent, it would confirm my reservation. No way. And what kind of business would be irresponsible enough the change the terms of an agreement so casually?

I told him I would take a refund. And I also wanted a refund for the $35 wire transfer fee. At the same time, I started researching other places to stay. Strangely, the website for my place was no longer working. But I found another one that also looked really good – same price. So as I was going back and forth with the first guy, I was making an arrangement to send a deposit to the second.

But now there was a problem. I couldn’t send the second deposit until I received the first deposit back. And the first guy was giving me problems. I was starting to worry. But the fog really started to lift when he told me his accounting department wanted to get the money to me as quickly as possible. And since wire transfers can take a few days, they would prefer to send it to my credit card. All I would need to do is send him my credit card information. Oh shit, goddamn motherfucking asshole.  At this point, I knew I had been scammed.  And not only that, he was trying everything he could think of to get as much money out of me as he possibly could.

So this goddamn motherfucking asshole thought I was dumb enough to pull out my credit card, send him all of my information, and expect to receive a deposit ?  I’m sure I was a perfect candidate for being »cleaned out: friendly, excited, bank account.  Yup – I guess I deserved it.

I’m thankful for one thing: the fact that I waited before sending money to scammer #2. His responses were eerily similar to scammer #1’s. And when I checked several days later, that site also no longer existed (though it had been up for a couple of weeks). So it’s clearly a thing. They’re not all necessarily the same person or working together. But they have at least established (and regulated) a clear process for scamming people.

My first action was to get in touch with my bank to see if there was even the slightest chance that they can track down the bank account I sent the money to and get it back for me.  But since people lose thousands of dollars everyday to assholes like this, my loss wasn’t likely to be an exception.  And sure enough, the bank reported back that the scammer’s account had insufficient funds to refund my money.

In spite of the crime that has clearly been committed, no one seems to care. I’ve reported it numerous times, in numerous ways, in numerous countries. No one even responds.

So there you have it. $850. Gone.

 

UPDATE: a Scam Is Just a Scam

Thanks to all who provided input on the scam question.  The consensus is that it was a scam.  Although just barely, I’m pleased to say I avoided some major heartbreak here.

 

This morning I sent an email to the University, asking for advice on the situation.  I sent the address, the rent, the passport and the “proof of ownership” certificate.  Here’s the response:

I had a look at the attachments and googled the address, and I get the feeling that this deal is kind of dodgy. The whole house seems to be for sale: http://www.huislijn.nl/koopwoning/amsterdam/eerste-constantijn-huygensstraat_109_f47d00a6-cca0-4f8b-91a3-e043c617f078/overzicht.html and this website also tells us that the top 3 floors are rented at the moment but it doesn’t say if this situation will continue. And the proof of ownership looks very fake to me, but I could be wrong.

Mmhm.   I don’t think you’re wrong, Renee.  I don’t think you’re wrong at all.

 

Immediately after receiving this message from Amsterdam, I received this link from a friend (thanks MYC!):

http://santacruzhomebroker.com/santa-cruz-real-estate-blog/2009/01/

It provides almost an exact replica of the “proof of ownership” I received from my scammer.

 

And finally, I took a look at the advice on scams provided by Craigslist (not sure why I didn’t do this before).  One particular bullet point stood out from the rest:

3. Someone requests wire service payment via Western Union or MoneyGram:

  • Scam “bait” items include apartments, laptops, TVs, cell phones, tickets, and other high value items
  • Often claim that an MTCN or confirmation code is needed before he can withdraw your money – this is FALSE, once you’ve wired money, it is GONE.
  • Common countries currently include: Nigeria, Romania, United Kingdom, Ukraine, Spain, Italy, Netherlands - but could be anywhere
  • Apartment listing may be local, but landlord/owner is “travelling” or “relocating” and needs you to wire money to them abroad
  • Deal often seems too good to be true, price is too low, rent is below market, etc

 

So there you have it.  I feel like I just escaped an attacker.  Dirty, hurt, and unable to trust strangers.  But I’ll get back out there.  I still have to find myself a place to live.