The time was 1991. The Big T and I were traipsing around Europe, dashing in and out of cities in a day in a whirlwind of museums, drinking and train journeys into the unknown. We'd frozen in Edinburgh, slummed it in amazingly disgusting French "hotels", slept in the corridor of a TGV, consumed much cheap French plonk (sold in 2 litre plastic bottles like Coke), and managed to persuade an Italian pizza restaurant to make us a Hawiian pizza.
It had been an amazing, fun filled journey, but after 5 weeks, we had to part as the Big T had to go back to somewhere in the middle of nowhere to bang rocks together. He was flying home from Rome, so we were to say our farewells at the train station where he would catch a train to the airport.
We'd spent a couple of weeks in Italy, going through Venice, Genoa, Naples and lots of other cities, looking at art galleries, statues of nude men and leaning towers and all that sort of thing, and in that time, we'd seen a lot of gypsy kids robbing tourists. We'd also experienced the fun of overnight train travel, where you essentially had to superglue your valuable possessions to your body so that you wouldn't be robbed during a bit of shuteye.
The worst place for the gypsy kids was the Spanish Steps in Rome. We watched a van load of plod turn up as we were buying ice cream. They jumped out of the van, pointed submachine guns at the kids and had them turn their pockets inside out. Of course the kids were wise to this, and the one with the stolen wallet had already done a runner (the police were accompanied by an irate looking American tourist - we could work out what had happened even with our bad Italian language skills). By that stage, we had stayed in a lot of youth hostels and spoken to an awful lot of travellers that we had met along the road. All passed on stories of being robbed, or nearly robbed by these bands of rapacious thieves.
We had made it through the trip with only one robbery - we went out for dinner when we were in France, Big T left his camera in our room and we came back to find it gone. Luckily, Big T spotted the miscreant making off with it, and he was collared and the camera handed back. I call Big T the Big T because we had rowed together, he was a ferocious rugby player and he's the sort of farmer's son that you'd see walking across a field with a sheep under each arm. The Big T probably only weighed 100 kilos at that point, but he was so broad, he had trouble walking up some of the narrow staircases in those ancient French pensions that we stayed in (don't even think of asking about the horror of the beds). The French thief was lucky to have not sailed off the roof of that pension.
Anyway, there we were, in Rome, with the main train station on the other side of a fairly major road. All we had to do was cross 6 lanes of traffic (never a simple thing to do in Italy), get into the train station, shake hands and go our separate ways. I think I was heading for Naples, and then Greece, Turkey and so on.
We get partway across the road when we are accosted by a band of Gypsy women. Don't ask how I knew they were gypsies - spend a month on the road in Europe, and you'll pick up the knowledge. They got in really close to us, and one of them pressed a baby up against the chest of Big T. All the time, their hands were out and they were wailing and begging for money.
The baby was a new trick. We'd heard of gypsy pickpockets sticking a newspaper into the chest of a Mark so that they couldn't see the hands underneath the paper emptying their pockets. But the idea of the baby was the same - distract the Mark, pick their pockets.
Given that the Big T was flying out in a few hours, and that his pockets contained his ticket, passport and wallet, that might have been slightly disastrous. Luckily, he felt a hand in his pocket, and he reacted. Remember, this guy was about 100 kilos and had played a lot of rugby. But even he had an enormous amount of trouble fending off this little woman with the baby - she was so intent on getting his wallet, she was attached like a limpet.
In the end, he swung and connected and flattened her in the middle of this 6 lane road (with mad Italian traffic roaring past in both directions). At that point, the gypsies gave up and split. When we got into the safety of the station, Big T pulled out his wallet and showed it to me - it was leather, but her fingernail had taken a huge gouge out of the leather. She had been really intent on robbing him.
I forget what happened next, but they got away, the Big T safely boarded his plane and went home to bang rocks together and I went on to a boozy week on Corfu, followed by another month or more of travelling.
But no one ever reproached the Big T for absolutely flattening this woman with the baby in the middle of a major road. The Italians had seen it all before, and were thoroughly sick of it. Some witnesses might have even shaken his hand.
If the Italians ever decide to rebuild the Colloseum, the first sport they could put on would be gypsies vs lions. I'd pay good money to see that.