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Olive branch in a tuscany sunset

How I lost and found my rhino

Today, I’d like you to tell a story that I was recently reminded of while rummaging through the treasure pocket of my Moleskine notebook. It’s the story of how I lost and found my rhino.

It all began a couple of years ago, in February 2008 to be specific. Tanja and I knew each other for only 2 months and decided to explore our relationship by taking a trip to beautiful Barcelona.

nighttime view over Barcelona

On a given night during our cultural splurge, we were meandering through the maze of Barcelona’s streets looking for a fun club, which was not the easiest of quests. During our nights before, we had already experienced how many a Barcelonian was roaming through the streets, dressed up for partying; yet that seemed to be all they ever did. So far we hadn’t encountered a single party location. “Must be us, surely this magical city can’t be club-less” we thought. And so we started our quest for fun.

Now, before I continue the story, you should know that back then, I was quite an OCD type of person a different type of person. I wouldn’t even think ‘city trip’ without having at least a travel guide for the location within reach. Tanja on the other hand was the exact opposite: she didn’t require so much as a spare set of underwear to travel, figuratively speaking of course. However, a new couple as we were, behavioural cross-pollination hadn’t settled in (yet). Which explains why long before I had packed my suitcase, I had already studied Nat Geo’s Barcelona guide, a book I’d curse more than once during our trip because of its outdated information. Nonetheless, the guide had learned me that Barcelones have a different way of going out than what we were used to. Rather than heading straight for the clubs, they would pick up alcohol in a grocery store, and roam through the streets until deep into the night (the benefits of a warm climate) after which they’d crash some friend’s party. So in short: no clubs. Tough luck all you party-desiring tourists. Go have a beer on the Ramblas, and let it be the highpoint of your vacation. Which is exactly what I suggested to Tanja after hours of unsuccessful strolling through the alleys of Barcelona, looking for adventure, and whatever would come our way.

Jelger and turtle in Barcelona

However, Tanja wouldn’t give up just yet, putting aside the book’s advice (looking back I agree with her, it wasn’t the most reliable source) and instead thought we should ask some locals for a good place to party. “Uhm. Yeah… sure… go ahead… That involves, like, talking to an unknown human being… Go ahead! You do it” was my answer (as I said earlier: I was a different kind of person), but I didn’t stop there. Instead I added: “care to make it more interesting?” “Sure” she said (every single day, I love how audacious Tanja is. So we made a bet: my “there’s no club in this city part” versus Tanja’s “the locals will know a party place within one block from where we are right now”. And the stake? One… rhinoceros.

Tanja was brave. Very brave. She asked several locals but just couldn’t get a satisfying answer. Because there wasn’t one. That night, she gave me my rhino.

Now, the story doesn’t end there, as a matter of fact, it’s only halfway. Ever since Barcelona, I’ve carried my rhino in my wallet like a sacred charter. Which to me, it is.

The story continues a year and half later in Rome. Tanja and I were on a memorable camping trip through Italy. To save money, we camped on a camping site that was within city limits and took public transit the city center. Halfway through our stay in Rome, after a long day in the sweltering city, we hopped on a bus that would take us back to our camping site. It was never a pleasant experience: busses were constantly overcrowded, which forced the passengers to squeeze together like sardines in a can. Nothing could be wrong with that. I thought.

olive branch silhouette in sunset

Shortly after we had gotten back to the camping site, I discovered that my wallet was no longer in my pant pocket (full disclosure: I had stupidly enough put it in the thigh pocket, lesson learned) Immediately, I knew who had stolen it on the bus, because there was only one person who had gotten close enough to me. Panic took a hold of me: cash, credit cards, driver’s licence, id, everything was gone. The loss of all of this was very inconvenient, but not irreplaceable. What saddened me the most, was the loss of my rhino.

We rushed to the nearest police station, which in itself was a caricature. The station was little more than the ground floor of a run-down apartment building where a sweaty, rather ‘plump’ police officer with a too-small-for-his-body shirt was reclined in a chair, feet up on the counter, watching cartoons. Any other language than Italian was unheard of, but after hearing the word ‘pick-pocket’ he briskly gave me a standard form (type copy-of-a-copy times 10) on which I checked off what had happened. The choice went between ‘pick-pocket’, ‘purse snatch’ and ‘cut open backpack’; what do you mean theft is a plague in Rome. After finishing the form  the officer stamped it (with a stamp that literally fell apart in front of me) and then got back to his cartoons; the sign for me to leave. And that was that I guess.

Roman checking his cellphone

After the incident, we continued our vacation by using Tanja’s credit cards (her wallet was safely stored in the car on the camping) Once back home, I replaced all the lost cards, but was still mourning for my lost rhino (which Tanja tried replacing with a hippo, but it wasn’t the same) Luckily, time did heal the pain.

And then, about six weeks later, the mailman delivered a thick manilla envelope with a header of the Belgian embassy in Rome. I ripped it open, and couldn’t believe my eyes: it was my stolen wallet, with contents (except for the cash) The credit cards had been cut (by the embassy) but were still there, as was the pile of personal papers.With trembling hands I ruffled through the papers until I found it: my rhino. Needless to say that I was ecstatic. How it found it’s way back to me, is amazing. Just think of it: the pick-pocketer must have taken out the cash, thrown it in some back alley, where it got found, brought to the police, who gave it to the embassy, who sent it to me. But somehow the stars lined up right, and I’m eternally grateful for that.

Shortly after that, I got my first Moleskine notebook with the signature inside pocket. I made it into a treasure pocket, where I keep the rhino and other scraps Tanja gave me throughout our 5 years together. To anyone else, they’re just pieces of paper with scribbling on them, but to me they mean the world.

Jelger Vitt's Rhino