I leave the crew at the coffee shop and venture into the square. The market is a buzz, I look around and absorb the vibrancy. An old man is standing near me, his old wrinkled face, worn by the years was inviting and warm looking. He looked at me with a magnetism so I try on my best Italian to ask this lovely old guy if he knew where I can find a good calzone. I refer again to my phrase book, practice a couple of times in my head. Ok, lets give this a go. “Mi scusi signore” I walk over towards him and his expression opens up in reception. “Dove posso trovare un negozio di calzone.”
He looks at me and smiles. “Sorry no” he responds
“Do you… parla… English?”
“Little bit” he holds his hand up with his forefinger and thumb a centimetre or so apart. We stand there for a moment, I look at my phrasebook to attempt to make small talk with this old guy. He turns and looks at a table where a short man was dealing out three card monte. I look over and then nudge the old man, “You know this game?” I ask him. He shakes his head and starts to move towards the makeshift table. He looks at me and says “See this one” pointing at the game.
I walk up beside him, “No I don’t think you want to play this one…. This game is a trick”
He looks back at me a little confused. As we are talking a tall scandanavian looking backpacker approaches the table. “Ello” he says in a cliché sing song manner. The dealer shows the scando three cards on the table, all slightly bent in the middle, one card with a big red star on the underside. I nudge the old guy and whisper “watch this”.
The dealer shows the card with the star on it, turns it face down with the other two cards and then continues to swap the position of each card swiftly. He again shows the red star to the scando, places it face down and again swiftly moves their position. A third time he shows the red star to the scando and shuffles the positions of the cards, this time letting them lie. The dealer looks up, “sceglierlo” telling the scando to choose a card. The old man and I watch as the scando points to the middle card. We both nod to each other in agreement that he has chosen correctly.
The dealer says something to the scando and he looks down to his bum bag strapped to his hip and unzips it. He turns away from the table and the two men looking on and looks down at his bum bag as he rifles through euro notes.
While the scando is looking away, the dealer stealthily switches the middle card with one on the outside. “Hey, he can’t do that?” I say to the old man.
The scando turns around with 50 euro in his hand and places it on the table. ‘Hold on mate” I reach over and grab my fellow traveller on the arm. “He swapped it mate. It’s not the middle one, it’s this one.” I point to the card on the left.
“No, no, this one” the scando points to the middle card.
“Nah mate, this bloke swapped the card on you when you were looking away. The one with the star is this one” I replied in ernest.
“No” he says “Not that one, this one” the scando again points to the middle card.
I point to the card on the left “This….” But it was too late, the dealer turned the card on the left over and as I tried to tell the scando, there was the card with the star.
“Winner” the dealer declares and picks up the 50 euros.
“Told you mate” I shake my head and turn back towards the old man.
“Winner” The dealer says again.
“Nice to meet you” I say to the old man and scan the square for a calzone vendor.
The old man pats my arm “You win” he says.
“I didn’t win. I wasn’t playing” I look across at the scando, he is standing there all confused trying to ask what happened to one of the men on looking. They were giving him nothing back and were probably both friends of the dealer. The old man was still patting me on the arm. I look at him.
The old man says “You win, your money” and he points back at the table.
“I don’t want anything to do with it, its not my money, I don’t want it” I respond
The dealer calls to me in Italian and holds the 50 euro up in his hand. “What is he saying?” I ask my old friend.
“He say this money is yours, you win, take it” the old man replies. I look at the dejected scando as he turns and walks past me. Shit. “Hey buddy hold on” I grab a bit of the scando’s shirt and capture his attention. “I might be able to get you your money back” He looks at me with eyebrows raised. “Come with me” I turn on my heel as he follows me the 10 feet back to the table.
“This is my money yes?” I reach out for the 50 euro
“You win” the dealer says, he then pulls the note away and says something in Italian rapid fire at me. I look at the scando he raises his shoulders in a shrug, I scan the two Italian men looking on, they were no help, I turn back to my old mate. “My friend, can you help me? What does he say?”
“He says that you need to show you had the 50 euro to bet with before you take the money”
Now I had seen this game of three card monte before in a square in Barcelona. There the hoods let you win and see which pocket you put your winnings and then they rob you as soon as you get around the corner. I look at the men standing next to the pint sized dealer, they were not much bigger, I figured if these guys try and rob me around the corner they will find me in a pack of my 10 travel companions. I look back at the dealer, he stands there shuffling the cards and laying them back down on the table, presumably for the next game. “Ok” I said, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a 50 euro note. The dealer holds his note up and motions it towards me, in one move he has my 50 euro, he puts the two notes together and looks down, with the other hand he flicks the outside left card over. “Your card, you lose”
“What?” the dealer folds the two 50 euro notes and puts them into his shirt pocket.
“Hold up fella” I say to the dealer “I already won that money”
He points back at the overturned card, “You lose” he says again, this time more urgently.
“Back me up scando” He takes a couple of steps back. I furrow and turn back to the dealer “You said I won, I wasn’t playing again, I already won”
“No you lose”
“Look, you listen to me, give me my 50 bucks back” The dealer started to raise his voice at me in Italian. I look at the old man, “Can you please tell this guy to give me my money back”
The old man and the dealer exchange some words, he walks beside me and I turn to look at him. “What did he say?”
“He say, your money is gone”
“No, its not gone, he has it right there” I look over my shoulder at the dealer and point at him in a manner that was as intimidating as I could muster. I turn back to the old man
“My friend, your money is gone”
“Its not gone, this guy has it, tell him I am going to get fucking mad if he doesn’t give me my money back” I glance back over my shoulder and scowl at the dealer.
The old man looks up at me, places a hand on each shoulder and looks me deep in the eyes. He says it slow, deep and clear. “Your money… is … gone”
“You don’t understand, I am getting angry and if this guy doesn’t…” I turn to point to the dealer. He was gone. Where the fuck did he go? The fold up table was gone, the dealer was gone, the dealers two mates were gone.
“Did you see…” I turn to the scando, he was gone too. What the fuck was happening. I scan the crowd.
“where the fuck…” I turn back to the old man. He was gone too. I turn around and turn again. The crowded square was spinning around me. It was movie like. I was in one of the most crowded places on earth and I had never felt more alone. I had been duped, scammed, fooled, swindled.
“Faaark” I stomp my foot like a scorned child and bewildered I make my way back towards the coffee house a mere twenty metres away.
Still seething, I recoil to the coffee shop and explain to my travel buddies how I was totally suckered in the square. I was quite quickly convinced that I did not want to mess with the locals and whilst losing 50 euro was not ideal I could have been hurt or worse if I had have got into a fight with the street swindlers. It looks like I may have literally dodged a bullet. I was so annoyed still though. We finish up in the coffee shop and we walk back into the square. And then I see it, through the crowd. The dealer. He had his stand set up again. Cards out, waiting for his next victim. Around him, his two skiffs. I felt angry. Then I see him, the Scando, backpack on, walking innocently through the crowd up to the card table “Ello”. I feel stupid now. He was a part of it all along. What an idiot I was.
“Oh no” The old man was standing ten feet away, flashing his friendly smile to passing tourists. “Bugger”