Any readers concerned that my ongoing fascination with China is turning into an unhealthy and vindictive obsession might be relieved to hear that I’ve developed a new interest, and potentially a whole new hobby: Shoplifting. It came about because I have a student who works for a company which sells supposedly theft-proof security products to supermarkets – coded labels, advanced bar code technology, those almost totally irritating roundy plastic things they stick on bottles of spirits and the like – and who, in the course of a discussion of which Spanish supermarkets are easiest to nick things from (clue: it’s not El Corte Ingles), revealed himself to be something of an unreformed pilferer himself, claiming to have surrepticiously slipped thousands of products out of hundreds of supermarkets over the years.
It’s an aspect of life that I’ve never really considered, apart from a vaguely rebellious notion that there is absolutely nothing wrong with swiping whatever takes your fancy from the shelves of Tescos or Sainsbury’s or wherever. I’m even quite shocked when I leave a shop with someone who turns out to have helped themselves to a five-fingered discount. And the shocking and shameful truth, which it took quite a lot of courage and soul-searching to even admit to myself, is that I don’t think I have ever stolen anything from a shop in my life.
It’s certainly not been through a lack of necessity. I don’t have any problem with pathetically informing the person at the checkout that I’ll have to leave three of those eleven bananas and that 99 cents Neal Diamond – Live! cd behind. And in my mind I’ve always known that the risks of being challenged, let alone taken away and fed to the crocodiles, are almost non-existent – according to my Shoplifting Guru, the police never even bother going to the store if the value of what you’ve stuffed down your pants/hidden behind your earlobe/stashed inside the baby is less than €350. This article talks in some detail about quite how much fun and how widespread it is: I’ve obviously been missing out bigtime. Maybe I am all the same just a coward, but I can honestly say that when I’m counting my farthings in Dia or Lidl (of course, it’s not great for your social standing to be caught in the act in those 12p-for-a-can-of-beans supermakets, no matter how famous you might be), the thought of shoplifting never ever occurs to me. The only conclusion is that I forget to steal things.
So I decided to turn over a new leaf, and start helping myself to at least one item per visit to the Super. If I get good enough at it in my usual discount haunts, I thought, I reckon in a year or so I’ll have saved enough to upgrade to a weekly visit to El Cortin. Not that I’d be paying for it, of course. But then I reconsidered – I have, I realised, much nearer to my house, my own ready made Shoplifting Academy.
Just next to my building, right at the entrance to the local metro station is one of Madrid’s 400,000 Chinese shops, and the two kids who staff it are by far and away the doziest people I’ve ever encountered in my life. They speak notverymuch Spanish, don’t despite my very best vocal contortions appear to understand a word of Chinese, and my attempts to communicate with them in English were greeted with stares as blank as something totally, like totally, like one hundred percent blank. Plus, they seem to spend their non-serving moments hidden away somewhere beneath the counter. I think maybe it’s a better choice if I want a not-too-challenging initiation into the montaña rusa world of the habitual shoplifter.
So that’s where I’ll be starting off my criminal career. I know it’s not the most ethical option to start by picking on low-down neighbourhood establishments owned and staffed by recent immigrants, not to mention ones that are quite so badly-stocked and lacking in pesto. But bear with me, it is only a beginning, and before too long I’ll be setting my sights on the true temples of modern consumer capitalism and rampantly stuffing my pockets in an adrenaline-fuelled frenzy of premium product theft. That is, of course, if I’m not making a shame-faced extended detour to a different metro station every day for the next two years…