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road sage

Andrew Clark and his brother accidentally left the keys in their Fiat 500 rental car while on vacation in Italy.Andrew Clark/The Globe and Mail

Dear Sienese car thieves,

Your Tuscan city is famous for its history, its architecture, its beauty, its food and wine (Siena sits between Montalcino and the Chianti region in central Italy). It is perhaps most famous for the Palio, a horse race dating back to the sixth century, which is held twice a year in Siena’s main square, the Piazza del Campo.

Think of what my brother and I did on July 30 at the “Parcheggio Il Campo” (the parking lot near the square) as our version of the Palio, in which different dull-witted mistakes compete against each other in a daring display of pageantry and brainlessness, each one striving to be the winner of the title “Lo Straniero Più Stupido di Siena” (Siena’s Stupidest Foreigner).

But you – car thieves of Siena – couldn’t close the deal.

We tried. We really did. We tried to have our car stolen. We tried to have you steal our car. We did all we could. You can’t count on much in this crazy mixed-up world, but I can guarantee you will never have an easier job stealing an automobile (and valuables) than you missed that day. In big cities, such as Toronto and Vancouver, sophisticated car thieves are using AirTags to track their preferred vehicles of choice. There are carjackings executed with terrifying brute force. None of these approaches would have been required. In fact, you wouldn’t even have to be a professional car thief. You could just be an everyday person and think, “Hey, today’s the day I steal a car.” It would have been that easy.

What sends our mental density into the stratosphere is the fact that we thought we made every effort to make sure our rental car could not be stolen. Being robbed is not a fun experience at the best of times, but, for some reason, people seem to feel more comfortable with the notion of being robbed while at home. Having your car stolen in a foreign country triples the anxiety.

This is a result, in part, of the delight people take frightening travellers with tales of thieves waiting patiently for unsuspecting drivers to park their rentals. To those travelling by automobile, car thieves are a combination of Doctor Moriarty and The Riddler. They employ sophisticated techniques and low intellectual cunning so duplicitous and effective that no warning system known to mankind can thwart their machinations.

In Toronto, I’ve had my car broken into a half-dozen times. Once the thieves smashed the driver’s side window and made off with some change and CDs. Other times a door was left unlocked, and the opportunity was too good to pass up. The glove compartment was rifled and our belongings scattered in disgust on the seat and floor. Is that even theft? It’s a crime but, essentially, we lured the perpetrator into the deed by our carelessness. I’ve been lucky. No one has yet stolen my vehicle. To be fair, these cars didn’t have much resale value. The only reason someone would have stolen my 2016 Dodge Grand Caravan is to drive it off a cliff.

But that is Canada. This is Italy. A country where car theft, while not exactly common, certainly occurs. On July 30, we pulled into Siena’s four-level Il Campo parking lot in our white Fiat 500 rental. The plan was to access “Piazza del Campo” using a pedestrian footpath near Il Campo, spend time at the “Palazzo Pubblico” and visit some museums. We chose Il Campo because it’s easy to reach, is located outside the city centre and has 589 parking spaces. It is, in short, the perfect place for two men from Canada to try to set the stage for the world’s easiest car theft.

We were in-between accommodations and going to a friend’s house near Cortona that evening, so all our belongings (including passports) were in the trunk. We turned off the WiFi on our laptops as we had been warned that thieves track these signals in order to identify cars worth breaking into. We carefully placed the phone charger cord in the glove compartment, as such an item might attract petty theft. I photographed the space number so we would not forget where we left the Fiat 500. After we had done everything in our power to secure the vehicle, we left to enjoy Siena.

At this point, it’s worth mentioning that my brother drives a Tesla at home. This fact will become pertinent as the story unfolds.

Hours later, having seen a few sights and visited the Complesso Museale Santa Maria della Scala, we returned to Il Campo.

We approached our Fiat. My brother shoved a hand into his pocket. Consternation swept across his face. He checked the other pocket. He withdrew both hands – empty. He plunged both hands violently back into both pockets and again withdrew them. Empty.

“Where’s my key?”

I stood silently, as I knew what I thought was happening, could not be happening.

“Where’s my key,” he said, as if it might be circling overhead shyly waiting to make an entrance. “Do you have my key?”

I struggled not to say, “Why would I have your key?” I decided to be helpful, or my version of helpful. “You have to have your key. Where else could it be?”

“I don’t have my key.” A pause. “Where’s my key?”

As I began to run through the rest of our day – the call to our friend, the call to a car service company, the wait, the final arrival of help, the grand and expensive opening of our car, the exorbitant cost of replacing the missing key – my brother pulled on its doors. No luck.

A closer look at the back seat led to me wondering why our car had a diaper bag in the back.

Probably because it was not our car.

“We’re two spots over,” I said.

Having broken the Guinness World Record for fastest dash: two Italian parking spaces (land-speed record), we arrived at our white Fiat 500. We found the keys – placed enticingly in the ignition.

We had left the car entirely unlocked with the keys in the ignition in a busy public parking lot. All we had forgotten was a “Steal Me” sign on the dashboard.

And, car thieves of Siena, you missed it.

A car served up on a plate. It did not even need to be stolen. It could have just been taken. The CCTV would show a person entering a car and using the keys to start it. Just like the person who owned it would, who, by an ironic twist, was the person now technically taking it.

My brother later deduced that the fact he drives a Tesla led to the error. He was out of practice. With his Tesla, “I park the car. I shut the door. I walk away. It locks itself.”

Sure, I could have said, “But you locked it all the other times before.”

But why kill the mood?

Car thieves of Siena, I’m sorry we couldn’t work together. Perhaps next time. Siena is a magnificent city and I, for one, will never hear a bad word said about it or its people. I can tell you, with great certainty, that in most North American cities, had we left a Fiat 500 with keys in the ignition and valuables in the trunk, it would not have been there when we returned.

To sum up: Siena – great town. Lousy car thieves.

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