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The inside poop on Barcelona’s pickpockets

Barcelona's traditional caganer figurines, also called "poopers," are sold at a kiosk. The Catalan folk-art personage, put in creches, is often portrayed as a famous figure.
Barcelona’s traditional caganer figurines, also called “poopers,” are sold at a kiosk. The Catalan folk-art personage, put in creches, is often portrayed as a famous figure.
(Martha Groves / Los Angeles Times)

We were enjoying a stroll along this northern Spanish city’s festive Rambla when our tour guide stopped in front of a vendor displaying an array of small painted figurines.

“We have an unusual custom here in Barcelona,” she said. “Every Christmas, we put a pooper in the creche.”

The “pooper” is the caganer, a Catalan folk-art personage dating back centuries. Caganers vary in size, but a traditional figure is a male, perhaps 2 inches tall, sporting a red cap. He is squatting, pants down, balanced over a spiraled brown cone of excrement. Even as excitement swirls over Jesus’ birth, the pooper — made of clay, plastic, wood or ceramic — is giving back to the earth the nourishment that it provided.

The custom has spawned a robust market for souvenir poopers of all sorts: SpongeBob, Yoda, Vladimir Putin, Queen Elizabeth and President Obama.

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If you look closely, you can spot a baby pooper in “The Farm,” a 1922 painting by Barcelona native son Joán Miro.

So perhaps it was fitting that my travel companion and I were just about to enter the Fundacio Joán Miro, the modern art museum on Montjuïc, the hill overlooking the harbor, when we were set upon by a pair of Barcelonian bird-poop bandits.

It was our last day in this city of architectural modernism, bodacious outdoor art and Catalonian pride. We had seen the Sagrada Familia, the otherworldly, unfinished masterpiece of a church designed by Antoni Gaudi. We had dined on spicy patatas bravas and imbibed the local Estrella Damm lager.

But we had much more on our sightseeing platter. We ventured by subway to the domed National Palace with its cascading fountains and were wandering through the Laribal Gardens, a series of shady terraces linked by narrow paths and stairways.

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Suddenly, a man and a woman who had been walking behind us began excitedly conveying the message — whether in English or Spanish or a blend of both, I can’t recall — that a bird had dropped a gooey bomb on us.

Sure enough, we were spattered head to toe with a greenish slime. Luckily for us, the duo were equipped with moist towelettes and water, and they good-naturedly set about wiping us down.

The woman pointed to my hair. She doused a towelette with water from a plastic bottle and handed it to Jim Clarke, my companion, urging him to scrub the nasty stuff off my scalp.

Her buddy swiped at the droppings on the case of Jim’s big-screen Samsung cellphone, which had been snapped to his belt. The seeming Good Samaritan then slid the phone into one of Jim’s pockets.

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When witnesses say, “It all happened so fast,” I really get that. These thoughts were whizzing through my brain:

• Everybody warned us about pickpockets.

• That must be one giant bird.

• These people are being waaaay too helpful.

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• Jim, let’s move!

Meanwhile, to my flimsy credit, I was clutching my shoulder bag tightly to my side. It contained everything dear to me at the moment: euros, dollars, passport, camera, iPad, credit cards.

After a few minutes, our helpmates waved “adios” and went on their way. We headed on to the museum entrance. That’s when Jim patted his shorts pocket and said: “Where’s my phone?” I riffled through my bag and was relieved to find my belongings intact. What was not such a relief was the foul odor emanating from our clothing. That bird poop was fake — approximately the consistency of hot-dog mustard — but it stank to high heaven.

We split up and chased after the culprits, unsuccessfully, for a good 45 minutes.

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Our next stop was a police station across from an old bullfighting arena turned upscale shopping mall. There we encountered a Swedish couple who had been victims of the same scam hours earlier. During their cleanup confusion, the pickpockets had removed hundreds of euros from the man’s wallet — and then put the wallet back into his pocket! The woman had lost money and the gold chain around her neck.

A police officer took our statements and showed us mug shots. No luck. He informed us, and a quick Internet search confirmed, that the bird-poop scam is one of many methods — perhaps the most dismally appropriate in this land of scatological tradition — that pickpockets use to fleece distracted tourists in Barcelona.

In an email interview, a spokesman for Barcelona’s Guardia Urbana said police devote significant resources to fighting pickpockets.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “in Barcelona there are people who seek to exploit the presence of tourists for profit.”

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Like the caganer, we got caught with our pants down in Barcelona. Rest assured, bird poopers: It won’t happen again.

martha.groves@latimes.com

Twitter: @Martha Groves


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