The woman who called herself Tatiana Aarons gave me an address that led to a vacant lot
In the late afternoon of Saturday, April 23, 2005, I was reading a novel on the edge of the Praça do Comércio in Lisbon, Portugal. A petite woman in her late twenties, with long dark hair, emerged from a side street to the west of the square. She approached me with a breezy manner and, in a South African accent, asked me what I was reading. I had been in Lisbon for three weeks, preparing for a research trip to Angola. I was on my own, and was immersed in the history and literature of Portuguese-speaking southern Africa. Introducing herself as Tatiana Aarons, my new acquaintance told me that her South African parents had taken her into exile in Mozambique during the apartheid years. When I showed her the Angolan novel I was reading, she added that she had also lived in Lubango, Angola, which, I knew, had been a refuge for white leftists during that period. I felt myself projected into the world of Jewish South African Communists described in Nadine Gordimer’s novels Burger’s Daughter and A Sport of Nature.
“We should keep in touch,” Tatiana said. In my agenda, which was open at that day’s date, she wrote her addresses and phone numbers in Mozambique and South Africa. She added a third address: that of a backpacker hotel near the Rossio, Lisbon’s central square. As it grew dark, Tatiana and I walked toward the city centre. A graduate student in psychology in Johannesburg, she had come to Lisbon for a conference. Air France—“air Chance!” she laughed—had lost her luggage, which included her credit card. While waiting for her suitcase to arrive, she had run out of cash. “Could you lend me 60 Euros to get to the airport?” She scribbled her room number on a card from the backpacker hotel. I could find her there later and she would repay me.
Erudite, and with a clownish sense of humour, Tatiana was charming company. Yet I couldn’t help but spot inconsistencies in her story. She wove such an effortless tale that I hated myself for picking holes in it. I knew that a 45 bus from the Rossio would take her to the airport for less than 2 Euros. We chatted at the bus stop. As the bus approached, I pulled out my wallet. Tatiana’s ebullient expression vanished. I extended a 10-Euro note as my compliment for a good story. She
leapt for the money, ripping it from my hand. I saw a feral desperation in her clenched teeth. She scampered up the steps and stood holding a pole, staring back at me, as the bus pulled away.
I wanted to believe Tatiana. The next morning I asked for her at the hotel. She had never stayed there. A year later, in Maputo, Mozambique, I looked for the address she had given me, and found that Avenida 24 de Julho, 543, led me to a vacant lot on the city’s main thoroughfare. Even as I reminded myself that the side streets from which she had emerged were riddled with drug dens, I marvelled at the detail with which Tatiana had prepared her story.
I was not alone.
Between 2005 and 2011, the woman who called herself Tatiana Aarons duped thousands of visitors to Lisbon. I must have been one of her first marks. She later refined her story, ironing out the inconsistencies. The pose of being a psychology student separated from her credit card remained, as did the jokes about Air France. She switched political ideologies, telling later victims that her parents had been landowners in colonial Mozambique who had fled to South Africa after the 1975 revolution. No longer picking up travellers, usually single men, close to the city’s druggy areas, she patrolled the stately, treed Avenida da Liberdade, which runs from the Rossio to Eduardo VII Park and hosts some of Portugal’s most expensive boutiques. Receptionists in budget hotels near the park reported that on some occasions two or three guests a day told them that a South African friend was coming to the front desk to return the 60 Euros (or more) they had lent her. Everyone Tatiana scammed became fascinated by her.
In 2009 Tatiana scammed Tom Struyf, a Belgian actor. Struyf, who said she was the best actor he had seen, later returned to Lisbon to research Tatiana’s career. Struyf’s one-man show, The Tatiana Aarons Experience, charts his path from idealization of Tatiana to confronting the reality of her motivations. She asked her victims for 60 Euros, Struyf learned, because that was the street price of two doses of heroin.
Tatiana’s scams occurred in a Portugal that had shaken off its hangover from the fascist Salazar-caetano dictatorship (1932–1974) and the loss of its African and Asian colonies. After 2002, when the war in Angola ended, converting Portugal’s biggest former African colony into an economic dynamo, Lisbon swarmed with Angolan, Mozambican and Cape Verdean singers, writers, actors. The city’s sense of itself as being on the edge of Africa was the backdrop to Tatiana’s stories. This relationship soured after 2008, when the economy crashed, young Portuguese emigrated, rich Angolans bought the boutiques on Avenida da Liberdade, the African artists either left town or redefined themselves as “Black Portuguese” and, to save the economy, the city was opened to a mass tourism that overwhelmed its most traditional neighbourhoods. Today, when tourists, each armed with an iphone, stroll Avenida da Liberdade in guided groups, it is unlikely that Tatiana would flourish. Already, in the final months of her career, her victims were beginning to commiserate with each other on Facebook.
Miraculously, Tatiana appears to have outlived her heroin addiction. Tom Struyf reports that in 2011, after giving birth to a child, she went into rehab. In 2014, in Johannesburg, I made it as far as Tatiana’s district of Sandton. I decided not to look up the address she had given me. As much as I hoped she had survived, I knew that all I would find was a vacant lot.
Stephen Henighan’s short story collection, Blue River and Red Earth (Cormorant Books), and his translation of the Angolan writer Ondjaki’s novel, Transparent City (Biblioasis), will both be published in early 2018. Read more of his work at geist.com and stephenhenighan.com. Follow him on Twitter @Stephenhenighan.