Episode 5: Helen Brown

Actress Trinidad Piriz traveled to Berlin to study theater, hoping to fall in love and improve her quality of life. But six months later, she returned home having only accomplished one thing: to get scammed by a woman whose name would forever be etched in her memory — Helen Brown.

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Transcript

Martina Castro: In 2011, the Chilean actress Trinidad Piriz packed her bags and set off for Berlin.

Trinidad Piriz: Quería mejorar como artista, encontrar un novio europeo y obtener una mejor calidad de vida en Europa.

Martina Castro: But six months later, she was already back at home — without an acting job, without a boyfriend, and without a dime to her name. The only thing Trinidad managed to accomplish in Berlin was to get scammed by a woman whose name would be forever etched in her memory:

Trinidad Piriz: …Helen Brown.

Martina Castro: Welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast. Where we bring you true bilingual stories about travels with unexpected turns, plans unraveled, and destinations unknown. The Spanish in this story is for intermediate level learners, but if you get lost, don’t worry, we will be chiming in throughout the story.

Martina Castro: Trinidad wanted to go to Berlin because of its innovative theater scene. But she didn’t have the money to move there without a job. So she applied for a scholarship to cover her expenses. And before she even knew whether she had received the grant, she left for Germany. Once she landed in Berlin, she got the news — she didn’t get the grant.

Trinidad Piriz: Y las cosas se pusieron difíciles. Ya estaba en Berlín, viviendo en la casa de una amiga temporalmente, pero no me podía quedar ahí para siempre. Empecé a gastar el único dinero que tenía mientras buscaba desesperadamente un nuevo lugar para vivir y un trabajo.

Martina Castro: As her savings were running out, she was also running out of time to find a job and a more permanent place to live. She couldn’t stay at her friend’s place in Berlin much longer. So when she discovered an apartment online that she really liked, she decided to jump on it.

Trinidad Piriz: La dueña estaba en Grecia por trabajo y quería rentarlo a una persona tranquila, trabajadora y responsable. El nombre de la dueña era Helen Brown.

Martina Castro: Helen was in Greece, so she communicated by phone with Trinidad to arrange for the rental of her apartment in Berlin.

Trinidad Piriz: Comenzamos a escribirnos por email y hablamos por Skype para coordinar los detalles: firmar el contrato, pagar la renta, y recibir las llaves del departamento…

Martina Castro: But then things got a little… strange.

Trinidad Piriz: Las siguientes semanas Helen se volvió muy insistente. Me llamaba por Skype casi todos los días, e insistía en que yo depositara más dinero vía Western Union. También, la voz de Helen sonaba cada vez más nerviosa.

Martina Castro: That voice — Trinidad remembers it well. It sounded deeper than you would expect, and with an accent that wasn’t convincingly German. Also, Helen kept asking for more money and refused to video chat with Trinidad. The signs were clear — this woman was up to no good. But perhaps Trinidad wasn’t ready to accept this.

Trinidad Piriz: Cuando finalmente dudé sobre las intenciones de Helen, le pregunté si podíamos hablar. Ella dijo que sí. Era un día de lluvia en Berlín y yo estaba en un cyber café en el centro de la ciudad.

Martina Castro: Immediately Helen asked for more money. She said her lawyer had advised her to get more upfront because there was no way of knowing whether Trinidad would end up paying her rent on time.

Trinidad Piriz: Yo ya había depositado mucho dinero ¿y quería más? Le dije que no, que su abogado estaba loco. Y que me devolviera todo el dinero que ya le había enviado por Western Union.

Martina Castro: Trinidad was suddenly realizing what was going on. She told Helen her lawyer was crazy and that she better return all of the money she had already given her. And then, Trinidad straight up asked her:

Trinidad Piriz: Helen, ¿me estás robando?

Martina Castro: After a long moment of silence, Helen Brown said…yes. She said she was sorry and quickly hung up. Trinidad couldn’t believe it. Helen admitted that this whole thing was a scam! She tried to call her back on Skype but Helen had already blocked her. When Trinidad realized this, she broke into sobs right there, in the middle of the internet café.

Trinidad Piriz: Afuera llovía muy fuerte. Yo no podía parar de llorar. Finalmente me calmé y decidí llamar a Western Union para cancelar los mil euros que deposité antes de llamar a Helen.

Martina Castro: When she called Western Union to cancel the 1,000 euro transfer she had just made to Helen, the operator told her it had already been withdrawn…but not from Greece but from Brighton, England. Trinidad had been a legitimate victim of fraud.

Trinidad Piriz: ¡No! ¡No puede ser!

Martina Castro: Trinidad was in shock. She was all alone in Berlin. Living in her friend’s room for more than a month…

Trinidad Piriz: No hablaba alemán y no tenía dinero. Estaba nerviosa, sentía que era un mal sueño y que iba a despertar. Pero no. No despertaba. Era real.

Martina Castro: As the reality started to sink in, Trinidad did the only thing she could think of at that point — she reported the fraud to local police.

Trinidad Piriz: Días después, hablé con una mujer de Chile que creció en Berlín pero que habla español. Ella me dijo que podía rentarme una habitación durante el verano. Cuando llegué a la casa, la mujer me dijo que era la habitación de su hijo de 10 años, que estaba de vacaciones.

Martina Castro: The room was painted yellow with blue and white decorations. A pile of toys was jammed under the small bed. This is not what Trinidad had imagined for her exciting trip to Berlin. She thought she was going to live with other artists, writing plays without having to worry about money. But here she was, having to borrow from family and friends, and living in a child’s bedroom, without a job or the prospect of one. Even though what she had imagined for herself now seemed like a distant dream, Trinidad wasn’t ready to give up just yet.

Trinidad Piriz: Durante las semanas siguientes busqué trabajo. Pero no encontré nada porque no hablaba alemán. Tomé clases para aprender el lenguaje.

Martina Castro: In her German classes, Trinidad met some people. But they were also foreigners, so communication between them was difficult. Not having a job left her with few places to make friends.

Trinidad Piriz: Entonces, caminaba sin dirección por las calles de Berlín. Era verano y la ciudad estaba llena de actividades, muy alegre. Pero yo me sentía muy sola.

Trinidad Piriz: Finalmente, recibí noticias de la policía alemana. Tenían más información sobre mi caso.

Martina Castro: The German police told her that Helen Brown was a pseudonym for a Nigerian mafia operating in England. Since it was outside of their jurisdiction, there was nothing more they could do. Trinidad’s case was closed.

Trinidad Piriz: Volví a la casa, triste. Los días siguientes no pude dormir.

Martina Castro: Trinidad tossed in bed, overwhelmed with frustration and loneliness. She wanted to connect with someone but was too embarrassed to tell her closest friends back home what had happened. And then, lying there wide awake, a crazy idea came to her — to email Helen Brown. She remembered she still had her address. And yes, we are talking about the same Helen that got her in this whole mess to begin with. But Trinidad thought maybe for that very reason Helen was also the one person in the world who could understand her.

Trinidad Piriz: Querida Helen, anoche quería imaginar tu cara y no pude. Hace catorce días que no hablamos y te extraño. Sinceramente, Trini.

Martina Castro: Trinidad pressed send, hoping the friendly tone would elicit a response. A feeling of relief came over her and she finally fell asleep. The next day, she realized the email hadn’t bounced back. In theory, Helen Brown had received it. This thrilled Trinidad. Maybe she could get Helen to respond and even down! So that night, Trinidad wrote Helen another email. And the following night, again.

Trinidad Piriz: Querida Helen, estoy yendo a clases de alemán. Somos un grupo de 30 inmigrantes en la clase. ¿Eres tú una inmigrante, Helen? Todos buscamos una vida mejor en Alemania. Pero para mí ha sido un desastre. Empiezo a dudar: ¿Qué hago aquí? ¿Y dónde estás, Helen Brown? Sinceramente, Trini.

Martina Castro: Trinidad never got a response but this didn’t stop her. She kind of became obsessed. Her lack of direction and purpose by day, fueled her email writing by night. For three months, she would sit down to email Helen Brown before going to sleep, each time getting more creative and daring with her attempts to elicit a response.

Martina Castro: She went the romantic route…

Trinidad Piriz: Querida Helen… Tu voz es muy grave. ¿Eres un hombre? Quiero conocerte. ¿Quieres conocerme? Te mando mi foto. Sinceramente, Tu Trini.

Martina Castro: She even proposed going into business together.

Trinidad Piriz: Querida Helen, Tengo un plan. Quiero ser parte de tu mafia.

Martina Castro: Yes, as in joining the Nigerian mafia. cont:

Trinidad Piriz: Yo sé cómo podemos hacerlo. Vamos a mi escuela de alemán, robamos el dinero y nos vamos a Chile. Tengo familiares muy ricos. ¿Qué te parece mi plan? Te doy dos días para responder. Dos días. Sinceramente, Trini Brown.

Martina Castro: None of these messages got a response from Helen Brown — neither the one where she asked if Helen was a man, nor the one where she offered to join her mafia and rob her own family. So Trinidad decided to raise the stakes.

Trinidad Piriz: Querida Helen, voy a buscarte.

Martina Castro: And one day, she did. Trinidad grabbed her bags and set off to find Helen Brown in England. This probably sounds insane, but remember — Trinidad felt really lost in Germany. Her whole idealistic plan had been thrown out the window. And this impulsive quest to find Helen gave her a bizarre sense of purpose.

Trinidad Piriz: Mientras iba en el tren de Londres a Brighton me sudaban las manos y estaba totalmente arrepentida de lo que estaba haciendo.

Martina Castro: When Trinidad arrived in Brighton, she had no idea where to go other than the Western Union office where Helen had withdrawn her money. They weren’t much help, so she knocked on neighbors doors.

Trinidad Piriz: Solamente en una casa había gente. Abrió la puerta una mujer blanca, joven, con dos hijos en brazos.

Martina Castro: In broken English, Trinidad explained that she was looking for a woman named Helen Brown. The young woman told her she didn’t know anyone by that name and slammed the door in her face. That’s when it struck her that this quest had to end. In fact, in that moment, Trini felt like her entire trip to Europe had been a failure: She was broke and alone, and she had nothing to show for it. So she quickly packed up her things and returned to Chile.

Martina Castro: Back home, Trinidad was invited to participate in an arts and performance festival. They asked her if she had any material from Berlin to show them.

Trinidad Piriz: Yo mentí y dije que sí: una obra de teatro titulada …Helen Brown. La escribí en tres semanas junto al artista y músico Daniel Marabolí. El resultado fue impresionante, algo que nunca había hecho antes.

Martina Castro: Together they designed a show where Trinidad would reenact the scenes of her ordeal with Helen Brown.

Trinidad Piriz: El espectáculo tiene dos partes. La primera parte es sobre las conversaciones con las personas que participaron en mi caso: policías alemanes… Trabajadores de los consulados de Inglaterra, Alemania y Nigeria, mi madre, empleados de Western Union y Helen Brown.

Martina Castro: In the play, Trinidad acts out all of the characters in each of these key scenes.

Trinidad Piriz: En la segunda parte de la obra yo leo los emails reales que le envié a Helen Brown durante tres meses. Sorprendentemente, el espectáculo fue todo un éxito.

Martina Castro: The show was so successful that they took it on tour, where she won various prizes and attracted large audiences. Her career really took off after this play, and Trinidad was able to recover many times over the money that Helen Brown had stolen from her.

Trinidad Piriz: Un año después del último email, le escribí otra vez a Helen Brown. Me habían seleccionado para viajar con la obra a festivales internacionales.

Martina Castro: She sent Helen news clippings about the show and the public’s response.

Trinidad Piriz: Le escribí que había olvidado el fraude, que estaba en el pasado.

Martina Castro: She told her that the scam had gone from being one of the worst experiences of her life, to something that had opened many doors for her in career. And now Helen Brown, at least in Chile, was famous! As one last ploy to try to get Helen to reply, Trinidad suggested they might as well become friends. But then at the end, Trinidad signed off her email in a new way.

Trinidad Piriz: Simplemente gracias, Helen Brown.

Credits & Media

This episode includes recordings from user the_bloke33 and Jahzzar under CC Attribution License from FreeSound.org and FreeMusicArchive.org.