Maybe if the thieves hadn’t pick-pocketed Wendi’s purse, my feelings about London would be different. The fact remains, however, that they did. London, consequently, proved a rotten place to visit.It happened in that literal “blink of an eye.” Standing near the Wellington Arch in London’s Hyde Park, my fiancée, Wendi, lifted her arms to snap a photo with her iPhone. Dangling from a strap around her shoulder, her small purse hung by her hip. Seconds after taking the picture, she felt a difference in the purse’s weight. When she traced her fingers along the zipper, it was opened. Her wallet—gone. Her credit cards—gone. Some $80 worth of trivia winnings from our local brewery—also gone. Thanks to a tiny smidge of serendipity, her passport remained inside the purse. Had the Artful Dodger’s fingertip twitched outward an extra four millimeters, that would have been gone, too. Getting home would have been an official nightmare at that point. But it wasn’t, and not surprisingly, a lot of people told us to count our blessings.
The thing is; however, I don’t want to count my blessings. Three months after the incident, now safely settled back into our home in small-town Indiana, neither Wendi nor I find ourselves thankful that we were victimized and inconvenienced. Maybe that’s a selfish, narrow-minded way to look at the thing. After all, didn’t my career as an English teacher expose me to Dicken’s novel-length attempts to win my sympathies for the plight of the poor? Maybe we should just write off the theft as one of those “Well, they obviously needed the money more than we did,” shrug our shoulders, and be done with it.
To be honest, three months does change how we feel, a little bit, at least. Life does go on, and when placed on the scale of all the horrible things which could have happened, it was little more than an inconvenience. But every time I take my thoughts back to that night in the United Kingdom, that tinge of anger returns. And it’s not so much anger toward the individual who actually pilfered Wendi’s goods (but yes…there’s still some “rage set on warm” for that person, too). Most of my irritation is directed at…well…the United Kingdom in general, and at London specifically.
Brother EnvyWhen I was a freshly minted college graduate, I sat on my English degree working as courier for Terre Haute’s largest bank. One cold January day my brother—also an English major studying at Earlham College—announced he was leaving for London.
“What’s this for?” I asked. “I field trip for a week or two?”
“No,” he answered. “I’m going to study abroad.”
“Study abroad…? What’s that?”
Mark spent most of that spring semester living and studying in the UK. He was over there so long, that he had to find a job because he had burned through all his funds in the pubs. I lived vicariously through him as air-mail after air-mail arrived complete with Kodak prints and detailed accounts of his travels. When I moved from that temporary gig with the bank to my real job—teaching British Literature to high school seniors—I found myself slipping into my brother’s skin year after year. From Wordsworth’s account of Tintern Abbey to Matthew Arnold’s lamentations at Dover Beach, I turned to my students time and again and said, “When my brother studied in England…” By my 30’s going to the UK myself was a goal. By my 40’s it was a hope. Once I turned 50, it became a dream.
Awaiting my Turn
As Wendi and I enjoyed the first leg of our European trip in Sweden, I eagerly waited for the next leg—the trip to London. The last night in Sweden felt like Christmas Eve when I was a boy. Soon, I told myself, I would be there. Soon, I’d be where my brother went all those years before. Soon, I would be able to go back to my classroom with my own stories.
Knowing that London is a congested city is not the same thing as seeing that congestion firsthand. The tube right out of the airport was long, smelly, and uncomfortable. Westminster Abbey was a morning’s long fight against the throng of people in line constantly nudging me forward. All I wanted to do was stand a little longer at Henry V’s grave, but the human conveyor belt kept pushing me along. Abbey Road proved a disappointment, and the English beer wasn’t much different than the craft brews I drink in Indiana. Trash and debris collected in massive piles everywhere. Those iconic red telephone booths were decrepit and vandalized. Every one of them smelled of high-octane urine—port-a-pots for the teeming numbers of homeless in the city. And everywhere we went there were people—wave after wave after wave of fast-moving, aggressive, rude human beings.
Some parts of London were pretty cool. The Globe theater was incredible, and our specific tour guide offered up a magnificent, well-informed performance for us. But even there, disappointment hovered around us. We had arrived too late in the year and had missed the last performance by less than a week.
With a Little Time Behind Me
In retrospect I realize now that we should have bypassed London and headed for the English countryside. In places such as Liverpool and Birmingham, good times were most likely there to be had. London, however, was a warped Disneyland—a filthy, overcrowded, impolite, magical land of assholes.
Sometimes I wonder whether I would have a different opinion of the city had Wendi not been pick-pocketed. Sometimes I wonder whether I even have the right be “upset by proxy” about it. The Artful Dodger didn’t hit me, after all. My wallet was safely tucked deep in my front pocket. But Wendi had been careful, too. The moment she was robbed happened to be that one moment when, in the midst of juggling, several gadgets and thoughts at the end of a long day, she made herself vulnerable. And as we sat in the hotel room while she tried to contact credit card companies and banks—fighting both time zones and international telephone rules in the process—I kept nursing an anger that needed a target.
I still don’t know what to think about whomever stole Wendi’s stuff. Was it a man? A woman? A kid? Were they destitute, needing the money to get through the night? Were they part of a “thieves guild” working the street for their organizer? Both of us begrudgingly respected the thief’s actual skills. The level of dexterity needed to unzip her purse, yank everything out, and disappear into the crowd was—speaking frankly—pretty impressive.
But whether it defined my time in the UK or simply served as one more frustration among many, I boarded our plane at Heathrow happy to be leaving. And when I walked back into my classroom, and had my students open their books to Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” my brother’s time in Merry Old England would remain the benchmark. And I would have to make peace with the fact that the land which had produced some of the greatest poetry put on paper, was now a fetid cesspool of human coarseness.