Today should have been a really good day. Some very good friends from San Diego who've helped me out on all my 'Lord of the Rings' exploits, and put me up last year when I went to Microsoft PDC in September, arrived in London for a holiday they've been planning and saving for for three years. A home-swap scheme with a family in London proved almost impossible to arrange, so the originally planned three week vacation in London became a vacation in Paris, with a short three-day stay in a London hotel at the beginning and end of their holiday. Today was the the day my jet-lagged friends arrived in the UK and tomorrow (or rather later today) we had a Houses of Parliament visit arranged with my local MP, Katie Hoare, and a whole bunch of tourist activities planned. I'd taken a day off work to show my friends around - the least I could do after all the times they'd looked after me when in California.
The afternoon didn't get off to a great start when most of the hand-picked restaurants in my friends' guide proved to be either closed on a Sunday, or just not serving food any more or... well let's just say we got unlucky. Eventually after much walking around, exhausted and frustrated we settled for a Wetherspoons pub in Holburn. I warned my friends that the food, whilst cheap, would be rubbish - and I wasn't proved wrong. The 'Pedigree' beer on offer was one of the worst I've ever tasted. And the warning signs everywhere about watching out for pickpockets should have alterted us to the fact that this was a hangout for professional thieves.
We kept our bags with us at all times, but at 9pm we discovered that Susan's money bag, zipped inside a pocket in her bag that had been beside her all night long, in a pub that was not THAT busy, had been stolen. We still haven't worked out how they managed to so brazenly unzip the bag and steal the money belt from right under our noses. Unfortunately, the belt contained the passports the family need to get to Paris, theatre tickets and an assortment of credit cards.
Now all the plans for tomorrow (and the day after probably) have changed!
Tomorrow will be spent at the American Embassy desperately trying to arrange replacement passports for all four family members in time for Wedenesday morning. Most of the night that my friends should have been using to catch up on much-needed sleep after a very long flight, will be spent ringing up international phone numbers to ensure all the credit cards are cancelled. Luckily my friends have photocopies of their passports and all their credit card details with them which should help a little - how many other holiday visitors are so well prepared for the worst, I wonder?
The holiday the family have been saving up for over the last three years has got off to a very sour start and the London leg of their trip will pretty much have to be abandoned.
I'm embarrassed at my failure to warn my friends to leave their passports in the hotel safe and not to carry them around, and my naivety in thinking London was a fairly safe area. When guests have an American accent it seems they're automatically identified as tourists who are easy targets.
But most of all today I'm embarrassed by London. By the rude, surly, barely-able-to-speak-English staff we've encountered everywhere. By the dirt, grime and litter that's everywhere. By the lazy people who just throw litter around because they can't be bothered to to walk five yards to a litter bin. By the claustrophobic heat and power failures that hit many sections of our supposedly world class underground system while we were moving around today. By the expensive up-market hotel in the Strand, named after a certain salad, that eight hours after our check-in still doesn't have any air conditioning working in either of the rooms that were booked (despite assurances that maintenance would have problems sorted 'in the next hour').
But most of all I'm embarrassed by the sad excuse for a human being that sits in a pub waiting to prey on good people taking a well-earned and well-deserved break, causing them much upset, anguish, expense and loss of valuable and extremely limited leisure time.
It goes without saying that I took the photo below BEFORE the afore-mentioned theft. If only I could turn back time to the point where this photo was taken. I'd certainly choose another pub/eaterie. I'd give better advice on what to do with passports and credit cards. And I'd do more online research on favourite restaurants and their opening hours. Alas, I have no time travel machine :(