LONDON — I stood on a corner in the Bermondsey neighborhood of London at midnight, feeling exhausted, stranded, and sniffing back a messy waterfall of tears. London is a city that I love, but on this night it was as if it had gone from being a close friend to a snarling brute of a rugby player who appeared ready to smack the haggis out of me.
I sat on the sidewalk and put my head in my hands in defeat. “Fine London,” I mumbled to myself. “You win.”
My normal travels don’t involve crying on sidewalks, so before you rush to judgment, let me give you a bit of context. I came to London for leisure. The trip was ridiculously indulgent. I bought a ticket to see my favorite band perform one of their finest albums with an orchestra. The band — called Saint Etienne — was playing 1994’s “Tiger Bay” in its entirety at the Barbican. If that sentence means nothing to you, just know that I was as excited as a Baptist groom on his wedding night.
When I checked into my Virgin Atlantic flight to London, I asked if I had enough miles to upgrade into premium economy. The desk agent disappeared for a few minutes, informed me that economy was overbooked and that I would be upgraded to premium. It was a fantastic start. Once onboard I raised a glass, or three, to my good fortune.
But when I landed at Heathrow, something strange happened. I stood at baggage claim and watched the suitcases glide by on the belt. All the suitcases were accounted for — except mine.
This was the first time in 20 years that my luggage was lost. Given the law of averages and how often I travel, it was bound to happen. Logic aside, I was shaken. I went to the Virgin Atlantic counter, handed my claim ticket over to a helpful gent, and watched as he clicked away at the computer. But there was no record of my luggage. It hadn’t traveled on my flight, and its location was unknown in Boston.
I took a day flight to London, so I was optimistic that my luggage would arrive on the redeye the following morning.
But, and this is a biggie, all of my medication was in my missing luggage. A rookie mistake. Complacent after 20 years of suitcase efficiency, I never thought to tuck some necessities aside in my backpack. I take something to help me sleep every night, and without it I had a long night ahead of me. I went to the airport pharmacy and stocked up on some essentials, called an Uber, and made my way to the Airbnb that I rented.
It was a self check-in Airbnb, which was good because by the time I arrived it was nearly 11 p.m. The instructions for entry involved retrieving the key from a lockbox attached to a drainpipe on the side of the house. I carefully entered the combination on the lock box, and fiddled with the front, which was supposed to easily pop off. It didn’t budge. Neighbors walked by wondering why there was a strange man on his knees in the dirt. I checked the combination and tried again. Nothing. This went on for a while. I held my phone in flashlight mode under my chin and kept fiddling with the lockbox.
A stream of obscenities that would make Caligula blush flowed from my lips. I watched YouTube clips on how to open this model of lockbox with no luck. It was too late to call the owner of the apartment, so I looked to see if there were any hotels nearby. I found a Best Western about five minutes away and booked a room for the night. At this point I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep.
I arrived at the Best Western, but there were no available rooms. The booking system erroneously took my reservation. There were no other hotel rooms in the area.
Cut to a grown man (that’s me!) on a London sidewalk near tears. “Think, Chris, think,” I said to myself while slapping away the tears. “What would Rick Steves do?” I’m pretty sure he would not sit on a sidewalk crying.
Nearing midnight, I called the owner of the Airbnb out of desperation. He was sweeter than a jar of marmalade and drove 40 minutes to let me into the unit.
Once in, I immediately called the airline. There was still no sign of my luggage. I tried to go to sleep. It didn’t work. I spent the night watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
I started calling the airline in the morning to see if my luggage was found. I kept calling until I no longer needed to introduce myself on the phone. I had confirmation around 11 a.m. that my suitcase was in London. I was tired and stressed, but hopeful. A shipping company would pick up the suitcase at Heathrow and deliver it to my Airbnb. But by 2 p.m. there was still no suitcase. Now I became a thorn in the side of the shipping company. At 4:30, my suitcase finally arrived. I was meeting a friend for pre-concert dinner at 5 p.m. and barely made it.
I showed up looking and smelling like a gargoyle with a red blotch on my neck that I self-diagnosed as ringworm. But I made it. The concert was just as amazing as I hoped. I told myself it had been worth the stress and lack of sleep. I was back to feeling optimistic.
Oh, how naive I was.
The next part of my trip involved visiting a new hotel in the English countryside. It sounded lovely. I made a reservation and rented a car.
I have no problem driving on the left side of the road. I’ve done it throughout the Caribbean and Australia. I set out for the hotel, which was about an hour outside of London. Traffic was at a crawl, and my phone suggested a route that would shave 30 minutes off the drive. What could go wrong? I turned off the highway and was suddenly on a precariously narrow country road.
I should probably mention here that the smallest car available to rent was an SUV. I have an aversion to driving big cars in the States. Here I was in England, in an SUV, on a tiny, two-way country road. There was barely room for one car, let alone the many that were speeding along as if they were competing in the Monaco Grand Prix.
I could hear branches scraping the outside of the SUV. I was clinging to the edge of the road to avoid oncoming cars. Also clinging to the edge of the road: rocks. One of them found a front tire and I heard a loud pop, followed by the scrape and drag of a flat tire.
It took a few minutes to find a place to pull over, but I found a field, called the rental company, and in 45 minutes, someone came out to fix the tire.
In all the years I’ve traveled and rented cars, I’ve never had a flat, let alone a nick or dent. My years of good travel karma with luggage and rental cars had come to an abrupt and rude end.
What’s a flat tire? Not a big deal. I continued to the country.
As soon as I pulled the SUV out of the field I noticed something was wrong, well, everything was wrong. The dashboard was lit up like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and the car was completely out of alignment. In order to drive straight, I had to keep the wheel at 12 and 6. I drove like this for 30 minutes, until I pulled up to the hotel and the valet looked at me as if I was driving the pickup from “Sanford and Son.”
I won’t bore you with the rest of the details, and there are many. Someone came to the hotel and managed to fix the alignment. I returned the car as quickly as I could at Heathrow. I cut the trip short because I didn’t want to press my luck any further. England had chewed me up and spat me out. I was ready to get home.
As I checked into my flight back to Boston, the desk agent asked how my trip had been.
“Did you lose your luggage on this trip?” she asked, most likely as a way to stop me blabbing further about my disasters. She disappeared, came back, and offered to upgrade me into premium economy.
Finally onboard and sitting in a deliciously near-empty cabin, I once again raised a glass, or three, and celebrated my good luck. This time I simply felt lucky I had escaped England before suffering a nervous breakdown.