Friday, April 27, 2007

A short but harrowing tale

A small story with a happy ending (followed by a bit of liberal hand-wringing and analysis - well you didn't think I'd skip an opportunity to be self-absorbed did you?)

On Saturday 14th April, I arrived at London Gatwick Airport, after a 10-ish hour flight from Karachi via Dubai. I was, as the vernacular would have it, buggered. My luggage arrived, I loaded it all onto the trolley and headed off to the Gatwick railway station from where I would be heading to my parents' house near Cambridge. I had one massive and very heavy suitcase (since I was on a 4 week trip all told), a couple of small bags courtesy of duty free and a Pakistani carpet neatly wrapped into a hessian holdall, and my laptop, which I hung on that little hook on the back of the cart. When I arrived at the station, via the formerly cutting-edge little monorail thing that connects the two termini at Gatwick, the next train for London was due to leave in three minutes. I hurriedly bought a ticket, grabbed my bags off the trolley, went down the escalator to the platform and jumped (or lumbered) onto the train, breathing a sigh of relief. I deposited the big suitcase in the relevant place and sat down with the rest. Within seconds we had pulled away from the station and I could sit back and relax for half an hour until pulling into Victoria.

After a couple of minutes, having recovered from my exertions, I decided to retrieve my book from my laptop bag. It was then that I discovered the awful truth. I had omitted to pick that bag up from the back of the trolley when I had left it at the top of the stairs. I think I actually said the words "Oh, FUCK" out loud, as I buried my head in my hands (I had thought burying ones head in ones hands was a figure of speech, but I have now discovered that it isn't).

With the Gatwick Express being a non-stop hermetically sealed service, I had 30 minutes to come up with a plan - there was no way of jumping off at the next stop and heading back down with a vague hope in my mind. I first called ahead to my folks, and asked if they could call the station, just on the off chance. Then I set about convincing myself that (a) it would be handed in; and (b) even if it wasn't the world would still turn and I would survive somehow - I could buy a new laptop, and while I'd have lost a certain amount of valuable data, I could probably piece it together somehow. For (a) I worked out a complex percentages system (this mental activity being preferable to self flagellation or just outright despair). 95% of people upon finding a laptop would hand it in, I convinced myself. This didn't of course mean that there was a 95% chance of it being handed in, because while the 5% who would see it as an opportunity would probably be on the look out for such an opportunity or would certainly pick it up if they noticed it, the 95% would consist mainly of people who wouldn't notice the bag, or if they did would figure that they didn't have time to find someone to report it to, and possibly be forced to fill out a form. 20% of those 95% would actually notice it, pick it up and hand it in, I reasoned, without the slightest shred of scientific or even anecdotal evidence to back up this statistic. This still left me looking at a better than 70% chance of getting my bag back. (Thankfully, I hadn't at this point factored in the fact that at airports especially, rogue bags tend to be blown up in controlled explosions just in case)

The upshot of all this desperate mental arithmetic was that by the time I arrived at Victoria station I was feeling quite sanguine about the whole thing, despite the fact that by now I had talked to my mum and heard that it being a Saturday night, all the offices at the station had proven to be closed. It was then, just as I was detraining (or whatever the new word would be), that I realised that not only was my laptop in that bag, but also my money, my tickets and more or less everything I needed for the next week or so excepting my passport. Once again, I was more or less physically winded by the realisation, actually stopping in my tracks as I walked down the platform. Could I have been any more cack-handed?

I located the lost property office, and (without much hope) asked if I could fill out a form. This entailed a lot of explanation as the guy tried to insist that I needed to report it to the Gatwick Express company, while I kept telling him that I had lost it at the station, not on the train, and thus it would be to his office that I should report it (The privatisation of the railways in Britain has pretty much been an unmitigated disaster, and this lack of coordination between different private companies is just one very small part of the wider chaos). Eventually he relented and let me have one of his precious forms to fill in, which I was doing when my phone rang. It was my mum to tell me that they'd got a call from a security bloke at Gatwick who'd come into possession of my bag and had found their phone number in it. I called him straight away, my voice possibly cracking with emotion, as he told me he had my bag and had looked through it with a colleague and found the money and stuff, and would I like to come back and pick it up.

The upshot, obviously, is that I went back down to Gatwick (for free as he spoke to the ticket collector on my behalf), got my bag, gave him a hefty tip (which was as a drop in the ocean compared to what I had been on the verge of losing), and once again resumed my journey - even more tired, but now oddly, extremely awake. I didn't get "home" until getting on for 1am, but after that I really didn't care.

Upon relating this story here, I have been told by everyone that it would be absolutely impossible to imagine that I'd ever have got it back in Romania. And, despite myself, I have to concur with that opinion. I know the chances that I'd ever have seen it again would have been practically nil here. So why is that? (I asked myself). After all, I sincerely don't believe that Romanians are any more or less honest/dishonest than Brits.

Here are a number of possible explanations: (1) Romanians are an awful lot poorer than Brits (on average) - the temptation to see what monetary advantage could be gleaned would be much greater; (2) Romanians tend to assume that most people in positions of authority are corrupt (for fairly good reason) - in such circumstances, handing in a found laptop would not likely guarantee that it would get back to its owner, more that it would be siphoned off by the person who received it; (3)Years of privation and hardship (in the 80s particularly) have left many people very conscious of opportunity and seizing the moment. I mean I don't regard the number of apartments which have balconies that have been enclosed using stolen train carriage windows as being indicative of a general national propensity to thievery - more of a general national intense poverty and desperation which existed here in those spectacularly lean years. I reckon that's a hard habit to break. And finally (4), I realised that I wasn't mentally comparing like with like. I couldn't reasonably compare what would happen at Gatwick Airport station to what would happen at Gara de Nord in Bucharest. Aside from having railway platforms, there's very little that the two places have in common. In fact there are no Romanian railway stations that would be a fair comparison in the possible-light-fingered stakes to Gatwick, at which station, the only people getting on and off are people who have been to the airport, which tends to be relatively well off demographic. Thinking about it, I realised that the closest comparison in terms of wealth and general well-being of potential finders within Romania, would be if I had left it at Otopeni Airport in the departure lounge. And if I had done that (and it hadn't been treated as a suspicious package and detonated), I reckon I'd have got it back.

I'm not about to test this theory out though. Not if I can help it.


Jeff Davanzo said...

Well, I would like to add a similar experience, and guess where? Romania. I was sitting at OTP waiting to get picked up and pulled out my laptop. I don't exactly remember why, but I set the laptop down beside me and completely forgot about it. In the hurry to collect all my things and head toward the exit I forget the laptop on the seat next to me. About 30 mins into the drive toward Ciuc I realized what had happened and (copy paste all the things you wrote) went through my head. Say swear words, same thoughts, same time to figure out what, if, when... Well, when I got back to the airport I went straight to the info desk that directed me to lost and found. And yes, someone had found it and reported it. Awesome.

Sebi Buhai said...

Hey Andy, sorry for writing here something completely unrelated to your post :-), but here's something you could be (should be!) very interested in. I certainly count on you to participate, in fact the first person I was thinking about when I wrote that text was you! If you know anybody else, particularly among foreigners, interested in Transylvania and knowing something/anything about inter-ethnical relationships there and willing to share his perspective with us, please let them know as well. Thanks!

Andy H said...

Great story, Jeff. I am relieved to know that it can happen in Romania too - I will tell everybody.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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