It was tough getting to sleep. It had been a perfect day, until now. I felt like an idiot. I wracked my brain, trying to reconstruct events. I had brought our carry on bag in from the car in Strasbourg and… left it behind the bathroom door in our hotel room - two days ago. Jeez, a lot can happen in two days. My brain began running a list of everything in that bag - official documents, identification, computer hard drive, my God - the photos! Every photo we had taken in the last ten years was on that hard drive.
I remembered watching TV news coverage of people who had just lost their homes. “Stuff is just stuff. But the photos… some things can’t be replaced.” I imagined a “Back To The Future” scenario where the images in our photos began to disappear. It almost felt like the last ten years never happened. Ok, bad train of thought. I had to snap out of it. Either the housekeeper would turn in our suitcase and everything would be fine, or… she and her accomplice would steal my social security card, access my hard drive, hack into my accounts and head for Rio. We crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.
In the morning I began calling the hotel in Strasbourg. The people at the reception desk tried their best to be helpful, but there was a bit of a language barrier.
“Zee ‘ousekeepere eeze not ‘ere today.” (My apologies to the French for this absurd interpretation of a Strasbourg accent).
I tried to speak slowly and clearly, over-enunciating the words in an attempt to be understood. I sounded like I had a speech impediment.
“Okay. Could you please contact her and ask if she found a small black suitcase with brown trim behind the bathroom door in room 207?
“Why would you leave eet zere?”
Good question. That’s what I had been asking myself. After years of mislaying things, I had adopted the habit of doing what I call an “idiot check” whenever I’m about to leave a place. This is last walk-through to make sure nothing gets left behind. It’s a good habit. Over the years, it’s saved me losing numerous jackets, bags, and pieces of musical gear. I did it in Strasbourg. Unfortunately, this time I had hidden the bag too well. A bloodhound would have missed it.
Even though we had finally made it to England, we were not yet on our way to our new home in Cornwall. For one thing, our cottage would be empty, not a stick of furniture in sight. For another, my young cousin was about to get married in two days in the Lake District, so Marion and I decided to forgo a pit stop in Cornwall and head north straightaway for Lancashire, my birthplace, where my extended family still live. Even though my parents departed Lancashire for California when I was small, the area still has a great attraction for me. Everything about Lancashire reminds me of my parents - the old stone and brick buildings, the green rolling countryside, the look and humor of the people. This was a sentimental journey, and as I entered our hotel on the outskirts of Lancaster I felt like my mum and dad were close at hand, watching down, smiling. I approached the lad at the front desk.
“ ‘ello, sir. Checking in?”
“Name please, sir.”
“That’s a cracking name, Walmsley, isn’t it?” he asked with a grin.
I felt a sly smile beginning to form on my lips.
“Yes it is. Is that your name too?”
Meeting someone with my last name doesn’t happen every day. In fact, it’s never happened. I felt like I had come home. I told the lad we were here for a family wedding.
“So, if I turned up and told ‘em my name I could ‘ave a free drink, then? (There was that humor I was talking about.)
I didn’t bother to tell him the wedding was for another branch of the family and that Marion and I would be the only Walmsleys present.
We took a walk around Lancaster, and found a little tapas place for dinner. The restaurant was called “1725,” as in the year, 1725. This was not the year the place was built, mind you. That was about two hundred years earlier. No, 1725 was the year it became a pub. The food and atmosphere were terrific. One of the nice things about the way England has evolved in recent years has been the introduction of nearly unlimited food choices. It used to be that if you wanted dinner, you went to the pub (always good for traditional fare) a fish and chip shop, perhaps a restaurant/carvery (serving a bit more upscale version of the pub’s offerings) or possibly a good Indian restaurant. Not any more. The “foodie” era has arrived, and the sky’s pretty much the limit menu-wise, inspired by the likes of celebrity chefs Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Rick Stein and Nathan Outlaw, just a few of the notables spearheading the current culinary charge.
Back at the hotel, there was a message from Strasbourg. Our suitcase had been found. Hallelujah! Despite the good news, there was still the chance something could be missing, and the possibility our identity might have been compromised. I spent the rest of the evening Googling “identity theft” and “what to do if your social security card is stolen.” There was plenty of advice - contacting credit agencies, cancelling credit cards, as well as offers of various credit monitoring plans (for a price, of course). Have you ever noticed that any time someone goes through an unfortunate circumstance there is always a company of some sort waiting in the wings, ready to pounce on their misfortune? We were in a new country, with no “plan B” as to how to pay for anything. Cancelling our only means of payment could be pretty awkward and inconvenient. I decided to cross my fingers and hope there were still some honest people left in the world.
Meanwhile, I had received word from the U.S.D.A. about my instrument permit. As you may recall, the British CITES Office had informed me that I needed a permit for mahogany in addition to permits for my rosewood instruments. Now I had received a rather sweet and apologetic email from the female agent I had been corresponding with for months.
“I’m so sorry Mr. Walmsley. It’s all my fault,” she wrote. “I’ve had rosewood on the brain lately. I completely forgot about the mahogany.”
I’m a sucker for honest apologies. Nothing annoys me more than someone shifting the blame for their mistakes. It seems to happen more and more these days - in personal relationships, in business, in politics. It’s simply one of the least admirable traits I can think of. When someone actually takes ownership of a mistake and apologizes for it, it means a lot to me.
“I will get a new permit out to you as soon as possible,” she wrote. “I’m working on it now, but I will need you to send the original back.”
That sounded great to me, except for one small thing. The original permit was - you guessed it - in France.
Our next step was to figure out how to retrieve the suitcase. Even though it was a carry-on, it was pretty heavy and wouldn’t be cheap to ship. Of more concern was where to send it. We were still a couple of days away from arriving at our new home, and the possibility of the bag being mislaid again was unthinkable. That was when Marion’s brother stepped up. Marion had been keeping her family abreast of the going’s on. Her brother Juergen volunteered to drive from Munich to Strasbourg, over three hundred seventy kilometers, about a four-and-a-half hour drive each way, to pick up the suitcase. Lucky for us, Juergen likes to drive. Nevertheless, for this good deed he will attain sainthood.
My young cousin’s wedding was everything an English wedding should be - perfect weather, gorgeous country location (it doesn’t get better than the Lake District), beautiful bride, handsome groom, friends and family all decked out in their summer best - ladies in flowery dresses and big hats - lots of food, lots of drink, great live music, dancing, and, for the all-important extra dramatic touch, the bride’s very pregnant, one-week-overdue sister, adding a touch of “will she or won’t she deliver during the ceremony” to the proceedings. (She didn’t, by the way.) It was spectacular.
Having been born in England and raised by English parents, I have always felt at home here. In spite of this, due to my California upbringing there are a few small “holes” in my knowledge of all things British; gaps in my experience that I now hope to fill. One of these came to light the morning after the wedding. The previous day I had seen a sign somewhere on the hotel grounds announcing a “Wedding Breakfast.” This morning, after a day and night of partying, I woke up hungry and ready to tuck into a good meal. I went downstairs expecting to find breakfast preparations underway. I found a few wedding guests, but no breakfast. I peeked in the enormous tent where the previous days festivities had taken place. Nothing. In the lobby, suitcases were strewn about. Cars were being loaded. Everyone was leaving. Finally, I asked my cousin Pauline, mother of the bride, about breakfast.
“Oh, that was yesterday,” she said. “It’s the bride and groom’s first meal after the ceremony. They just call it the Wedding Breakfast.”
Oh, well. At least I hadn’t missed breakfast. I’d already had it! It was my first U.K. wedding, and it was absolutely brilliant.
Marion and I loaded the car and set off for Cornwall. It was a blazing hot day. Although the weather was spectacular, the U.K. was in fact in the midst of a six-week-long drought. Rain is the norm for England, and the reason the country is so incredibly green. The land utterly depends on it. Without the rain, streams dry up, the hills quickly become arid and brown; animals deplete the dry grass and farmers begin tapping into winter supplies of hay to feed their herds of sheep, cows and horses. Holiday-goers were thrilled with the sunny days and cloudless skies and headed straight for the beaches, but I found myself hoping for a nice, steady rain.
Two days later we arrived in Cornwall. Juergen had successfully recovered our suitcase in Strasbourg. Marion’s mother had been able to locate my original U.S.D.A. permit amid all the paperwork, and sent it off directly to Virginia. About five days later, the permit arrived at the U.S.D.A. and was signed for - then immediately misplaced - somewhere in the bowels of their offices. I forwarded the package tracking information to the agent, and she was kind enough to send the new permit, trusting that the original would eventually make its way to her desk. It did. By then, the U.K. had already issued me an import license, which I passed on to the U.K. receiving shipper. Our container finally got underway from Boston to Southampton, via New York. The trip itself took about three weeks. Upon arrival in Southampton, our container successfully cleared customs within a couple of days. For some reason, the U.K. shipper had difficulty locating a crew to deliver our things to Cornwall. After another two week delay, my instruments finally arrived - intact, and seemingly none the worse for wear. All in all, it had been a three-and-a-half month process. In the meantime, Marion and I had busied ourselves with starting a new life - opening a bank account, buying a car, registering with the National Health Service and enjoying the spectacular coastal paths, moors, historic churches and pubs of Cornwall. It had been a roller coaster summer, every day a new adventure. It could have gone a little more smoothly, but none of that mattered now.
We had made it.
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