Virtue & Mischief: Welcome to London


I recently attended a lunch for a group of University of Dayton employees, gleaned from every division of the institution, who have participated in a program designed to identify and foster leadership skills.

The program runs for an entire school year and each “Leadership UD” cohort is comprised of 20-30 individuals. As the program has been up and running for about 15 years, there are now 300 or so “alumni.” Thus, when we get together en masse (as we did for lunch last week), there are lots of people there whom I don’t know and lots of people who don’t know me.

This is a minor dilemma because one of the goals of the program—in addition to helping identify and develop leaders across campus—is to engender greater awareness of what other departments do and to promote increased levels of collaboration across departments. In order to address this problem, the organizers drafted an interactive worksheet. It had about 20 Christmas-related queries on it, and we were tasked with finding someone from the teeming horde who could sign off on each one. A few examples: “Has completed their Christmas shopping,” “Loves hot chocolate with marshmallows,” and “Enjoys drinking egg nog.” Cheesy, yes, but surprisingly effective. In the course of completing my worksheet I met several folks for the first time, learned where in the university they work, and even a little about what they do. Mission accomplished.

One of the questions on the worksheet caused me to pause and reflect a bit, and I’ve been doing so for the past several days: “Has celebrated Christmas in a foreign country.”

For the 1976-77 school year, my parents, younger sister Barbie, and I lived in Bergen, Norway. On a Saturday morning in December of that year, we drove the 20 miles or so from our apartment to the Bergen International Airport to catch a flight scheduled for the early afternoon. A heavy snow began to fall, so we left a bit earlier than normal to ensure we’d arrive at the airport in a timely fashion. By three in the afternoon, our flight was postponed due to the weather conditions and we had no idea when it would be rescheduled. We settled in for what ultimately proved to be a 20 hour stay in tiny Flesland Airport, reading books, playing cards, and napping as best we could. Sometime in the wee hours of Sunday morning our airplane finally boarded and we arrived at London’s Gatwick around 4 a.m.

By 5:30 we checked into our London hotel and my sister and I followed an amiable Pakistani bellhop charged with escorting us to our room. He took us to the second floor, wandered a few moments through the labyrinthine hallways, set a couple of our bags down momentarily, removed a set of keys from his pocket, and unlocked the door to one of the rooms.

Bleary-eyed, I gathered one of our suitcases and followed him inside. He flicked on the light and my bleary eyes and foggy brain came immediately to life, for there—perhaps ten feet away from my now hammering heart—were two adults in flagrante delicto. For those of you not versed in basic Latin, allow me to rephrase: For a few fleeting moments, an immigrant from the middle east and a teen-aged boy from West Lafayette, Indiana became an unlikely pair, fellow witnesses to a live and unintended pornographic display at 5:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, Dec. 19, 1976, (to be precise) in an otherwise forgettable hotel in a moderately upscale district of London, England.

My inquisitive, hormone-addled adolescent gray matter had always speculated what such amorous activity might look like, but to see and even hear it…ummm…up close and personal, so to speak, was more than I was able to fully register. The bellhop muttered the Pakistani equivalent of “Ooops” and backed out the door. I, however, stood transfixed for a few seconds and even now, nearly 40 years later, recall a few of the questions that instantaneously coursed through my neural pathways. “Are they…?” [Yes.] “Is that…?” [Not sure, but probably.] “Is Barbie seeing what I’m seeing?” [No. I learned later that in her fatigue she was moving significantly more slowly than the bellhop and I. She remained in the hallway for a few moments and by the time she began to enter the room the bellhop was exiting; he and I had completely obstructed any view she might otherwise have “enjoyed.” She later confessed to me that she was envious and peppered me with completely understandable questions about what I’d witnessed, posed from the perspective of a 14-year-old girl.] After perhaps 5-10 seconds of stunned ogling, I also backed out of the room. I uttered nothing as I departed, and the couple never ceased their activity or otherwise acknowledged awareness of our presence.

This was my first and—to date—only trip to London, the home of many beautiful sites and steeped in extraordinary history. We visited the Tower of London, Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, the British Museum, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey (my favorite site). I saw the crown jewels, walked in the footsteps of Sir Thomas More, visited the final resting place of Isaac Newton, William Wilberforce, Charles Darwin, and Geoffrey Chaucer. Still, my most indelible memory of our Christmas in London—exactly 40 years ago now—was what I witnessed in that hotel room and what the embarrassed bellhop muttered to us as we continued our journey toward our correct destination: “Heheh. Errr. Welcome to London….”

By Timothy Swensen

Virtue and Mischief

Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at [email protected]. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

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