One night in London – A true story


After long and exhausting search for the right production equipment at the right price, I narrowed it down to one company located in Milan, Italy.

Since this was the first time that I did business with this company, I was cautious. The new line was supposed to be a difference maker; the line that will put our plant ahead of the competition.  To help convincing me that I was making the right choice, the Italian equipment manufacturer offered to show me a similar machine in another pharmaceutical plant in Lyon (France) during my upcoming trip to Milan to discuss the new machine with the design team.  On my way to Lyon I had to stop in London to change planes. I decided to make a detour on the way and take a vacation while traveling to Europe. As a personal expense I purchased a round trip ticket from London to Tel Aviv and flew to Israel to visit my family. These were the days of the second intifada when Palestinians committed terrorist attacks against innocent Israeli civilians on a daily basis.

My family lives very close to a Palestinian city and every night, while I was there, armed Palestinians were firing at our town. One night a young girl was injured from a bullet that entered her living room.  The situation became unbearable and it didn’t stop until the Israeli government decided to put an end to it. In a military offensive, the Israeli army took over territories that Israel gave back to the Palestinians few years earlier as part of the Oslo agreement. One of the most famous battles during this period was the Battle of Jenin; in April 2002 Israeli soldiers took over a large refugee camp in a bitter battle. The Palestinians blamed Israel of killing civilians and called it the Jenin Massacre. The Arab world was beside itself. Large pro-Palestinians demonstrations took place in many cities and universities around the world. Anti-Israeli sentiments were at their peak.

I left Israel few days after the Jenin Battle. It was my first time in London. My host made a reservation for me in a hotel in Heathrow airport. I was tired and I took a taxi directly to the hotel. I checked in; the clerk asked me to leave my passport with him for registration. I went up to my room and took a nap. I woke up around 10:00 pm. I was hungry so I went down to the hotel restaurant. I stopped at the front desk and picked up my passport. The lobby was full of Arabic speaking people and so was the restaurant. It was crowded and I had to navigate my way between people to get to the hotel’s restaurant. Arabic music played loudly in the lobby and in the restaurant. I’m not sure what the event was, it wasn’t a wedding, it could have been a political event as it was a men only event. The place looked more like a hotel in Cairo than in London.

Given the situation, the strong anti-Israeli sentiments, and the fact that the battle of Jenin was fresh on everyone’s mind, I felt uncomfortable being there. Although I used my American passport, it was clearly stated in it that I was born in Israel; my name certainly didn’t help hiding my identity. I didn’t know if the clerk noticed that I was an Israeli and whether or not he shared it with other people. I assumed he didn’t and decided not to get too excited about it. I Left the restaurant  and went back to my room for the night.

When I tried to lock the door I found out that the lock was missing. I didn’t remember that it was missing before, but it could have been that I didn’t pay attention to it earlier. I jammed a chair against the handle to keep it shut and sat by the window. I didn’t feel safe enough to go to sleep . I planned on remaining awake all night. I didn’t want to stay there so I went back down to the lobby, which was a public place and felt safer. It was almost midnight and the hotel was even busier than before. I stepped outside and noticed another hotel about half a mile away. It had a bright neon sign with the Holiday Inn logo on it. I left my belongings at the hotel and walked in the dark toward the Holiday In. I stepped inside and asked the clerk if there was a vacant room. He said that a room was available and I took it. I requested a wakeup call for 6:00 am and went up to my room.

Loud noise woke me up. It was dark and I was disoriented. It took me few minutes to remember where I was. I looked at the clock; it was 3:00 am. The loud noise continued and I realized that it was the fire alarm. The Holiday Inn was a circular hotel so I followed the corridor until I found an emergency exit and went outside. The emergency door closed and locked behind me. No one else but me was outside. It was dark. Light rain began to drop from the dark sky; there was no place for me to take cover from it. I waited in the dark, in the rain, for about half an hour; no one came out but me. I walked around the building until I found the main entrance. I asked the clerk if I could go back in. He said that it was a false alarm; someone smoked in the room and triggered the fire alarm. I went back to my room and fell on the bed. I was exhausted.

At 6:00 am I went downstairs, checked out at the Holiday Inn and walked back to my original hotel. There was no sign for last night’s party. I went up to my room, got my suitcase, and checked out. I took the hotel shuttle back to the terminal and arrived in Lyon few hours later. It was a successful business trip; I ended up buying that machine and few years later I bought two more machines of the same model. These machine were excellent.

I learned a lesson from that trip; when you are traveling to a different country, expect the unexpected and plan for it. As Jews and Israelis we have one more thing to take into consideration once we leave our protected environment – ensuring our safety in places where we might not be so popular. It could be anywhere, even in London. Since that trip I make all my travel arrangements by myself. I leave nothing to chance.

Comment on the original story (5-25-13)

I woke up one morning and checked my blog to find unusual high activity. It was a record day; more people visited my blog that day than ever before. Everyone was reading this one story, which was unusual by itself. I didn’t know why until I read the tragic news from London.

When I published the story I had no idea that a week later a British soldier will be murdered on a London street by a radical Muslim. Does my experience of one night in a London hotel reflect on what London is all about? Not at all, it could have had happened in any European city. Some people liked the story, other commented that I overreacted. Perhaps it is so; no threat was made against me. However, in light of the recent tragic event, I feel that the decision to switch hotels was the right decision. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

My second trip to London had a bizarre twist to it as well. I don’t think that it’s a reflection of what London is about; it was just a coincidence that I landed in London on July 22, 2005, the day when an innocent man was shot dead as a suspected terrorist in the subway by the police. It was a time when London was targeted by a terrorist cell, which killed 52 innocent people in the subway few weeks earlier. I came to London with a business associate. We were on our way from Italy to Manchester to inspect a machine that was constructed for our plant. Our meeting was on Monday so we decided to spend the weekend in London. We didn’t realize that we will be landing into a chaos.

Growing up in Israel, I didn’t feel threatened by the previous terrorist attacks. In fact I told my business associate that London was the safest place in the world that day; Police cars rushed through London’s streets with their lights and sirens on all day. It could have been a gloomy first real visit to a city I always wanted to visit, but it was such a beautiful summer day and London is so pretty and friendly that I fell in love with the city. I haven’t been there since then, but it is at the top of my list as a destination for a trip with my wife next time we are in Europe.