16 November 2021

What you deserve


When I started my PhD at the Open University in 2008, England was a novelty. Our lives, Yoko and mine, had completely changed in the course of two years. We had both been two single people accidentally living in Northwest Japan, and then we were having children and living here, before here felt like a place you live rather than visit. Those first three years, we travelled when we could, going to the States and to Europe, to see as much as we could, because I was sure this would end at some point and I would end up back in Nagoya, in a better position than I had left, sure, but teaching English and making my family's gaijin-hafu life in Japan. We went to Paris the first year, after Mei was born and when she was still very small. We took the Eurostar and arrived at Gare du Nord like it was a magic trick. I remember it raining and raining, but then suddenly it was clear, and the final night, we walked through the Latin Quarter, with the double pushchair, the two girls sleeping and it felt like whatever sacrifices we had made to come here were worth it. We were in Paris.

I was in Paris again last week and the moment I realised my passport was missing, I was only several hundred feet from where I had been with the double pushchair eleven years ago. I realised this when I hung up the phone with Yoko after having been in the Parisian police station and I didn't have any sense of what I should do, which way I should walk, ten o'clock on a Wednesday evening in November. I should walk north, I thought at first, towards the big train stations and the hostels there. I could find a bunk bed for twenty euros, somewhere to stay for just the night before I could go to all the places I had been during the day to look for my passport. The museum was the most likely place I had lost it, where it must have fallen out of my pocket when I used the toilet or sat down to take a phone call from the girls' school saying one of them had been sick. It must have been then.  

This was the only thought I could have, that it had fallen out of my pocket when I wasn't paying attention, even though it hadn't for the previous day when I had been getting up and down on the bus. When I had slept on the bench on the ferry. It had not fallen out of my pocket. When I noticed it was gone, Landis and I ran back to two places we had last been and looked for it, but of course it wasn't there or then because of course it had been pickpocketed after I showed it to Landis when we crossed over the Seine and I was so engrossed in whatever it was that we were talking about that I don't even remember those thirty minutes of my life. I would have been the easiest target, but that thought did not even occur to me. It didn't even cross my mind.

The week before, I had been running hills early in the morning on Harborne Park Road and there was some commotion across the street, a car alarm going off, and a car pulling dangerously into traffic and then stopping suddenly. When I came back down on a return, the car door was open and there were cars stopped behind it. On the next return, it was clear then that the car had been abandoned, and there was a man standing out in front of the car, and a bus behind, stuck, with more and more cars stuck behind it. I got home, and it finally occurred to me that the alarm had been real, that someone had been stealing the car. I hadn't seen anything useful, nothing to report, but it had been an attempted robbery, hadn't it, but my mind had not been able to process it, until well after the fact.

I told people for a day that I had lost my passport, because I was sure it had been lost, that I had been careless in some way and this was the punishment for my attempt to get away for a day and leave my job and family for some frivolous, selfish time with a friend. It was now costing more and more with each hour that passed and I had completely failed at my plan. When I was alone and didn't know what I would do, I didn't feel fear or anger, but shame and guilt. This was, of course, what I deserved.

In 2021, a stolen passport is not nearly the worst thing that can happen to you in Paris. I applied for my emergency documents after I went back to the Rodin museum to confirm it wasn't there and a kind woman helped me find a good place to take a picture against a wall. I booked a hotel and was upgraded to the garret. They called me from the UK to check why the name of my place of birth didn't match my city of birth, and the next morning, like a dream, I entered the British Consulate in Paris as a British citizen. In 2021, you can book plane tickets on your phone for a flight back to London in six hours for £70 and be back in your bed that night like you had just spent the day at work. I remember thinking this same thing on the Eurostar, coming back from Paris with the kids in 2009, as we came into St Pancras — how close everything is. In 36 hours, it's almost as though nothing had happened at all.

I paid all the money I needed to and was back at work on Saturday afternoon, working the English Subject Area table at our university Open Day like I had been planning. I had only been away from the house on Victoria Road for an extra night. Everyone asked me for a week what had happened, and I told the story in an increasingly efficient way, hitting only the high points, and downplaying any chance that I had lost it, that it had been my fault. Of course, it wasn't my fault. The whole thing was expensive, but money stolen is, for some reason, easier to stomach than money lost. It did feel better, slightly better, slightly more forgivable. I've been told you can forgive yourself for anything if you can just let yourself. I've been told that there are some bad things that happen to you that aren't actually your fault. I'd like to believe that, but my phantom faith begs to differ. When you're a sinner, everything is your fault and no one will just forgive you, not even God. Of course, I say I don't believe this anymore: You can say you've stopped believing, anyone can say they stopped believing. The real trick is meaning it.