During the preparation of my dissertation, I traveled to London because of bureaucratic red tape. At the time, my economic situation was rapidly improving and I contemplated a shopping spree at the exciting metropolis.
As an Israeli citizen, I was entitled to a visa upon arrival. Besides that I had a return ticket and a golden credit card proving I had enough funds for my visit. Therefore, I didn’t expect any trouble from British immigration at the Heathrow Airport.
"What do you do?" the officer asked when I arrived at the airport.
"I work and study."
"What do you study?"
I answered precisely, but the officer looked at me with a blank expression on his face.
"It’s a field related to NMR," I further clarified.
My early assumptions that all this was "common knowledge" collapsed.
"Nuclear Magnetic Resonance," I added dryly, hoping to discourage him.
"Is it related to nuclear weapons?" he asked, suddenly alert.
"No, it’s used in the medical industry to image peoples’ brains," I said, in a last attempt to deter him.
Without an additional word he stamped my passport. Once outside, searching for a taxi and eager to arrive at the room I rented beforehand, I forgot the whole incident.
A few days later, after I had finished my sightseeing and the other duties I had come for, I headed for Oxford Street. A famous music store and the Harrods’ department store were there. It was time for my shopping spree. Once on Oxford Street, I couldn’t spot the stores I had wanted to visit, so I took out a folding map of London and began studying it. Immersed in my task, I failed to see the gentleman approaching me, but clearly heard his question, asked centimeters away from my ear: "Do you buy weapons?"
Startled, I looked at him. He was dressed like a perfect English gentleman, down to the dark umbrella in his right hand. The picture of the immigration officer reentered my mind and I left without answering the question. What was happening? Was he trying to entrap me? How had they heard of my involvement in the nuclear industry? What had happened to the proverbial – almost mythological – British common sense, I wondered as Harrods’ imposing structure appeared in front of me? Shocked at what had happened, I threw away the map in a handy trash bin – it was my last day in the city anyway – and entered the shop.
Quickly setting aside this second security incident in a few days, I bought several things; among them was a beautiful coffee machine. The design was innovative and based upon an Italian classical coffee machine, but instead of an upper receptacle for the coffee, there was a tiny shelf where the coffee could drip down into espresso cups. It was solidly built of stainless steel and was a perfect souvenir. At the coffee shop, for the first time, I tasted a cup of the Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee – considered to be among the finest coffees in the world – and I was happy.
Next day – back at the airport – my luggage was routinely x-rayed and then I was asked to open it.
"What’s that?" the officer asked pointing at the coffee machine.
I answered and showed the original box and the purchase receipt. Then I opened the machine and explained how it worked. Satisfied, the officer told me: "I’ve never seen anything like it."
For the second time in a week, I lowered my definition of what could be termed "common knowledge," and "common sense" was erased from my lexicon altogether. I would learn to be more careful in the future.
(The Cross of Bethlehem, Excerpt from Chapter 28. The Weapons Dealer)