07 July 2005
Is that all you got?
My favorite city outside the US? London (Dublin, please don't be angry with me. It was a very close vote). I've been lucky enough to visit the city five times in the last ten years. I feel like I know it as well as any other place on Earth, except for Chicago.
First visit was the summer of 1995, the first stop on a 28 day odyssey of the European continent. It was my first time abroad, and I was rather green. I had no clue where anything was or how to get to anywhere. Then I discovered the Underground. Things became much, much easier. We were staying just a block or so from the station at Marble Arch.
I may have been a little too appreciative and excited about the efficiency of the Tube, as I compared every other transit system we took that trip to it. I believe my traveling companions grew sick of it quickly. One got the message though. My Christmas gift that year from her was a mouse pad of the Underground map. I still use it today.
I returned to London by myself in the autumn of 1996 as the gateway and terminus of a trip to Ireland. Since I was by myself I ventured off the path a bit, to places that we did not have time to see the year before. I took the Tube to places where it stops being the Tube for quite a distance before and resembles more of Chicago's El. Wimbledon, Cockfoster's (heh), Upminster, and other places I rode to just because of their names. "White City" by Pete Townshend is my favorite album/CD of all time. How could I not go there (not recommended, by the way)?
I repeated the trip in October of 1997. This would be the time when I barfed almost directly on the Gates of Kensington Palace, still covered with flowers and cards in tribute to the recently deceased Princess Diana, in front of about seven million people. Yeah, I'm not too fond of talking about that. I will say, however, that it had nothing to do with grief or alcohol, and much to do with my stomach simply expressing its dissatisfaction with a week of heavy breakfasts.
On that 1997 trip I arrived at Heathrow at 6 AM. I couldn't check into my hotel until noon, so the plan was take the Tube into central London, drop my bag off at the hotel and find something to do for a few hours. I took the Piccadilly line from the airport into the city, planning on switching lines at Green Park. When you switch lines on the Underground, you normally have to walk either up or down a long series of stairs to one or more levels, and I did so at Green Park.
There were a lot of people on the platform. Someone had been hit by a train along another line, causing a disruption. It was announced as "a person under a train" ( I do love the way the English say things). Green Park had become the place for people to get off trains for one line that was now shut down.
It was rush hour. Apparently everyone in London takes the train to get to work. Unwilling to fight the crowds and in no particular hurry to get anywhere, I slid up against a wall and waited out the rush. I didn't get on a train until ten o'clock. Later, after dropping off my bag, I fell asleep on a bench inside the London Planetarium, (which I had mistakenly thought was Madame Tussard's. And yes, I was really, really tired) and earned the wrath of a woman who felt the need to kick me out, so much so that she mocked me endlessly in her proper British voice until she could no longer see me. I was lost inside the building and I managed to wander past her again minutes later. She squealed "You again? What is your bloody problem?" in the most properly polite bitch-slapping manner possible. When I told her I had no idea where the exit was, she proceeded to tell me that if I had listened to her in the first place, I would be halfway home by now. Her tone was amazing, like she was comforting me as she bandaged a wound. So very British.
So this morning when I woke to the news of the bombings on the London Underground, I felt it, because it's been a big part of my wandering over the last decade of my life. I love the city passionately. I love how easy it is to get around. And I love the English. I've never had a bad moment with them, even when I am getting sick on the doorsteps of their dead icons.
When I heard that three bombs exploded in the subway during rush hour, I expected a death toll over 200, remembering how crowded it was that morning back in 1997. If it is possible to be happy over the events of today, the fact that only 40 people died makes me happy. Perhaps I should say "relieved" instead.
One of the things that attract me to Britain is its history. I'm from America, where it's a big deal to see something that has beenaround for a century or two. When I have been in London and have toured the Tower of London or visited the crypts at St. Paul's, I've been struck at all that has happened in that part of the world. Today, I recall that, and I also remember that the Brits have been through much worse than this.
Try visiting the Cabinet War Rooms from World War II and you'll see what I mean. The Blitz, the IRA-London has been through worse.
And I can see London's reaction to what has happened today, people in the pubs figuring out how they will get to work tomorrow and move on, not letting this alter their way of life. I see them holding their palms out and saying "is that all you got?"
(Very politely, of course)