London felt smaller today. After living here for six weeks, I’ve come to accept and even relish the solitude and anonymity that comes with commuting alone in a metropolis. But today, this huge city felt smaller, despite the streets being more crowded and the underground system more congested. I walked alongside hundreds of people, our very different minds turning over the same set of facts.
Some of us shared sidelong glances, asking ourselves, “What if?”
I woke up this morning, got ready for work and hopped on the Picadilly Line for my 20-minute commute. I stopped and got a latte and picked up a newspaper. The only flashy headline sprawled across the top of my free paper was about the trial of a teenager accused of murder — no mention of the closing of one of London’s busiest streets and certainly no mention of a foiled terrorist attack at 2 a.m.
In fact, my day was pretty normal until I checked the news online about an hour after I arrived at work. My coworkers at a travel magazine in Mayfair, about a two-minute walk from Picadilly Circus, had already heard the news about a defused car bombing near Picadilly’s theater district.
They seemed concerned and a little annoyed, but mostly unfazed. Since the explosives were found in a car outside of a popular nightclub just down the street from our office, our minds wondered each time a siren wailed outside our second-story window. Had something else happened?
I waited until lunchtime to phone my parents and my boyfriend, knowing they would just be waking up in the States. I wanted to tell them what had happened, even though I felt relatively safe, so they would be aware and not worry. Thanks to early-morning public radio and network television, my dad had already heard.
For those working in and walking around London, news of the incident and rumors circulated by the media were suffocating. Picadilly Circus was a chaotic combination of slowed traffic, scores of police and heavily crowded sidewalks. Word spread that there were second and third “suspicious vehicles” found around London, and the evening newspapers proclaimed headlines like “Terrorists bid to kill 1,700 in central London” and “Terror plot foiled by heroic ambulance workers.”
“Do you think it’s safe for me to take the tube home?” a friend called to ask.
“I sure hope so,” I replied. After all, the stations were open, and I did not plan to walk 45 minutes back to my flat in heels.
As I made my way to the underground station nearest my office, I took in the fresh sights of the city. Just hours and yards away from what could have been “massive carnage,” life went on. The homeless man on Shaftesbury snored loudly inside the doorstep of a closed bookstore; a group of American teenagers browsed music at Empire Records; and young women perused cosmetics inside a Picadilly drugstore.
The news of the foiled attack was impossible to escape, and I suppose that was exactly the result the terrorists wanted. But the people of London are no strangers to turmoil, disruption and threats. They are accustomed to chaos, sirens and headlines.
Among the people I spoke with, the day’s events brought about a mixture of curiosity, concern, anxiety and relief. Some people, like my roommate, were livid.
“How dare they? All day I’ve tried to think about this and understand it somehow, but in the end I am just angry,” she said to me, her hands trembling. “I called my mom and said, ‘I could have died last night.’ It could have been me.”
While others, like me, may shy away from center city nightclubs or dwell on the fact that terrorists are on the loose, my roommate — and probably many Londoners — refuses to let the abhorrent actions of a few scare her into living life any differently.
In the coming days and weeks, and during next Saturday’s two-year anniversary of the 7-07 bombings, the world will be watching London and this story. And through it all, whether fearful, livid or hardly fazed, Londoners will stay calm, look ahead and carry on with life.
I believe the attitudes and actions of Londoners, in response to this event, will make me proud to call this city home, if only for a summer.