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The View From Here

In London, encountering hugs and bomb threats

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I was having lunch in a restaurant called Jerusalem when the planes first hit. As we were waiting for the bill, a friend sent a text message to my cell phone that said, "Holy shit! A plane crashed into the World Trade Center." I don't know why I thought he was joking, but I wrote back, "Not funny."

Seconds later my phone beeped again. This time the message said: "2 planes. Turn on your TV."

I am the only American working at the London-based publishing company Time Out, where I write and edit travel guide books. As I nearly ran into the building a few minutes later, people kept stopping me. "Have you heard?" they all said. After the first tower fell, I tried to call my mother in Houston, but the international lines were jammed. That was the most frightening moment for me. When I dialed the number, the phone would just go dead. It was as if there was no America to call anymore.

My hands were shaking by the time I got through, and when she answered the phone, her voice quivered. "Thank God you're OK," she kept saying, as if it had happened here.

As we talked, my friend Tim called on my cell phone to say he'd been evacuated from his office a few blocks from mine, and would I be interested in evacuating myself to a nearby pub that had CNN? The walk there was surreal. There was no traffic on the normally busy street, and clusters of people stood in front of the windows of electronics stores on Tottenham Court Road watching the televisions with horror. Behind them stood television crews, filming their reactions.

The pub was packed; everybody stared at the television screens lining the wall. It was eerily silent except for the voice of CNN news anchor Judy Woodruff. People whispered when they ordered drinks. The last thing my mother had said to me on the phone was, "Promise me if anybody asks where you're from you'll say Canada. Just for now." But within seconds a man overheard me talking, and asked, "Are you American?" and I couldn't bring myself to lie. So I struck a compromise. "Yes, but we're all Canadian now for security purposes," I said.

He had a soft Irish brogue that I found strangely comforting, and he said: "I lived in the States for 12 years, and I feel like this has happened to me. It must be worse for you, though. I just want to tell you how sorry I am." I said, "I think this has happened to all of us."

In the solemn hush of the bar, everybody could hear us talking, and after that, whenever someone walked by me, they would reach out and pat me on the shoulder. It happened over and over again. It was so strange. Londoners don't tend to touch strangers unless it's absolutely necessary. It was as if they wanted to comfort all of us -- all Americans -- and I was the one they could reach.

Since then, though, it's become much more personal. Londoners are familiar with terrorism. They know all too well how vulnerable their city is, and they're waiting now for something to happen here, with an eerie sense of anticipation. Friday morning, on my way to work in central London, I encountered five bomb scares in 30 minutes. After the second one, I stopped in at a coffee shop to reassess the wisdom of living here.

While waiting for my latte to be steamed and poured, I ran into a co-worker. Sam is the rarest of creatures: a British surfer. His perpetual suntan may be faint (he surfs in Wales), but he shares the laidback attitude that distinguishes surfers from the rest of us. Like me, he had been ejected from the subway a stop early, due to a security alert. We meandered the rest of the way together, taking a left or a right every time we encountered white police tape blocking another street. As we finally rounded the corner onto our street, we saw a dozen people standing still, staring at Centrepoint -- at 25 stories, one of the tallest office buildings in low-slung London -- as if they were waiting for something to happen to it. It was unnerving.

"Watch this, God," Sam said suddenly, looking up at the blue skies and fluffy white clouds above Tottenham Court Road. He walked over to an old homeless man and his dog who always sit in front of the theater running The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Reaching out with a friendly smile, he handed the old man a pound coin. Walking away he said to the sky, only half joking, "Ya see that, God? Not bad, huh?"

London is scared to death, but, like you, we're hanging on.

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