Wednesday, 9 February 2011

"Are you ever afraid?"

Since moving to the UK, I am often asked “Are you ever afraid?” No one ever really finishes the sentence though. I wonder….Afraid of the tube? (At rush hour – Yes, mortally so!) Afraid of black pudding? (Yes! Still not sure what it is exactly!) Afraid of roundabouts? (Yes! Yes!) Afraid of a terrorist attack? Well, doesn’t ever really cross my mind….not really until now.
Formerly bombed neighborhood in Belfast

However, daily reminders of such violence can be found all over London, and in the most unexpected places – memorial plaques at tube stations and even at Harrods, constantly changing color coded terror alerts with no warning or explanation, only speculation, stringent airline security measures that surprise even me, and the daily papers full of ongoing memorials, enquiries and editorials to the events of 7/7 when coordinated suicide attacks on the tube and buses killed 52 commuters.

It never really crossed my mind until I spent five days in Belfast. A seemingly peaceful, albeit divided city even now. Huge walls, larger than life murals, and decidely distinct divisions still between Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods.

Bobby Sands mural
I was in Belfast on the day bomb packages were discovered on planes in East Midlands, UK and Dubai that failed to detonate, on the day our day trip to Dublin was thwarted as a bomb was found on the main train line out of Belfast, on the day a found car bomb did not explode at the airport, but on the day one did explode in the west Belfast. We were staying meters away from a hotel that that has the dubious honor of being the most bombed hotel in the Europe. (Yes, that’s bit of information is touted everywhere in the city and, yes, it’s a fully booked hotel.) All of this does make you start to think.

You are suddenly aware of your personal space and safety, living in a city like London. Certain areas of the city are just simply uncomfortable to be in – they are dark and rough and old. In areas of the city, English is not the predominant language. In areas of the city, women are fully covered in chador. For that matter, in some areas, they are barely covered in anything. And the fact you’re hard pressed to find a public garbage can to throw away your coffee cup for fear of it being a potential bomb receptacle is simply annoying. And if you think you can run into any store or public mall wearing your favorite hoody because you’re having a bad hair day, you are always asked to remove it and anything else that obscures your face. All of this, at times, leads to a sense of unease and irritation as I navigate day to day tasks that, at one point in my life, were quite effortless and simple. Now they simply aren’t either.

From the Ulster Museum

Perhaps none of this has crossed my mind until because I didn’t want it to. I would never change this experience of living abroad and it has given me a new found respect for those countries and communities that live with the threat of violence on a daily basis. It has given me a new found respect for the security and comfort, if imagined, that I took for granted living in the States. It’s given me a curious respect of other languages and cultures and communities and ways of being that I have never really been exposed to. But admittedly, sometimes I want to run home to family and big spaces and big homes with big refrigerators and warm, big quilts to feel safe again in a world that really isn’t.

The other day, my dear friend Julie was relating her experience about what it was like to be in Central London on 7/7, and what silenced me was that she said it never crossed her mind to not go to work on the tube the next day. She added "The tube was completely packed".  As they say, Keep Calm and Carry On.

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