An Amer­i­can tourist in Lon­don

Keep­ing calm af­ter ter­ror­ist at­tacks

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PERSPECTIVE - AN­DREA SACHS

Tourists are re­silient, but cau­tious. Af­ter the March knife at­tack out­side the Bri­tish Par­lia­ment and the Manch­ester bombing in May, Bernard Donoghue, direc­tor of Lon­don’s As­so­ci­a­tion of Lead­ing Visi­tor At­trac­tions, said that the or­ga­ni­za­tion no­ticed a slight dip in vis­its to cen­tral Lon­don at­trac­tions. But over­all the num­bers are strong: an 8 per­cent in­crease com­pared with the same pe­riod last year.

“Re­cov­ery af­ter the Lon­don Bridge at­tack was within five, six, seven days,” he said. “It hasn’t had a last­ing im­pact.”

Visit Lon­don and Visit Bri­tain shared the find­ings of For­ward Keys, which an­a­lyzed book­ing data from this year and 2016. The re­search com­pany dis­cov­ered a 19 per­cent in­crease in ar­rivals from the United States to the United King­dom dur­ing the peak travel months of June, July and Au­gust.

“Lon­don re­mains a safe city to visit,” said Laura Citron, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Lon­don & Part­ners, which runs Visit Lon­don, “and peo­ple should be re­as­sured that there is an in­creased po­lice and se­cu­rity pres­ence around Lon­don and at the city’s visi­tor at­trac­tions.”

Af­ter the Manch­ester at­tacks, the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment raised the threat level to “crit­i­cal,” the coun­try’s high­est. Four days later, the dan­ger level dropped back to “se­vere,” the new nor­mal since Au­gust 2014. The Armed Re­sponse Of­fi­cers re­treated to the back­ground, and the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Po­lice Ser­vice, whose mem­bers mainly wear stab-re­sis­tant vests and carry ex­tend­able ba­tons, re­turned as the most vis­i­ble pres­ence on the streets.

“We have a his­tory of deal­ing with se­cu­rity is­sues,” said Donoghue, evok­ing the trou­bles with the Ir­ish Repub­li­can Army. “The Bri­tish have a charm­ing, re­as­sur­ing at­ti­tude. We want to live our lives de­fi­antly and de­lib­er­ately.”

But what about the for­eign visi­tor whose lip is more quiv­er­ing than stiff? Re­cently, I crossed the At­lantic to find out if an Amer­i­can in Lon­don could keep calm and carry on.

Be­fore set­ting off, I reached out to In­ter­na­tional SOS for some safety tips. Should I avoid con­cert halls, bridges, out­door mar­kets?

Matt Bradley, a re­gional se­cu­rity direc­tor, re­minded me of the greater threats to trav­el­ers, such as petty crime, traf­fic ac­ci­dents and gas­troin­testi­nal re­volts. “Ter­ror­ism re­mains a low risk to

trav­el­ers,” he said, “but the in­crease in at­tacks, es­pe­cially in West­ern Europe, has raised the pro­file of ter­ror­ism for all trav­el­ers.”

In­stead of avoid­ance, he rec­om­mended prepa­ra­tion. “Any lo­ca­tion could be a tar­get,” he said, “so know­ing how to re­spond in case of an in­ci­dent is the most im­por­tant con­cept.” This means:.

● Iden­tify a safe lo­ca­tion, such as a nearby ho­tel, where you can seek cover in the event of an at­tack.

● Keep your phone fully charged, and bring a bat­tery pack as backup.

● Carry a min­i­mal num­ber of items when out ex­plor­ing.

● As­sem­ble a list of emer­gency con­tacts, such as phone num­bers for the em­bassy, your ho­tel, in­sur­ance com­pany and fam­ily mem­bers.

● For of­fi­cial in­for­ma­tion, fol­low the so­cial me­dia ac­counts of lo­cal po­lice and other emer­gency ser­vice providers.

● Re­main calm.

“The abil­ity to think clearly is key to re­spond­ing to an in­ci­dent,” Bradley said.

Mobs of peo­ple are in­evitable dur­ing Lon­don’s peak sum­mer tourist sea­son. Ex­pect longer queues at top at­trac­tions due to en­hanced se­cu­rity mea­sures. “Peo­ple are pre­pared to show their bags,” Donoghue said, “and are read­ily ex­pect­ing it and feel­ing re­as­sured.”

Af­ter the Manch­ester at­tack, Kens­ing­ton Palace amped up bag searches. Be­fore, the royal res­i­dence re­quired guests to check over­sized car­ri­ers and deep back­packs. Now the staff in­spects all totes at ev­ery en­try point, in­clud­ing the Palace Cafe.

At the Tower of Lon­don, a man squeezed the bot­tom of my bag and briefly gazed in­side it. At the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum, the guard shined a flash­light into its dark re­cesses. To ac­cess Hu­tong restau­rant on the 33rd floor of the Shard, I had to walk

through a metal de­tec­tor and send my bag through an X-ray ma­chine.

The heav­i­est se­cu­rity check was at the O2, the con­cert venue and din­ing des­ti­na­tion. All vis­i­tors are fun­neled through one door sur­rounded by a for­est of se­cu­rity guards. Ma­chines X-rayed peo­ple and things. On the other side of the de­tec­tor, I was greeted by the snuf­fling nose of a bomb-sniff­ing English springer spaniel.

As I zigzagged my way around Lon­don, I heard the bird­song of Amer­i­can ac­cents and not one im­pa­tient chirp about the se­cu­rity checks. Out­side the Tower of Lon­don, I met a group of Mary­land high-school­ers re­lax­ing dur­ing a brief break in their hec­tic four-coun­try itin­er­ary.

Their com­pany, EF Ed­u­ca­tional Tours, had told the nearly 40 par­tic­i­pants that they could opt out of any at­trac­tions they didn’t feel com­fort­able vis­it­ing. The op­er­a­tor also scotched all travel by Tube, trans­port­ing stu­dents, par­ents and teach­ers by coach in­stead.

The at­tacks aren’t crimp­ing Princess Diana’s style; the Kens­ing­ton Palace ex­hibit, “Diana: Her Fashion Story,” is sold out through early Au­gust. Nor have they si­lenced Pink Floyd. Since mid-May, the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum has sold more than 155,000 tick­ets to the “Pink Floyd: Their Mor­tal Re­mains” show, which closes Oct. 1.

Re­cently the V&A un­veiled the Ex­hi­bi­tion Road Quar­ter, an ex­ten­sion with a porce­lain-tiled court­yard, cafe, vis­i­tors’ cen­ter, gallery and gift shop. The new en­trance, once a for­bid­ding stone gate, draws in pedes­tri­ans along Ex­hi­bi­tion Road, a cul­tural thor­ough­fare with sci­ence and nat­u­ral his­tory

mu­se­ums and aca­demic cen­ters.

“It wasn’t a wel­com­ing face to the space,” Lucy Hawes, a press of­fi­cer with the mu­seum, said. Now, guests step through a big, gap­toothed smile.

It was easy to dis­tance my­self from re­cent events. Star­ing at the royal jew­els in­side the Tower of Lon­don, I thought about whether the Im­pe­rial State Crown gives Queen El­iz­a­beth II a headache. I won­dered if the wool tweed suit Princess Diana wore on her hon­ey­moon was hot and itchy. I lost my­self in the mu­sic of Pink Floyd and loudly mur­mured a song or two while in­side the head­phone bub­ble.

“You can tell the Amer­i­cans,” said my friend Tim Wil­son from New­cas­tle, a re­tired po­lice of­fi­cer. “They move their heads to the mu­sic. The English would never do that, un­less no one was look­ing.”

But I couldn’t es­cape for long. I felt a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to re­flect on the at­tacks and of­fer my sym­pa­thies to the vic­tims, even if there were no ears to re­ceive my words.

Donoghue told me that for­eign and do­mes­tic vis­i­tors were ap­proach­ing tourist in­for­ma­tion cen­ters to share their grief and ex­press sol­i­dar­ity with the res­i­dents of Lon­don and Manch­ester. He sug­gested that I walk over Lon­don Bridge and ven­ture into Bor­ough Mar­ket, a hon­ey­comb of food pur­vey­ors and pubs. “It taps into a great well of feel­ing,” he said.

One evening I joined the flow of com­muters travers­ing the ex­panse over the Thames. As they con­tin­ued on­ward to their homes or happy hours, I stopped at a shrine to the vic­tims.

Friends and fam­ily mem­bers had taped photos and mes­sages onto the wall and placed can­dles, flow­ers and flags on the ground. Sev­eral peo­ple had left skate­boards, a trib­ute to Ig­na­cio Echev­er­ría, the Spa­niard who had at­tempted to res­cue a woman by fend­ing off a ter­ror­ist with his skate­board.

“Hope you are skat­ing up there in the clouds,” one note read.

At the ter­mi­nus, an il­lu­mi­nated board urged any­one with in­for­ma­tion about the at­tack to call the hot­line. Signs in store­front win­dows broad­cast their love and sup­port of the neigh­bor­hood and shared web­sites ac­cept­ing do­na­tions for the vic­tims. Restau­rants ad­ver­tised dis­counts to first re­spon­ders.

In my ho­tel lobby, I searched the faces—Amer­i­can busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives, Mus­lims cel­e­brat­ing the end of Ra­madan, Adele con­cert­go­ers—for Tim. We set off for a day of sight­see­ing, with a side of law en­force­ment.

Not count­ing Tim, I had only seen four po­lice of­fi­cers, and no weapons, since ar­riv­ing three days ear­lier. By com­par­i­son, on a re­cent trip to New York, as soon as I ar­rived in Penn Sta­tion I ex­pe­ri­enced a full as­sault of of­fi­cers sling­ing guns as large as ele­phant trunks. “We’re covert,” he said, “not overt.”

On our stroll to the V&A Mu­seum, we passed a few of­fi­cers, all on foot, as­sist­ing an in­jured woman. Tim ex­plained that the po­lice op­er­ate as mo­bile units and drop into emer­gen­cies as needed.

Not far from the mu­seum, a po­lice car had pulled over a Mercedes con­vert­ible. Sev­eral Mid­dle East­ern men hold­ing Sel­fridges shop­ping bags waited on the curb while an of­fi­cer in­spected the trunk. Most likely, Tim said, the men had bought the car dur­ing their visit to Lon­don and had not pur­chased in­sur­ance. The po­lice would im­pound the car and the men would re­turn home, aban­don­ing the lux­ury ve­hi­cle.

Not far from my ho­tel in Kens­ing­ton, we ven­tured into the Shepherd’s Bush neigh­bor­hood. A concierge had told me that we could see the rem­nants of Gren­fell Tower, the pub­lic hous­ing build­ing con­sumed by fire in mid-June. But the trees ob­structed our view. Tim pointed out the cam­eras in­stalled out­side a shop­ping cen­ter. He said they would de­ter any trou­ble­mak­ers.

“The po­lice are right on the ball, and se­cu­rity is bet­ter than ever with CCTV,” he said. “Ev­ery­thing fits to­gether in the big­ger pic­ture.”

We boarded the Tube to the Not­ting Hill Gate sta­tion, where we would part ways. As we rode the es­ca­la­tor from the depths of the Un­der­ground and fol­lowed one of its ten­ta­cled arms to my plat­form, Tim asked me, “Do you feel safe?”

I said I did, but I didn’t be­lieve it un­til sev­eral min­utes later. On the train, the cars sud­denly stopped. No one peered anx­iously out the win­dow or shifted in their seats.

I waited sev­eral min­utes be­fore the con­duc­tor’s voice came over the PA. In a pleas­ant lilt, he apol­o­gized for the in­con­ve­nience and in­formed us that he was look­ing into the mat­ter. He quickly re­turned with the cause of the de­lay. Con­ges­tion, just as he sus­pected.

Yes, Tim, I feel safe.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY JOHN DEER­ING

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