Londoners: A "Different Breed"


12:30 p.m., July 6 -- London celebrates the victory to host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. Thousands gather in Trafalgar Square to cheer the news.

8:50 a.m., July 7 -- London experiences the deadliest terrorist attack in its history, with 52 dead -- plus the four suicide bombers -- and hundreds wounded, shutting down the entire Underground and bus system carrying millions of commuters every day.

4:32 p.m., July 7 -- The city's above-ground commuter network restarts.

12:30 p.m., July 21 -- More bombings, but no one is killed. Here's a new attempt to create chaos in London.

10 a.m., July 22 -- Police shoot and kill a man as he tried to get on a Tube train at the Stockwell station. But life manages to continue uninterrupted.

London responded with great defiance to the July 7 terror, especially in light of the threat of more attacks. Complete paralysis of the city lasted only about a day.

I felt that Londoners' overall sentiment was best expressed by my friend, Stefan, who came from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania to do his internship. He commented on the reaction to the first attacks to me via e-mail: "There was an eerie sense of stoicism on people's faces. Everyone kept a stiff upper lip like all self-respecting Brits."

Brits are a totally different breed, driven by a contrasting set of values. What might induce a state of panic in other parts of the world would be considered merely disturbing at most, and the July 7 bombings are cases in point.

STRANGE TEXT MESSAGE. On the morning of the attacks, I decided to sleep in. Trust me, this is a true luxury in the world of my around-the-clock internship at a major publishing house, where I'm leading a marketing strategy project. Suddenly, I was awakened by a text message from a friend and recent London Business School graduate, Nick. His message simply asked if I was okay.

It was strange indeed to receive such a text at nine in the morning, especially because it was not a follow up to a typical "night on the town with mates." I responded, "Why?" His reply took my breath away: "At least three bombs went off in London this morning :-( "

EMERGENCY PLAN. What made the situation even more worrisome was that the Edgware Road and Kings Cross tube stations -- both sites of the barbaric massacres -- are disconcertingly close to my house. And the No. 30 bus that was also targeted stops right in front of my door.

Connecting with family and friends was only possible through Skype, a new online telephony company on the rise that, along with broadband, was the only communication medium that wasn't overloaded. Frantically, I tried to get in touch with a friend who lives right by Kings Cross. Thankfully, everyone I knew was fine.

London Business School is also in the vicinity of the incidents. Just like most professional institutions, it has a thorough plan in case of an emergency such as this.

CALM RESISTANCE. The reaction at the school was instantaneous. The plan was activated, focusing on everyone's well-being and providing support. E-mails from program directors and a special Web site with up-to-the minute information on any developing stories kept the community well informed and calm.

A place usually filled with laughing MBA students turned into a haven of reflection where students, staff, and their friends were invited to decompress from the day's events. Alternative accommodations were provided for anyone needing assistance. However, the school functioned as normal -- its executive classes even continued uninterrupted.

I spoke with a few MBA students from other schools who are completing their internship in London, and none of them seemed overly concerned for their safety. Chaos was averted because it was understood that the only way ordinary people can fight terror is with calm resistance.

MOVING ALONG. A few days following the bombings, I came to a garden of remembrance at Kings Cross to pay tribute to the 52 men and women who died on July 7. Of all races and religions, they had come to London from all corners of the world for the freedom, opportunity, diversity, and camaraderie that this beautiful city offers.

Just as I had experienced at the September 11 memorial in New York's Union Square Park, this was an emotional experience. There were flags, flowers, and notes of solidarity from residents of every continent, all carrying the same message: "We are with you, London."

But one reflection in particular caught my eye for the way it conveyed the true essence of being a Londoner: "I'm Brazilian and came to live in London for a year. I have stayed here for four years and have decided to live here. I have discovered that this is a great city, and this is a great country that offers opportunity for everyone and respects differences between human beings.... I am Brazilian. I am a Londoner. I am British."

Now, a day after the second attack, life in London moves along its habitual path. Commuters still board the iconic, red double-decker buses and pack themselves like sardines into the slim tube cars. Congestion-charge cameras (another British phenomenon) keep on catching drivers who haven't paid the fee to enter the city center at peak periods. Children continue playing in Regent's Park.

This is typical London. By Martin Zalewski


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