Sunday, 7 November 2010

The kindness of strangers -

mainly sunny, temps 10

London! Probably my favorite city in the world. Except for Montreal. (I feel I have to say that, but between us? I think I prefer London to even Montreal). A great city. As Michael and I sit in our rented flat I can hear the distinctive UK police sirens, hear the distinctive thud of a black cab's door slamming shut. Hear British voices in the street below.

Love it.

We can see Harrods! Will try to take a photo tomorrow to show you the view down our street. Basil Street. We are bookended by Harrods and Harvey Nichols. Dear Lord. Sauve qui peut. Every man for himself.

Yesterday was fun, but long, of course. Drove 3 hours to Arnprior. Very relaxing drive. Listened to music and thought about the next book. Arrived a few minutes early and went into the Arnprior Book Store. Met Gwen, the owner. Such a lovely woman. Then headed to the connecting tea room. hmmm - a bookstore with a connecting door to a place with scones and sandwiches and coffee. Reminds me of something....

Made notes on the book and passed a pleasant few minutes. Then Andrew Pyper arrived and we started the event. The room was packed! So wonderful to see so many people. In fact, it was standing room only. And everyone so welcoming. It really felt like being with well-wishing friends. Andrew talked about his latest amazing book, The Killing Circle, and read two chilling excerpts. Remarkable.

Then I talked about Bury Your Dead and read a short piece. Then it was time to chat and greet people and sign books.

I had to hightail it out by 2:30 - and Gwen was very respectful of that. At 2:30 exactly I zipped out. Fortunately as far as I know I'd just signed the last person's book.

Got home just before 5:30 - time to freshen up before the airport limo and Steve arrived. Michael and I whisked off to Trudeau International. Now, Trudeau can be a bit of a dogs breakfast. The french are VERY good at many things, but I'm not convinced efficency is one of them. Unlike Toronto and anglo Canadians. We can have a stick up our 'you-know-whats' - but we're very efficient.

I like efficency. Chaos. Disorder. They upset me. On the outside I think I give the impression of being relaxed and going with the flow. Might as well look like that. I've discovered scowling and stamping my feet and crying don't add anything to the situation. But inside my stomach is in knots.

So, going to Trudeau is always an almost spiritual experience - of prayers of acceptance and letting go. At least now I trust the planes will stay in the air. I know my life isn't in danger, just my sanity.

But this time it was so smooth it was uncanny. almost frightening. We had our bags checked and were through security in record time.

The flight itself was easy and fast. Great seats. I'd books the extra legroom, emergency exit. We could have pitched a pup tent in the space we had. And it had an ensuite. the toilets were right there. Note to fellow airline passengers. Please close the door after you leave.

The trouble didn't start until we'd landed and were rushing to customs. In Heathrow it's almost always a sprint because all big overseas flights arrive at roughly the same time, and everyone is funneled to the same weary customs clerk. Never good. Quite chaotic. I began gently stressing over Greenland. Poor Michael knows the routine now. Where he'd be happy to amble along, reading the ads on the terminal walls for The Lion King, I'm marching ahead, trying to get around strollers and wheeled bags. We were doing quite well until we turned the corner and bam.

A massive plug of people. We weren't even at the customs hall yet and there was a solid rock of humanity. Blocking the entire corridor. Except one small sliver off to the left. People were squeezing by....and the solid rock wasn't protesting. So I marched Michael and me over there and we became the river, skirting the rocks.

Further and further we went - past hundreds and hundreds of people. It was like an archeological dig. You could see the stratas of flights by the colours of the people. But we kept, miraculously, moving forward, along the wall, with a chosen few other people. In my mind I wondered how it could be that every other human on the planet was stuck in that unholy line - except a chosen few. We were like the Jehovah's Witnesses...the Heathrow Witnesses, future Terminal fearing generations would call us. The chosen ones, who got to customs. Who moved to the head of the line because...

Because...

That was what was bothering me. Why?

Because everyone else in our stream was a resident of the UK or EU. Which, apparently and shockingly, Canada is not.

The stern customs officer looked at my crest fallen and desperate face and pointed to where we'd come from.

'You'll have to go to the back of the line. I can't let you in.'

'Please?' I pleaded, as though to a saint, who had the power of making miracles occur.

Seems an exhausted middle-aged Canadian and her exhausted (and it must be admitted quite annoyed) husband weren't ready for the miracle.

But the day wasn't over yet. We started trudging back. Past all the people we'd glided by moments ago. We were not the stream after all. We were the rock.

Until a kindly woman smiled at us, and I smiled back and paused. Dare I? It goes against everything I believe in. I deeply dislike people who cut in, who feel better than the rest, who feel things like lines and waiting are for lesser mortals. Pisses me off.

Unless....

I glanced at the literally endless plug ahead of us - the rock had become a solid mass, a mountainn, a geological phenomenon, and was moving at the speed of continental drift.

'May I?' I asked her, indicating the sliver of space in front of her. And not daring to make eye contact with the people behind her.

'How kind of you to ask,' she quite unexpectedly said. 'Most people would just butt in.'

Can you imagine being that gracious? To make someone who is clearly doing something morally wrong, feel somehow all right about it?

she and her daughter stepped back slightly, and Michael and I slipped in. We were still miles back, but not nearly as far back as we would have had to have been. The line stopped somewhere around Dublin, I think.

So for the next hour and a half, as we inched forward this wonderful woman and her daughter and Michael and I talked. We actually had a terrific time. They'd had a 25 hour flight from Sydney and were in London because the tall, glorious 16 year old daughter - Laura - had qualified for the international ballet competition. It was a huge achievement and young people came from all over the world to compete. The olympics of ballet. They'd rented a flat in Earl's Court and were going to enjoy London while Laura prepared and competed.

I gave them a copy of Still Life - and signed it to them - as a thank you. I always carry a couple, to give to kind people. We find a lot of kind people when traveling. I gave one to Genevieve the flight attendant too.

it was a pathetically small gesture for these people who had not only been nice, but been so kind about it. And not made us (me) feel guilty.

Miracles. And saints.

And now we're in our own flat. It's huge, and warm. Got in supplies from Marks and Spencer. Napped. then decided to stay in. I made Michael a tea-time of our own.

Meeting his sister Carol and her husband David for breakfast at The Wolseley - near the Ritz - tomorrow. Then meeting my agent Teresa for lunch at the Tate gallery.

I think it's bedtime.

7 comments:

vtslajer said...

Hi Louise and welcome to London! Your description of the LHR immigration line reads as suspense of your books. I usually connect through Frankfurt but last year, I had no choice but to pass through London. What saved me from missing the connecting flight to Vienna was my second passport which happens to be EU (Czech). I should have offered you a "fast track" card that I still have just incase, courtesy of AC. Maybe next time. Enjoy London and let us know how it goes there.

carol said...

Karma is wonderful. You are nice, so someone is nice to you! Love it :) Have fun...

Candleman said...

We had a similar experience in our car crossing from Canada to New York. Six hours of inching forward toward the border, while others took the truck lane only to crowd in front of us.

I was angry, but my sweet wife, your greatest fan, was much like your new friend, gracious and willing to accommodate potential new friends. Good lesson.

Deryn said...

Louise,
So happy to be back in London - vicariously! The only time I was actually there I was on a backpacker's budget and did not stay or eat anywhere lovely. We did have a wonderful time, but it is so much more deluxe to follow along on your adventure.

Kath said...

Isn't it annoying to be a Commonwealth citizen in the UK but get no benefit from it? So glad you met that gracious Aussie (and good luck to Laura!).
I look forward to tales of London as it is one of my favourite cities too.

maplestar said...

As somebody who used to live just a couple of blocks from the bookstore in Arnprior, I'm glad you had a good time!

I only wish it was closer to my new home in Virginia, so that I could have been there to meet you.

Dana said...

We had the same experience at Heathrow a few years ago. They said it was a "work to rule" plus the week international students returned. The experience prompted our travel companions to renew their UK passports and us to avoid Heathrow in the morning forever. It is especially cruel for the elderly who barely survived overnight (at least) flights and are trucking piles of baggage with them