04.15.13

phdpiefillingbostonstrong1 It was months before I could bear to pick up Allies at War again. Although it wasn’t the book’s fault, it felt as if the mere act of reading it would once again transform my world—suddenly making the mundane the extraordinary—as had happened that day.

“Attention passengers” announcements are nothing extraordinary on Boston’s public transport. Indeed, as I heard the familiar voice I only briefly paused from reading to groan. Snapping the book closed I begrudgingly left the train as it pulled into the station, expecting that once again the T had encountered a problem. As I stood on the platform at Kenmore waiting for a new train, the transformation began. Transit workers started ushering people out of the station, disrupting the usual lackadaisical motions of frustrated passengers. No longer was this an ordinary day in which the T breaks down and commuters are disgruntled—it was fast becoming one of the most frightening days of my life.

From the gossip around me I gathered that there was a bomb threat at Kenmore. It seemed odd then that we had been made to get out at Kenmore and were now standing in the path of this bomb. Wanting to leave the crowds I headed away from the station and in the growing confusion found myself in the marathon, literally in amongst the runners. I called my boyfriend and told him about the bomb scare, and continued to weave my way through the runners. All the while heading further into downtown Boston.

The bomb threat was not in Kenmore Square. I should have stayed there. My boyfriend, watching events unfold on the TV, called me to break the news that two bombs had gone off at the finishing line, two blocks from where I was standing. Somehow he tried to keep me calm. It must have been awful for him seeing the carnage, knowing I was right there. Thankfully he was also able to get hold of my Mum before she saw the news in England.

I first felt real panic when black SUVs emerged from every direction. It did not seem possible that so many black cars could have been in the city. Where had they been hiding? It is cliché to say it felt like a film, but it was my only frame of reference in this chaotic new world. In the movies, swarming black SUVs with tinted windows generally denotes danger. From ramps and underpasses, alleyways and parking lots, shiny black cars seemed to swarm like bees. Their black exterior starkly contrasted the sea of colorful neon Lycra-clad athletes, which I had somehow become a part of.

While the city of Boston came together in remarkable ways after the marathon tragedy, during the event itself I was alone except for my prayers. In the climate of rumor and fear, everyone became an enemy. Tales of unexploded bombs spread like wildfire. At one point I was squashed up against a truck when someone yelled for us to evacuate the area, as there was another bomb in the truck. I had never considered my own mortality in such a direct way before and desperately prayed to live.

I had to get out of the city, but to do so I had to get through the finish line area. In trying to maneuver my way through an increasingly alien and hostile city, even the police seemed to be against me as they blocked pedestrian access and closed roads. I got turned around and rerouted so many times that I totally lost my bearings, becoming thoroughly lost in a city that once felt like home. Phone calls and texts stopped, and the angry dissonant beep of my phone’s dying battery magnified my eerie solitude.

There are still parts of the day that I do not remember. I know I must have walked along one particular two-mile stretch of road, but I have no recollection of doing so. My sense of time is similarly vague. Thoroughly lost, I joined a group of evacuated hotel guests and a wedding party standing in the street. Watching the bride shivering I questioned what was this all about. What had this woman done to deserve the horror and confusion that now engulfed her perfect day? After an undetermined amount of time I was able to get hold of my boyfriend, who gave me directions through the now unfamiliar city towards the train station and the promise of home.

As I walked, I repeated his directions over and over in my head, scared of losing this new knowledge. The mantra kept me focused on my task, and prevented thoughts of what dangers the city still held. As I neared the station I found myself in a deserted alley, silent except for the sound of my thumping heart beat. My heart felt like it would come through my chest as I ran terrified from a pile of trash. In a world transformed, a discarded pizza box could seem like a bomb; the mundane could now be the extraordinary.

Once in the station I was struck by how ordinary life seemed. The familiar departure boards, hot dog stand, and ticket machines were all unaware of the chaos of the world outside. As I got onto the train my phone rang. Looking down at the screen, I saw “Mummy” in the caller ID. Frantically pushing buttons, I screamed down the phone desperate to talk. The call failed to connect and tears streamed down my face as all the terror and fear of the day crystalized in a primordial need to hear her voice.

As soon as I got back to my house I plugged in my phone and collapsed in a heap in the corner. I called my Mum and in incoherent breathless sobs began to vocalize all that I had felt and experienced that day. In my 800 square-foot apartment I sat crouched under a side table for a few hours; a small place of safety from which to confront and comprehend the dangerous world.

phdpiefillingbostonstrong3The next few days in Boston were uneasy. Allies at War sat on my desk unopened, trains bypassed the finish line area, and police and National Guard stood watch. Our Episcopalian church worshiped at the Jewish synagogue while its own church remained inaccessible. The city came together in grief, and worked to return to the peace and security of a predictable world.

Five days after the marathon the city came to a standstill once again. We all remained inside watching the police chase in Watertown. When the blood-soaked, skinny boy eventually emerged from the boat, it did not seem possible that one so small and insignificant could harbor so much hate. The nightmare, it seemed, was over.

For me, the nightmares continued for months. Visiting my Mum in Las Vegas in May, I woke up drenched in sweat after terrorists chased me through sleep. It still occasionally happens, but with much less frequency. Slowly life became normal. In time “Attention Passengers” notifications became an everyday frustration, not a terrifying reminder. I did eventually finish Allies at War and the world remained stable. At home with my boyfriend, I watched the Red Sox win the World Series, and later joined the crowds standing in clouds of red and white confetti at the Victory Parade. Sport helped the city heal. While I wasn’t physically hurt on 04.15.13, I was one of the many who were Boston Strong.phdpiefillingbostonstrong2

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Springtime in England

New England is brown. The cloudless sky is periwinkle but the rest of the world is universally brown. Leafless trees, pavements, roads, winter-weary grass, and mud-coated snow blend in to one. Soon the roads will be punctuated with burst of neon spray paint outlining the vast potholes, ready for construction workers waging their eternal war on Mother Nature, but till then the world is brown.

To combat this monotone I buy daffodils, English ones at that. New England doesn’t really get a Spring, indeed this year it is still snowing in April. In contrast, English Spring is one of the most beautiful times of year. Our garden at home bursts into life with snowdrops, crocuses, and boundless daffodils. The Tesco garage sells 10 daffodils for a pound, and my Mum, who firmly believes that daffodils should not be displayed in less than multiples of 30, always has a large vase of them in the lounge. Daffodils smells like home.phdandpiefillingspring4You can imagine my surprise and delight when I found that Trader Joe’s sells daffodils here. Ten for $1.49, when you factor in the exchange rate this means you can buy English daffodils in Boston for the same price as the Tesco garage! I don’t know if I was more thrilled with the beauty of the flower, or the economy of the purchase.

While staring at the vase of daffodils, I am reminded of one my biggest questions about the American psyche. It is eternally puzzling to me that so many Americans want to visit Ireland. I understand that many feel an ancestral pull to where their family came from. However, there are many more who have no such connection and yet feel compelled to visit the Emerald Isle. My boyfriend’s sister for example, who has no Irish blood whatsoever, recently told me about how much she wanted to visit Ireland. When I ask people what they want to do in Ireland, the answer is always the same; drink Guinness and drive around and see the countryside (though naturally not at the same time). Now I have no particular ill will towards Ireland, however, I can’t help thinking if you are flying all the way to Dublin you should just got the extra 30 minutes to England instead.

After much deliberation and discussion, I have concluded that many Americans do not know about England’s beauty. My boyfriend pointed out that most contemporary movies set in the UK concentrate on London or other major cities. Period pieces such as Pride and Prejudice demonstrate England’s rural beauty, but perhaps this has unwittingly suggested that such rural idylls belong to a bygone era. I hope that new dramas such as Broadchurch and Poldark will help to correct this fallacy. Indeed I cannot imagine a better advert for Dorset than Broadchurch’s sweeping shots of pristine sands and rugged cliffs.

The land of Keats, Austin and Wordsworth is still there for the taking, and the UK Tourist Board is missing a trick in not selling the wonders of England to America. Instead of campaigns that solely stress the cosmopolitan multicultural appeal of London, we should equally be touting the beauty of the countryside. Having recently been back home for Spring break, I got to experience the English Springtime in all its glory. We live about 30 miles from central London and can be in the city in 25 minutes on the train. In 15 minutes walk, however, you can be surrounded by fields, wooded trails, and country smells. One of my favorite local walks passes the ruins of a 12th Century Priory dissolved by Henry VIII, the cottage of John Donne a 17th Century poet, and a church built in 1140 where Elizabeth I worshiped. phdpiefillingpspring2The walk ends at the most incredible coffee shop, Pinnocks, which looks like it should be found in Diagon Alley and serve lashings of Butterbeer. While Butterbeer and pumpkin juice are in short supply, it does deliver the most delicious white hot chocolate in the world, and a daily assortment of scrumptious cakes served in charming mismatched vintage crockery. Americans, forget what you have read and heard about British food, it is not the bland monotonal grey fare you are expecting. Avoid any place with union jack paintwork, serving “real English food” in central London. They are guaranteed to be awful, and I suspect are the reason why Britain has a poor food reputation abroad. Instead look at the restaurants and food carts on the Southbank. Try The Swan restaurant for modern British fare in the shadows of Shakespeare’s theater, or the OXO Tower Restaurant overlooking London’s glittering skyline. Go to Borough Market and work through the wide variety of food stations; get pie and mash or a curry, a pasty or scotch eggs. Sample incredible cheeses, charcuterie, artisan breads, olive oils, French pastries, and Turkish sweets. phdpiefillingspring1As you wander off the beaten path in England look at the daffodils, the crocuses and the snowdrops that spring up in the grass verges, or under in the shade of a tree, or beside a railway station. Be thankful for the yellows, greens, and vivid sunshine, and think of New England’s dull lifeless earth.phdpiefillingspring7The next time you dream of adventures in Ireland, do yourself a favor and go to England instead. See London but also hop on a train to the country. Follow one of the many public footpaths and explore the countryside, pretend to be Elizabeth Bennet walking to Netherfield to visit an unwell Jane. And if transatlantic travel is not in your plans, go to Trader Joe’s buy at least 30 daffodils and dream.