London Through The Eyes of an American
London challenges me and inspires me. Sometimes London defeats me. But I always go back for more. I crave London like one craves a lover. London makes me want to achieve more and reach for the impossible. It was on the London Eye that I attempted to overcome my fear of heights.
London is not a city of skyscrapers, but the year 2000 saw the opening of the London Eye, a giant Ferris wheel situated on the south bank of the River Thames. Taking a ride on the Eye was on my must do list. However, the thought of being locked into a 25 person capsule at 443 feet in the air and being aware that the Eye could be an easy terrorist target made me apprehensive. London is always on high alert for terrorism these days. Furthermore, I remembered that in 2009, 400 people were trapped for an hour while the wheel was halted for an emergency repair job. Nevertheless, I resolved to get to Jubilee Gardens and get a closer look.
I’d read that the London Eye had become London’s most popular tourist attraction, and I believed it when I got there. The place was swarming with people. Zigzagging my way through the crowds, I scanned faces looking for people that fit my stereotype of a terrorist. There were plenty who had that Bin Laden look, but they weren’t acting like terrorists. They were eating salmon and cucumber sandwiches and drinking tea out of paper cups. So I decided they were harmless.
When I figured out where to get a ticket for the Eye, I got in a line about a mile long, and I could see a sign which indicated that it would be nearly a two hour wait to get on. My immediate reaction was to be irritated and defiant as if London was insulting me by making me wait so long. I was first bemused and then amused by how patient the English are. People were just walking up and getting in line without any sign of frustration. This is one very distinct quality of the British. Patience. They can out wait anybody. Brits have a different sense of time than do the Americans. They value efficiency, but not everything has to be done in a New York minute. And so I joined the queue and resigned myself to patiently waiting.
When I looked straight up at the Eye, I lost my balance. My original fear about getting on this enormous wheel came back. But I had to do this. I couldn’t let my anxiety get the upper hand and not go through with it.
We inched forward around a corner, and I could see that the very organized Brits had put in a Disney-style fast track line. I didn’t hesitate to switch to the much shorter line. The extra fifteen British pounds, which was something like twenty five dollars, for the fast track didn’t bother me. I would get the task of facing my fear over with sooner this way.
Another English woman on her own got in line behind me, and we started to chat. Mostly about the lovely May weather, how beautiful the Eye was, and how busy it was. I confided to her that I was nervous about getting on. She assured me that I had nothing to fear. Londoners are good that way. They have great faith that all will be well. Stiff upper lip and all that.
As I got closer, I could see that everyone had to open up their bags for a security check. This pleased me very much. The British are fantastic at security. They were serious about it too. One lady had manicure scissors with her, and she couldn’t take them on board.
It was time to get into my capsule. The Eye never stops unless a disabled person needs help getting on. It moves slowly enough for people to get on and off as it circles at only twice the speed of a tortoise sprinting. And now I was locked into my capsule. There was no getting out now.
As the wheel slowly revolved upwards, I got a better look at the Thames snaking through London. The panorama of London grew wider, and I was reminded that London spreads into 32 boroughs. That’s why there are 32 capsules on the Eye. One for each borough. The wheel is placed in such a way so that it is easy to look west over London and see the pretty things. I could see St. Paul’s where I often go to light candles and pray to find the love of my life. I could see the mass of trees covering St. James Park where I often go to sit in the deck chairs. I could see Westminster Abbey where Princess Diana’s brother delivered that riveting speech at her funeral, where Geoffrey Chaucer is buried in Poets’ Corner, and more recently where William and Kate were married.
No place else in the world does tradition, ceremony, and glamour like London. To be able to see the iconic landmarks of London at once is quite something. My love for London grew even more steadfast. I had worried that I might get wet eyes on the giant wheel out fear, but the grandeur of London and the pride I felt in being a British citizen (I have the passport if not the accent!) was what made my eyes glisten at that moment.
Now we were almost at the top of the revolution. And suddenly, the river boats looked like little toys. Big Ben didn’t look so big. My anxiety got the better of me, and I gingerly tiptoed to the bench in the center of the capsule and stayed glued to it as we rounded the very top. I told myself that in just a minute, we would be on the journey downwards. But I was wrong. The wheel had stopped.
No one else seemed to notice that we had stopped moving. How could everyone be so oblivious? I waited stiffly silent holding on to the bench tightly. I couldn’t hear anything because of my heartbeat drumming in my ears. A vision flashed through my mind of 750 people being lowered one at a time by helicopter rescue. My bladder suddenly felt full. After two minutes which felt like twenty minutes, I said to no one in particular, “Why have we stopped?”
The woman I talked with in the line answered with, “Well, perhaps there is a malfunction.” And this she said with a smile! Talk about stiff upper lip. I wondered if she were related to Charles Dickens’s Mr. Macawber. She had such faith that it was nothing to worry about. And she was right. The wheel gently rolled into motion again so seamlessly that hardly anyone noticed our break at all. It must have been someone in a wheelchair getting on that had caused our little delay. My faith in British “on the ballness” was restored.
We were on the descent, and I felt much easier. I stood up again and moved closer to the glass. Already, I felt I had done it. I had lasted through the scary part of the trip. It was with glee that I spotted the Houses of Parliament with the Union Jack at full staff.
We glided into the disembarking station. I walked off beaming. I said goodbye to the kind English lady, and then rang my mother to tell her of my personal triumph. We delighted in comparing notes about the ride. (She had been on it when it first opened). I know that going on the London Eye didn’t mean I was cured of my fear of heights, but what it meant was that I had faced up to one of my fears. However small the success of riding on a Ferris wheel may seem, for me, it was a victory.
Walking back towards Waterloo station, I asked a London policeman where would be the nearest and best place I could get a celebratory shandy. He was lovely and suggested I go to the elegant Skylon bar. London bobbies are charming. They don’t bark at you like French policemen do. That’s the way with the English. On the whole, they’re gentle. English men are gentlemen. Even English cabbies are charming. They always call me “Luv.”
What is it about London? It’s the blending of propriety and sex appeal, of tradition and modernization, and of toughness and gentleness. London itself inspired me to face my fear. I long for London when I’m not there. I want to be wrapped up in London’s strong and loving arms. I believe I can try anything, (legal, of course) in London and bring my bravery home with me. One revolution on the London Eye was also my personal revolution to face and overcome my own hurdles.