As soon as my flight landed in Heathrow in London, something felt different. Border control agents hustled us into organized lines. Barely anyone in the grand hall of jetlagged business people and sleepy-eyed tourists spoke above a whisper. It was the feeling, I thought, of a continent under threat.
Europe has been profoundly affected by the global rise of terrorism this year. In the United States, I could distance myself from that. But while living abroad this summer, I felt for the first time that my home had become a target. For me, the European side of the world had always represented a charming, risk-free travel destination, not a society at risk of violence. Western Europe hasn’t experienced the destruction of war for over 70 years. But now, Europe is starting to feel less and less safe again.
I was no stranger to London. To me, London was always the sight of crisp suits and the sound of heels rapidly hitting the pavement. It was the grey smoke that drifted out of the exhaust pipes on red double decker buses. It was the memories that I had experienced during the 2012 Olympics and the cousins who had grown up just outside the city.
It was not the soldier with rounds of ammunition strapped to his back, marching in front of Harrod’s or standing at attention in front of the London Eye. This time, the armed police officers outnumbered the trademark red tour buses. Once the sight of street performers pulling 20 pound notes from bananas, now Covent Garden featured 12-passenger vans police vans. Inside, officers donned bulletproof vests, ready to jump into action if an attack occurred.
I would walk past the vans, laughing and telling stories about my day, sometimes catching the eye of someone inside. We’d exchange a quick smile, then me back to my conversation, the officer back to his duty. I was grateful that those vans were scattered throughout, parked just three blocks apart from one another, but their existence made me nervous. Is the situation so dire that only trucks full of armed officers can counteract an attack?
Why did the sight – heavy artillery juxtaposed with excited tourists, machine guns with World War II memorials – cause nothing but unease for me? This was not the London I visited four years ago. I armed myself with a charged iPhone, a paper map of the tube and the phone number of the London Black Cabs. Maybe I was being overly cautious, unused to a city environment, but I never wandered too far from the main road. I didn’t explore any tucked away drives or peek into hidden buildings in the city. The armed police officers stationed at every corner reminded me to be perpetually stuck in the present, glancing over my shoulder.
I lived in a New Europe this summer: a place with subdued charm, endangered memories, and a threatened connection to our past. ■