Sunday, April 15, 2012

Building Bridges in London

Ever since I remember I have wanted to visit London. Growing up in a former British Colony that had gained independence just 10 years before I was born, we were still pretty much influenced by Great Britain. My father's love for English literature instilled a passion in his children for the written and spoken word. I took this passion a step further by studying drama and excelling in the works of William Shakespeare. 

Beyond the literature, my father encouraged us to read about Britain's rich history and about the time when the sun never set on the British Empire. I was a frequent attendee at the Colombo British Council screenings of British history or Shakespearean films. One movie that fascinated and intrigued me was "Bequest to the Nation" - the movie about Lord Horatio Nelson, the hero of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

And of course, who wasn't taken up with the whole Royal wedding fanfare in 1981? 1981 seemed to be an auspicious and eventful year. My brother Josh married Magdalene in May that year, Prince Charles & Lady Diana's fairytale wedding was in July and I got married in October. By strange coincidence, Queen Elizabeth was visiting Sri Lanka on my wedding day on October 24, 1981!

Fast forward to 2012 ... Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana's son William and Kate will be celebrating their 1st wedding anniversary. HRH Queen Elizabeth II will be celebrating her Diamond Jubilee as Monarch. The venue for the Summer Olympics will be ... London! It seemed like the perfect time for me to plan my much anticipated visit to London.

My original plans were to stay with a friend of mine who had been asking me to visit him for almost 30 years. His requests had become more eager after he and his family visited my family in 2005. So in March, I finally made the arrangements. I planned to be in London for 10 days, doing the usual "tourist things," visiting the places of interest that I had read so much about and then return home to celebrate my birthday with my husband.

And then, 1981 took over. My sister Jean gave me the London phone number for Philomena (my brother Josh's sister-in-law). We had both been bridesmaids at Josh & Magdalene's wedding. She insisted that I stay with her a few days and that I also visit her sister Catherine in Scotland. And then, I wrote a casual email to a couple of my former colleagues from Singapore Airlines who had been living in London for more than 25 years, as long as I had been living in the United States. Iranthi, my former colleague who had joined Singapore Airlines in 1981 responded that she would love to host a lunch at her place the day after I arrived.

Then, during a conversation with Dennis and Cecilia, friends of mine from my teens, I learned that they would be visiting Dennis' sister Rosemary in London on their way to Prague. Dennis had been the choir leader at my church and had sung "Ave Maria" at my wedding. I hadn't seen Dennis and Cecilia for almost 30 years, because I had moved out of my home town after I got married.

Needless to say, with all the interconnections of 1981, my plans became fluid ... I reconnected with close friends I had not been in touch with for almost 30 years. My first cousin Geetha and I had reconnected via Facebook after more than 35 years. Her mother and my dad were siblings and had shared the same love of literature and history. My dad and I would entertain her with excerpts from Shakespeare and she also participated in the  ribald jokes and repartee with the rest of my family. She loved to go with us to the movies and we had seen "My Fair Lady" a couple of times because it enjoyed a successful six month run in the cinema circuit in Sri Lanka. Regretably, After my father's death in 1979, we had grown apart. I was finally going to meet Geetha and her family! 

From the time I landed at Heathrow, I had the time of my life in London and Scotland. I was tourist by day, but friend, confidante and "sister" by evening. Geetha made our physical reunion so memorable and she made my visit unforgettable. I visited most of the places that I had planned on seeing. 

I stood in Trafalgar Square beside Nelson's Column and I recalled the life and times of the victorious Lord Horatio Nelson. As I gazed at most of the 24 bridges in Central London, I gained a deeper understanding of Britain's naval supremacy of yore. I visited many war memorials and felt the sense of heroism of the brave men and women who brought freedom to Europe and the West. 

I was in awe at London's Parliament where a former Chemist brought men to tears and earned the nickname "Iron Lady" ... the true seat of Democracy where integrity is still valued and expected. And there was Westminster Abbey and Big Ben, untouched by the relentless bombing by Germany.  

Dwarfed beside the towering statue of Dwight D. Eisenhower in Grosvenor Square, I could sense his power as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe in WWII. As I walked around this area, I was transported back to the time when the greatest minds were formulating strategies to win the war.

As I reflect on my visit to London, my feelings can be summed up in the statement I made standing in front of Buckingham Palace. "These may not be the Pearly Gates, but I sure feel like I have died and gone to heaven."

While I enjoyed visiting the places of historical significance, what resonated most for me was the rekindling of the relationships ... the building of the bridges. I reconnected with people I hadn't talked to in decades ... people who knew me when I was very young. I will continue to nurture and strengthen them because that is what recharged me emotionally and spiritually. The nuances and significance of 1981 will not be missed.

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