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Britons ease U.S. expats' pain

Crowds outside the U.S. Embassy in London observe the three-minute silence  

By CNN's Steve Goldberg

LONDON, England (CNN) -- As an American living in London, I've been overwhelmed by the concern expressed for our country by everyday Britons.

An hour after the World Trade Center towers collapsed, the cabbie taking me to work couldnít stop talking about how helpless he felt in the face of the tragedy as we both listened to BBC radio for details.

A few days later, as I rang for another taxi, the operator asked how I was bearing up. At first I thought I had misunderstood, but she repeated her concern for my well-being, both as an American and as a journalist.

And as I milled about a scaled-down Thames River festival on Sunday, a Jamaican serving fried plantains asked how I was doing. Again I figured it was just a friendly exchange, but when he heard my American accent and my standard reply -- "Fine, how are you?" -- his warmth emerged:

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"Iím OK, but frankly Iím more concerned about you, my friend," he said. I told him it had indeed been a stressful time but that we would get through it somehow.

Iíve had similar conversations with neighbours, as have other Americans living here.

Often, said one fellow expat, his friends from Britain and elsewhere just want to express their sadness and horror at the sheer scale of the terror. They ask him if everyone is safe, or whether he and his wife knew any of the victims.

In fact, one of his wife's former classmates had just left a job in San Francisco to work as a chef at Windows on the World, the restaurant atop one of the World Trade Center towers. She's now among the missing.

As my friend put it, "Everyone's got to know someone; with that number of people killed, how can you not be affected in some way?"

Likewise, Britons feel a need to reach out to America and offer support -- even if itís just to Americans living overseas who may or may not be touched by the tragedy.

Maybe itís the "special relationship" between America and Britain come to life, or an expression of the kinship between our two countries that dates back to the colonies of the New World. Or perhaps Britons feel a sense of obligation to the country seen by some as having saved them from the Nazis in World War II.

Another fellow expat who hails from New York has a different take: As residents of one of the world's largest cities, Londoners seem to have a particular affinity for his hometown, and hence have experienced a particular sadness over the attacks.

To many Britons, the very "cheekiness" of New York -- the mayhem of Manhattan, the pulsing vitality of the place, the conviction of its residents that they live in the world's greatest city -- symbolises the flip-side of British reserve and self-doubt, he says.

A British policeman carries bunches of flowers past the U.S. Embassy in London  

In fact, one of his closest British friends contacted him in London several days after the attacks to see how he was coping. She would have called earlier, she told him, except that she was on vacation -- near New York.

Whatever the case, British identification with and concern for America and her citizens has indeed been overwhelming.

Hearing Prime Minister Tony Blairís words of support in news conferences, speeches and interviews has been reassuring.

Seeing a giant British flag flying at half-staff on the River Thames brought me to tears, as did a three-minute silence observed across Europe last week -- when buses, taxis, businesses and governments came to a standstill.

Hearing my country's anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner, played twice in as many days -- at a special Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, and later at a remembrance ceremony attended by Queen Elizabeth II at St. Paul's Cathedral -- was especially moving.

Similarly touching were scenes of hundreds of Britons queuing for hours at the U.S. Embassy in London to sign books of condolences, and the dozens of bouquets left in memory of the dead -- scenes softly reminiscent of those that followed the death of Princess Diana four years ago.

While my British friends say theyíre not sure last Tuesday was truly the Day that Changed the World, as many U.S. headlines have proclaimed, an unusual quiet has descended upon London -- perhaps not unlike the quiet before the storm.

• Embassies become shrines
September 13, 2001
• Silence as Europe mourns dead
September 15, 2001
• Thousands mourn at UK cathedral
September 14, 2001
• Silent streets as London remembers
September 15, 2001

• U.S.Embassy London

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