A Lesson from London

Three in the morning on my first weekend in London, and instead of stumbling home from a pub, I was bundled up in a sleeping bag on the River Thames, watching a guy from Northern London play the piano for the eleventh straight hour.

My host in London brought me here, to the Southbank, to support her friend Stephen Ridley in his 24 hour piano marathon. He was playing to raise money for the Cancer Research Center UK, in honor of a friend whose mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and who himself had just battled leukemia.

By the time we’d gotten to Stephen and his painted piano at 7 that evening, his fingers were taped up to avoid cramps, and the same masking tape on his hands had been used to spell out “Playing for 24 hours” on a piece of scrap wood that had somebody found. The top of his piano was stacked with snacks and Red Bulls, and the blue donation buckets were getting heavy.

A throng of people had gathered, watching and cheering, amused by the audacity of such a simple yet completely ridiculous idea. Passerby had cancelled plans, walked to the nearest corner store, bought snacks for Steve, liquor for themselves, and stayed for hours into the night.

After two weeks in New York, this was what struck me most about London (aside from the rain and gray): As busy and bustling as it is, the people never seem to be too rushed. Londoners enjoy a drink with their lunch, a chat with their friends, an impromptu piano concert for a good cause.

Three guys who had come into London for a night on the town ended up camped out with us because one of them had battled cancer as a kid and wanted to stay to support the cause. A group of girls, one of them a singer, stayed to provide backup to covers of Adele and The Black Keys. A young couple laid a blanket out for their three year-old girl and let her fall asleep to the sounds of music and chatter. It was a Friday night in the weeks before the Olympics … there was tons going on in London. But this was as good as it gets.

Maybe I’ve got rose-colored glasses. A traveler romanticizing a bit about the things she’s seen in places she doesn’t quite understand. But I was completely awe-struck by the willingness of Londoners to stop and sit, all night long in some cases, to help out a guy they knew nothing about except for that he who was doing a good thing, and doing it well. A year ago, Stephen quit his job as an investment banker; he’d given up the rat-race and the solid paycheck to pursue something that made him feel like he was actually living.

And the people of London embraced him. He started lugging his piano out onto the street and playing it for whoever would listen. A year later he’s made a bit of a name for himself, and has a fan-base that he knew would come to support his marathon. But he also has a city that he could count on to make some time for him, if he played well enough and long enough.

And they really did. It’s something to think about back home in Hawai‘i where we’re so used to knowing everyone’s name; that sometimes, the random guy on the side of the street with a piano, or a guitar, or an easel, deserves our attention and admiration too.

In the middle of the night, when the crowd had shrunk a bit and those who stuck around were a little rosy from beer or wine or that bottle of Maker’s Mark that was being passed around, Stephen stood up at his piano. Pounding a random key as he spoke, so as not to break his streak, he looked around, smiled a bit and said:

“We’re on the River Thames, thats Big Ben, we’re all sat here in the middle of the night having a great time. I’m playing a fucking piano in the middle of the street, and we’re doing something good … and, like … it’s good.”

And it was.

View next: The Other Italy

World in FLUX is a blog documenting the travels of Tina Grandinetti for FLUX Hawaii. Tina is a University of Hawai‘i graduate who is embarking on a journey through countries around the world, seeking to learn more about the ways in which we are all different, yet so much the same.

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