LONDON -- Londoners are calling it the O word.
The Olympics, bearing down on the city like a summer thunderstorm for the past seven years, will commence Friday with Opening Ceremonies featuring Paul McCartney, James Bond, Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare, a surprise cauldron lighter and a mystery cauldron — there’s no evidence of one at Olympic Stadium.
“I would vote for Richard Attenborough to light the flame,” said Mohib Rahmani, a local resident. “Or David Beckham. Might make up for the massive mistake of leaving him off the football team.”
He spoke in a resigned tone. They made a mess of the Beckham decision, the security plan, the designated Olympic traffic lanes that appear out of nowhere, trapping confused drivers into $200 fines.
“Which means you are being fined more for driving in the corporate VIP lane than you would be for driving in the public bus lane,” Rahmani said.
He manages a beautiful laundrette in Kensington he co-owns with his physician father when he is not studying chemical engineering in college. The British can be a cranky lot. They lament that the Olympics are more headache than sporting spectacle then admit how keen they are on Mark Cavendish’s chances at a gold medal in Saturday’s cycling road race or Rebecca Adlington’s shot at gold in swimming.
Londoners regard the Olympics the way they regard the royal family. Some are proud of the monarchy. Some abide it. Others dismiss it as a waste of time and money.
But they are coming around, in their usual self-deprecating, apologetic manner, just as they came around to the splendid wedding of Kate and Wills (Prince William).
Rahmani doesn’t see the point of spending $15 billion on the Olympics during a global recession yet admits that the transformation of the derelict industrial pit of Stratford is amazing. Already, though, they’re calling it “East Village,” and “soon, housing will be too expensive there,” he said.
Taxi drivers staged a “stall-in” to protest the traffic restrictions that will hurt business this summer. One driver is renting out his roomy black cab as a sleeping space for 50 pounds per night.
Regal London is today less high tea than reality TV, McDonald’s and Starbucks. But if London is being Americanized, it has already been Indianized, Pakistanized, Jamaicized. On one block you can find a Lebanese deli, a Greek bakery and a millinery shop that has been in business for 100 years. Aside from the usual assortment of British tabloids you can find newspapers for the Nigerian, South African and Russian communities. You are more likely to see a group of women in black hijabs or Sikh men in turbans walking down the street than a chap in a tweed jacket carrying a brolly. About 42 percent of London’s 8 million people are foreign-born.
There’s a reason Downton Abbey is so popular: The TV series is soaked in nostalgia for a time when society functioned according to clearly delineated roles.
Just as New York is no longer a city of New Yorkers (who couldn’t afford to live there anyway), London is no longer a city of Londoners.
Strictly speaking, that is. Rahmani is a Londoner but his father is from Spain, his mother is Arab. So how would you classify him? Or, if you are part of the energetic, open-minded young generation here, why would you bother?
Bustling London, the ultimate melting pot, is the ideal place to hold the globalized Olympics, although the riots of last summer showed that true tolerance is hard to achieve, especially in a city where the wealthy can send their dogs to jog on the pet treadmill at the Pet Spa in Harrod’s. The gigantic diamonds and bathtub-sized gold punch bowl among the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London evoke equal parts wonder and outrage.
After three months of drenching, record rain, the sun has been blazing for four days, and it seems the entire population has decamped in the parks, or any patch of green will do. Sunburned Londoners looking forward to what they call naked volleyball — that is, beach volleyball — at the Horse Guards Parade.
And if it rains, as it did on the queen’s Diamond Jubilee boat parade, Mayor Boris Johnson has told Londoners to do what they have always done: Grin and bear it with a stiff upper lip. Queue with order and dignity. Keep calm and carry on.
Inside his beautiful, cramped laundrette, Rahmani, 24, sings along to a mix he made of American crooners Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. He cleans dress shirts for the rich and helps an Asian woman who doesn’t speak English use the coin-operated dryer.
His fiancee snagged Olympic tickets to swimming Sunday, but what he really wanted to see was Becks playing football. Becks won’t be a hero of this Olympics. Nor will chief organizer Seb Coe, former gold medalist and Member of Parliament.
The heroes of London 2012 are likely to be athletes such as runner Mohammed Farah, who left Somalia at age 8. He wears the Union Jack uniform. For him, just like Rahmani, London is home.