It was the summer of 1951, and London took me by storm. It was gentle, that storm, sweeping a child barely 9 years old, on his first trip to Europe, into a love affair that has lasted more than half a century. Some of that charm was no doubt the enchantment London exercises on any first-time visitor, young or old: the postcard moments of double-decker buses and the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace; London Bridge, which was not falling down, and the dreaded Tower; and those swans and ancient oaks in majestic parks. But it is one experience that softly burned itself into my memory that returns now to comfort me as I grieve and rage over the violation inflicted on the city that gave me such an extraordinary welcome.
Even so, there was one thing in that metropolis that disappointed and indeed disgusted me and made me yearn for my home in New York. Unsurprisingly, it was the food. For an Argentine brat reared in the United States, used to whole milk and Rice Krispies and perfect ketchup on juicy hamburgers, English meals were excruciating. My parents had patiently explained that there was still rationing in that country, that the ravages of war could still be seen in the streets, and when we had gone down into the tube ("Why do they call it a tube and not a subway, like in Manhattan?") my father had told me about how Londoners had sought refuge there during the Blitz. I was, therefore, to be on my best behavior and not complain. But that sausage that I had eagerly bit into was not a hot dog; it was a mixture of sawdust and fat, so that each meal had become an occasion for whining and revulsion.
And then came a magic evening in Hyde Park, an open-air performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Shakespeare! I had never seen -- let alone read -- anything by the Bard of Avon, but I was well aware that nobody had done more for the language I had chosen as my own, the English in which -- yes, I was already determined to be a writer -- I intended to scribble my complete works. My excitement was compounded by a solemn promise from my father: that he would buy me something sweet before the show. And there we were, in front of the food stand, queuing up (I had learned that strange word, to queue, to stand in line, which the Brits did quite phlegmatically and almost as if they enjoyed it), and there it was: chocolate, more than heavenly for a boy who had for the past few days starved himself rather than swallow the drab and dreary English fare.
"Right-o," said the man who was selling all those goodies, "all I'll need then is your ration card." I didn't understand. I again pushed toward him the coins my dad had deposited in my hand and insisted that what I wanted was that bar of chocolate. The concessionaire was adamant, and my father had to intervene to explain that on this side of the Atlantic, chocolate was not for sale and could be obtained only with coupons or tickets; each English citizen had the right to one bar of chocolate a month. Before I could express my utter dismay, before I could pout and carp and feel sorry for myself, an elderly English lady who had been waiting in line behind us offered to get me that chocolate out of her own rations. My parents demurred, but she was insistent. "I'm delighted," she said, "to give this to a young American boy, after all you did for our people during the war." And she added, when our thanks became embarrassing: "I'd like him to always think well of us."
And so it was that my first glorious meeting with Puck and Bottom, with Oberon and Titania, with the foolish lovers asleep and astray in the woods, was sweetened by that other gift, by what my tongue greeted and my throat celebrated and my tummy rejoiced in. In the very city where Shakespeare had written those words, "If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended," where human ears had originally listened to those words and applauded them and taken them home and into their hearts, there I was, in the night that was turning chilly, warmed by the chocolate as much as by the verse and the antics and the actors among the trees.
This memory, then, is all I can offer London in its time of need. That old woman gave me more than a small bar of chocolate as the sun set on Hyde Park. She provided a glimpse into how she and her people had survived the years of terror, the bombs from above, the streets in rubble, the sirens in the night, how I myself would survive many decades afterward the coup in Chile and its terrible aftermath. I may not have understood it immediately back then, but now what doubt can there be, she is telling me all these years later, that woman who cannot possibly be alive today, she is assuring me from her London devastated by sorrow and blood, that when death calls, all we have is one another and our acts of sheer, deliberate solidarity, all we have is the certainty of our compassion.
Ariel Dorfman's most recent book is "Burning City," a novel written with his youngest son, Joaquin.