Thoughts Underground

So many people…trying so hard not to look each other in the eye. Studying the newspaper or book in front of them like their lives depend on it. Listening to their iPods, staring at the ground with a bemused smile that conveys that they are happily engrossed in their own amusement. Heaven forbid your forgot your book or your iPod and then you are in a sad state indeed, staring at the floor or reading the ads with your arms crossed and a sullen expression, wondering what the heck that crazy girl is doing scribbling in her journal. Probably American…

Everyone is rocking gently, swaying, the train humming as it glides over the tracks, sometimes a snap as it hits stray bumps.

My favorite is when kids get on the tube and tumble in, tripping, noisy, into the car. “Sit down, sit down!” their mummies hiss. “Leave the nice lady alone.” Then the little girl mischievously scooches next to her mum and proceeds to stare at everyone who is studiously avoiding her gaze, no one talking. Glued to their books. Their IVs.

Sometimes I sneak a smile…

As you get further into central London in the morning, the trains suddenly start to get packed with people. Men and women in their businesswear—suits and boots and heels and peacoats. I look just like them and I always share a secret joke with myself, thinking, “Everyone thinks I’m British.”

During the morning or after work rush, you’re lucky if you get an inch of space to breathe, let alone a seat. And yet the tube gods have no mercy; the Tube Rule reigns supreme: “Don’t look anyone in the eye!” I swear the British perform fantastic feats of contortionism to obey this Rule. One foot wedged between the seat and a briefcase, straddling someone else’s suitcase, the other foot on tiptoe, gingerly leaning across to hold on to the handrail, and always, always keep your book in front of your eyes!! And the women do it in heels.

“The next station is Baker Street. Change for the Circle, Hammersmith & City, Jubilee, and Metropolitan lines. Exit here for Madame Tussauds.”

Step over someone’s leg, duck under an arm, squeeze between a backpack and a body, and you might get out before the doors close.

A man standing with a microphone, projecting in his best stadium announcer voice:

“MIND the gap! Please allow the customers to get off the train before boarding. This train is now ready to depart! MIND the closing doors!!”

Get out, swipe your Oyster Card, and breathe.

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2 Comments

Filed under Living in London

2 responses to “Thoughts Underground

  1. Does this describe a frequent commute for you? I certainly hope not! I travel a good bit in the southern states of the USA, and have often marveled at just the opposite attitude from most of the folks there.

  2. Actually it does describe a pretty common experience of using the Tube in London (from an American perspective). British manners are typically ruled by “negative politeness”, which is basically the attitude that leaving someone alone, respecting their privacy, and not intruding their personal space is polite. When there’s no way to avoid intruding someone’s physical space, you can avoid intruding their mental space by not looking at them and not talking to them. And you expect the same courtesy in return. Americans have a “positive politeness”, where it’s polite to go out of your way to make others feel welcome. Americans often don’t realize that their “friendliness” is viewed by Europeans as nosy and intrusive. But me – I like being friendly and having random acts of friendliness bestowed upon me. It’s simply a cultural difference.

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