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Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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The Four Stages of Enlightenment: London Underground Edition [20091012|16:30]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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Until last week, I carried a photo in the back pocket of my handbag. It had been there since the day I found it outside Highbury & Islington tube station. I stood there for a while after picking it up in front of the dodgy burger stand, futilely scanning the crowds to see if I could spot the owner though I knew full well it must have been lying there for hours. Something about her face arrested me. She was young, but she was also weary. Her jaw was set firmly and she stared straight into the camera. I thought she must be a fellow immigrant. Her taut, guarded expression reminded me of myself, posing for the umpteenth set of such photos for heaven knows what official purpose, doomed to be filed in a cabinet locked in a cold halogen-lit room and never looked at again.

She has experienced the sheer exhaustion living in this city can bring. Bone-tired is the only expression that describes it accurately. She knows the phases of learning to travel the underground as a commuter, which are as follows.

  • Stage One: Bewilderment You are trying to stay out of everyone's way while furtively working out whether "Eastbound" on the Piccadilly line is going to get you to Kings Cross or not, without stopping at the bottom of the escalators like the tourists. This phase can last anywhere from a couple of days to a month, depending on the demands of your workplace and how much you go out.

  • Stage Two: Satisfaction You know your route. You know exactly where to stand on the platform to board the carriage where you're most likely to get a seat, or at least be able to read the Metro* without holding it an inch from your nose. Or, if you don't care so much about a seat, the carriage nearest the exit at your alighting point. If you're extremely lucky, these two will coincide. Mostly, however, they don't. This phase lasts a couple of months to a year.

  • Stage Three: Rage You have now been doing this for far too long. You are tired of the crowds, tired of the smell of a thousand different flavours of soap and deodorant, tired of other people's drawn faces, tired of their obstinate refusal to make eye contact. You hate the idiotic bumbling of tourists with a white-hot intensity. (It's a wonder they don't melt under the collective incandescent heat of Londoners' annoyance. You wonder how you never noticed it before.) If someone is so injudicious as to deliberately attempt to block your way into the carriage, you plunge in, elbows out, not apologizing or speaking, and make sure to get a good jab in under a rib. Both combatants then pretend nothing happened and seethe silently, loathing one another. This phase can last anywhere from years to forever.

  • Stage Four: Resignation This is a blissful, Zen-like state. You have learned, at long last, not to care about anything other than the book you are currently reading or the fact that you'll soon be home. You are completely detached from the crowd and your surroundings. You don't need headphones. Even the book is superfluous, though not having reading material does make the journey seem longer if you aren't sleepy enough for a nap. If you can move quickly through the station or up and down the escalators, you do. If not, you wait patiently.

    Stage Four takes years to achieve. There are many moments of false enlightenment, particularly during Stage Two. But Stage Four, true Stage Four, for an immigrant, is a hard-won victory. It leaves lines on your face and a certain steely, faraway expression in your eye. The girl in the picture I carried had reached it.

    * Free morning paper, distributed at tube stations and bus stops. Clever types describe it as "yesterday's news, today".
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: victorine
2009-10-12 18:20 (UTC)
Apparently the Paris Metro is no match for the London Underground. After a few weeks in Paris, I was able to navigate with ease. But I was driven crazy by all the French Algerians that would try to hit on me ALL the time. "Look, just because I have pink hair does NOT mean I am a prostitute." And the couple from Florida, discussing at which stop to exit, in their loud NY accents. I told them which one they wanted and then had a moment of silent thanks that I did not look or act like an obnoxious American.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-10-16 13:15 (UTC)
London buses are now way easier to use than they were when I first moved here. They announce the stops and have them displayed on a board at the front of the bus. It's so much less stressful!

Loud Americans are a feature of Gloucester Road near my work. I'm always amused when I hear them saying, "What street is this? GLAU-CHESTER?"
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From: pbristow
2009-10-12 18:41 (UTC)
[NODS IN VIVID RECOLLECTION]
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-10-16 13:05 (UTC)
Uh huh. Impossible to forget, I imagine!
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From: pbristow
2009-10-16 14:11 (UTC)
I get flashbacks to stage three any time I'm in a crowded place, trying to get to the other side of it. Cheltenham Highstreet or WH Smiths on a Saturday, f'rex. =:o\

On coaches, trains and planes, though, I'm your Stage Four guy, smiling indulgently at all those people who stand up as soon as the vehicle stops and then stand awkwardly balancing their lugging on the arm-rests, as if it were somehow possible for half a plane/carriage/bus-load of people to exit through that one little door in less time than it takes to read another page... =:o}
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[User Picture]From: dizzykj
2009-10-12 20:38 (UTC)
how true, and how wonderfully put!

it's also made me realise that I hit phase 4 a while ago (and it's just as relevant on buses in rush hour).

thank you for a contented smile I now have.

x
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-10-16 13:06 (UTC)
"it's just as relevant on buses in rush hour"

I would argue that that's even more difficult, since people can jabber on their mobiles.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-10-16 13:09 (UTC)
Perhaps you could adjust them using the time scales? For the ones that were not relevant, you could set them to zero.

What is Canadian public transport like?
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[User Picture]From: thirdbird
2009-10-13 01:23 (UTC)
I skipped to the Resignation stage very rapidly after having children - in fact I'd go beyond that and say it's a separate stage: Commuter Bliss. There are few things I would rather do these days than get to spend an hour doing absolutely nothing on the subway with no children to entertain, pacify, or console. All subway annoyances are humorous diversions in comparison.

Then again, I no longer have to/get to do it every day.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-10-16 13:10 (UTC)
Ooh, Commuter Bliss. I'll look forward to that one. I'm not sure being relieved of kitten care compares to being released from looking after small children, though.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-10-16 13:09 (UTC)
I smile back, and do a little silly dance.
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[User Picture]From: senusert
2009-10-14 11:29 (UTC)
It took me three years to get to stage four, and now that I've been gone a month I'm back to stage one (I came up for the weekend and refused to believe That my memory and reality didn't conincide). Also; London is a lot busier than I remember it, and what are all those people doing with nothing to do all weekend?
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-10-16 13:13 (UTC)
The weekend is a separate beast from the commuter week. I'd argue that it has its own stages. For me, it went from Stage One: Disbelief to Stage Two: Never Use The Underground On A Saturday Afternoon.
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