Before coming to London I had heard of the London Underground. Everyone has heard of the London Underground. In my mind this famous form of public transportation was a damp cavernous tunnel system only to be attempted with a backpack containing enough food for a few days and a sleeping bag. As a girl from a small New Hampshire town my only exposure to public transit was the Stevens Point bus system. Which is unfortunate because I cannot even count the number of times I got hopelessly lost on those busses and had to call my friends for a ride back from Plover. Needless to say, the idea of an underground train system that covers approximately 300 miles around London and beyond was a little terrifying.
Now I have been living in London for about three months I am incrementally more comfortable with ‘The Tube’. The first time was a bit of a disaster. A group of fellow pointers and I were trying to get to an urban food festival in Shoreditch (a trendy region of London). We spent our time glued to various maps trying to figure out if a line that curves down on the map would be considered eastbound or westbound, and why so many people just got off-maybe we should get off? No one else is on this train, and it’s not moving. When we all emerged back on the street the sun was blinding and I felt like I had just suffered an ordeal. It has become easier since then, but on the London Underground strange people and situations are never terribly out of place.
A few facts about the tube: there are 270 different stations, at rush hour 57,000 people have been counted moving through a single station, (it’s Waterloo, by the way, avoid it at rush hour), each tube train travels 114,500 miles a year, and each year 1,229 million passengers are carried.
A few facts I have learned personally about the tube:
No one talks. If you are talking, laughing, looking around, or really doing anything other than reading the newspaper or a book you are automatically hated a little bit. Passengers on the tube do nothing except avoid eye contact with each other. If you disregard this literally unspoken rule and talk loudly or get caught up in hysterical laughing fits like I have many times in the past months everyone will turn and stare at you uncomfortably until you exit the train.
It is inappropriate to laugh at the tube station name “Cockfosters”.
The left side of the escalator is for those sprinting up, presumably really fit or really late. If you stand on the left side you will get pushed out of the way. I know this from personal experience.
Adventures on the Tube:
One fateful evening around rush hour a pigeon found itself five stories below central London. Birds are not the smartest, and this one must have been particularly dense because it flew directly into the waiting train just as the doors closed. I sat and watched complete chaos break out. People were screaming, the pigeon was frantically swooping around, I heard curse words in six different languages, and whenever the bird landed someone would inevitably aim a kick and it would take flight again-proving that perhaps the bird was not the stupidest creature on the train. At the next stop it was a mass exodus off the carriage, bird included.
There is a recorded message that plays when the doors opens, it says “Mind the gap!” to remind commuters that sometimes there is a space between the platform and the train. It is very useful. One afternoon while I was sitting on the tube I think that the message got stuck. “Mind the gap!” … “Mind the gap!” … “Mind the gap!” “Mind the gap!” About ten messages later the doors still hadn’t closed and the recorded voice became more and more insistent “MIND THE GAP! MIND IT!” finally ending with “THERES A GAP, DON’T FREAKING STEP IN IT!” Well, okay, maybe it just stuck with the original, but it sure sounded frustrated.
Recently the train was stopped at the platform a friend and I were trying to get on. She sprinted towards the train and jumped on seconds before the doors shut behind her, leaving me standing at the platforms edge!
I also have a handful of stories about falling over on the train because I wasn’t holding on. Sometimes it was just a bit of a stumble, but once or twice I did fall fully on the ground. Most awkward person on the train.
I’ve also seen small acts of kindness. I witnessed someone carry a women’s suitcase down some stairs that she was struggling with. The occasional person who offers their seat to expectant mothers or the elderly proves that perhaps chivalry is not dead. Every now and then someone will even smile down there, but that is few and far between.
90% of the time I manage to get where I am going, and/or successfully explain to someone else where to go. The other 10% I get on the train going east when I want to go west, I fall over, I miss the last train, and I get stuck in the turnstiles. I am not an expert by any means, but at least I do mind the gap.