Claustrophobia: London style

Posted by JSYL on Tuesday, July 29, 2008 in , ,
"claus.tro.pho.bic adj
1. unpleasantly or uncomfortably confined"

They say that London’s population is 20 times that of Sydney’s. To imagine what that feels like recall, if you can, your most claustrophobic experience. It might be that time your flight was delayed by hours and when they finally called you to board every single person ran for the counter at once, forming more of a mass exodus than an orderly queue to the plane. Or perhaps you’ve been to a McDonalds in a foreign country (interpret that as you will, fellow racists), where the word ‘queue’ doesn’t show up in the local dictionary and you'd swear a cheeseburger was the only known anecdote to some mysterious poisonous gas released into the atmosphere by aliens from Planet Zurtox. Now picture said nightmare on the sidewalk of a major central intersection, next to an ATM, on a train platform…basically any publicly shared facility. (And you wonder why Brits are notorious for their whingy-ness: it’s a tough life.)

What I find more fascinating, though, are the lesser-known characteristics of an overcrowded city. The little things that probably happen every day, so often that they usually go unnoticed. These are the moments that make you realise you’ve truly become a local. Two in particular stood out to me in what has to be London’s biggest intersection: the Tube.

Now, for anyone outside the UK, there are a few things you need to know about riding the Tube to understand what’s to follow. Transport For London (TFL) estimates that three million people travel on it every day. There are over 20 underground stations just metres away from each other on railway lines that run all the way around the city and connect a wide mix of commuters. It’s probably the most convenient and efficient way of getting around, but for that reason, also the most crowded. So you can imagine how crazy it can get, especially during peak hour. Amazingly, that good old British reserve remains in tact even then.

It’s an unwritten rule that you don’t make eye contact with strangers on the Tube. Forget striking up random conversations with friendly neighbours. No matter if you’re sat directly opposite them for an entire journey, or forced to stand nose-to-sweaty-nose with them for a good 15-20 minutes. You are always to look either down and left or right, or up and away, to maintain the illusion that all of you have your own bubble of personal space, even in the most crowded of conditions.

I was rushing to meet someone once, late as usual. I just made it on the Tube, and, stressed and out of breath, decided to use the twenty minutes that would otherwise have been spent sitting in silence, to finish getting ready. Makeup, hair, eyebrows, the whole works. I spent almost the whole journey doing all the little things you would ordinarily only dream of doing in the privacy of your bedroom. When I’d finally decided I now looked as good as humanly possible without the aid of a straightener, slimming underwear and a plastic surgeon, I let out a little sigh of relief.

I put away my compact mirror and all my little brushes, smoothed out my dress and folded my hands in my lap to enjoy the rest of the trip. Only then did I look up and realise I’d been oblivious to the man in the suit sat opposite me. He had a slight smirk on his face but looked away quickly as soon as I saw him. Mortified, I realised he’d been watching me transform from Manic Mess to Composed Commuter the entire time. And I hadn’t even noticed. As soon as I’d found my seat I’d somehow forgotten that 50 or so people sat just metres away from me in the same carriage. I thought I’d become invisible. But it’s impossible, even with etiquette’s ridiculous social conditioning, to ignore what’s all around you. And it makes for embarrassing times, especially if you're the type that wears your every mood like a nasty coffee stain, like me.

The other Tube story involves, funnily enough, an actual coffee stain. Note to all commuters: never make any sudden movements as your train/bus/taxi/tram/ferry takes off. Even if you’ve survived a million such instances unscathed, you never know how unlucky you could become. I mean, what are the odds that you will one day decide to lean over and take a sip of a new cup of coffee at the exact same moment the tall man next to you will decide to lift his arm to reach for the safety bar above you? Slim to none? What are the chances you will happen to be wearing a white shirt when this huge misalignment of the planets occurs?

The burning sensation of the coffee, pretty much everywhere, stunned me into submission for a few minutes while he apologised profusely, making it seem as though I was much more annoyed than I was. What made it funnier though, was the fact that we both had a fair way to travel together before we could part ways and be done with the awkwardness of it all. Again with the silence and the non-eye-contact, but this time with a huge gaping coffee stain he could not look away from, because, in our crowded carriage there was no way either of us could politely move a comfortable distance away from the other. It’s almost as bad as that cartoon where Colonel Sanders is trapped in an elevator with a chicken.

Isn’t it bizarre the lengths we are willing to go to pretend we’re alone out of self-preservation, before we would ever admit that we're really just surrounded by people just like us?



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