Believe me, when you’ve commuted to London as many times as I have this year, the sparkle of the city soon wears off. Where I once used to marvel at the historic landmarks, now I pass them by without a second thought, so focused on my end goal of getting through rush hour relatively unscathed.
Almost 80% of the journeys I have made to London this year have been for business purposes which means that I have to battle other commuters when it comes to reaching my destination in the middle of rush hour. From the minute your board the train, it becomes a game of cat and mouse as to who will get a seat and be able to enjoy the commute to London in relative comfort.
It’s usually about halfway to London that the trains get really busy. Gone are all the spare seats as commuters unfortunate enough to be only a few stops from London Waterloo Station are forced to stand for the last forty minutes or so of the journey. This often means that, even if you are lucky enough to have found a seat, you’re likely sat next to someone with a hideous cold or questionable hygiene standards. Sometimes, you even get the kinds of jerks who speak loudly on their mobile phones, despite the fact that they are sitting in the designated ‘quiet zone’ of the train.
The aisle seats are usually the last to fill up and this is mainly because every Tom, Dick, and Harry will wander up and down the aisle with their multitude of briefcases and backpacks, merrily swinging them to and fro and hitting you in the face. Sometimes, you me even be fortunate to cop an elbow in the face if you really play your cards right.
It’s then a mad dash to get off the train, through the ticket gates and to your next destination: the London Underground. Believe me, you’ve never seen anything quite like hundreds of commuters pushing and shoving their way down the escalators and through the ticket gates. I have literally seen grown men and women barge both pensioners and young children out of their way should their poor unsuspecting victims have been deemed to be walking too slowly.
The Underground at rush hour is an experience to behold, and something that will stay with you for many years, perhaps even requiring a course of therapy in order to get over the trauma. Have you ever played that silly drunken game of ‘How many people can you fit into a really small car’? The Underground at rush hour is much like this, as masses of commuters attempt to take up every available square inch of the carriages. This often means that you’ll get up close and personal with a complete stranger’s armpit, get germs coughed all over you, while also running the risk of someone dipping their hand into your bag or coat and pilfering your belongings.
I’ve probably made London sound like the last place on Earth that you’d ever want to visit, but I am fairly sure that most big cities are the same. It’s rare that anyone traveling through London will ever smile at you as you walk past, let alone say hello. I’ve found myself becoming used to the commute to London and had almost forgotten about being polite or gracious to others as I ran through Underground stations to get to my destination on time. That was until a homeless man outside one of the tube stations smiled at me and wished me a ‘happy Thursday’. I rooted around in my coat pocket for some spare change to give him and he held his hand up and shook his head. “I don’t want no money. Just wanted to wish a lovely lady a good day.”
Stunned, I somehow made it to my meeting on time with a reminder that sometimes it doesn’t cost anything to make someone’s day. That very afternoon, after a hairy commute back to London Waterloo, I sat on the train waiting for it to depart when I woman came up to me who was clearly nervous and told me it was her first time in London on her own. I invited her to sit next to me and confirmed that she had indeed boarded the correct train that would take her home.
We sat and chatted about this and that and my new friend commented that she was terrified to take her phone out and make a call in London on the off-chance that someone would snatch her bag. She told me that London seemed like a scary city to be in on your own and wondered how I dealt with it. Her parting words when she departed the train at her destination made me smile as she told me that ‘perhaps there were some helpful and friendly faces in London after all.’