Sunday, March 27, 2016

TUBE TIME

As a kid, my first image of London was the double-decker bus. I had one as part of my Matchbox car collection. It crashed a lot. Occasionally it soared over a desktop cliff but typically it simply tipped on its side. Maybe I didn’t have the greatest imagination.

Prior to landing in London, I pictured myself hopping on big red bus after big red bus, climbing to the top. With my amazing view, there was a chance I’d spot the Queen, slipping out of Waitrose with a fresh batch of hot cross buns tucked away in her stuffy old purse.

First London selfie: Trying hard to be inconspicuous.
My plans changed shortly after landing at Heathrow. I hopped on the London Underground and snapped my first selfie as a rider sitting across from me smirked.

Bloody hell. Spot the tourist.

She could smirk all she wanted. I put my phone away and glimpsed the surprisingly unkempt yards that bordered the rail line. I don’t know where “the wrong side of the tracks” came from. It seems to me that either side—at least, immediately adjacent—is rather seedy in any city. But the trip was lovely all the same.

After checking in at my hotel, I did board a double-decker. One of those hop-on, hop-off tourist beasts that allows passengers smirk-free snapping at whatever we like. Alas, the luster wore off shortly after I secured a front window seat. Shockingly, a sizable splat of bird poop photobombed all my pics. Worse, the bus sat idle more than it moved. Being a tour bus, the route involved all of the busiest streets in central London. I abandoned the tour several blocks from Westminster Abbey, certain that I could travel faster afoot.

No more double-deckers.

And so I reverted to my new love: the Tube. I’m a geek when it comes to mass transit. I suppose it goes back to my boyhood in Hamilton, Ontario. Not long after outgrowing my accident-prone toy cars, I discovered the wonders of the city bus. It meant greater freedom, a chance to hop on for a dime—God, I’m old—and go downtown with a friend, without my parents. I was nine or ten when I started. Back then, parents didn’t worry about childhood abductions. Or maybe mine just knew I’d be returned within the hour.



The lovely thing about relying on the Tube for getting about London is that I never have to get my bearings. North, east, south, west, they’re irrelevant. Instead, my navigation is based on Piccadilly and District lines. I have no idea if I’ve traveled great distances to the far corners of the city or if I’ve simply crisscrossed the same quarters time and again.

It’s simply wonderful. When I’m not people watching, I’m staring at the straight line “map” between the windows and the ads for slimming one’s body “in just 12 weeks!” and for Gaviscon, granting welcome relief from heartburn and indigestion. It’s bonus reading, aimed at the betterment of my life. If I just heed the ads, surely I’ll be hotter and healthier!

The crowds on the Tube vary greatly. It wasn’t well populated on that initial ride from Heathrow and, truthfully, that had come as a disappointment. My geeky love of mass transit heightens when a system is well-used. There have only been a couple of times when I’ve had to stand, but that’s when I like it best. By golly, I’m a part of something!

The best ride was 4:00 Saturday afternoon when I crammed on the Piccadilly from Leicester Square to King’s Cross. I squeezed on—last possible body!—and extended my arm to grip an upper bar as bodies gently bumped into me during rougher patches on the rail.

When it came time to disembark, and after heeding that lovely caution, “Please mind the gap,” I joined swarms of people merging onto two heavenward escalators and emptying into the ultra-busy station. It all felt part of one exhilarating ride. I was giddy for a full hour afterward, with no one to exclaim, “That was fun!” Probably a good thing.

And so I know what to say when people back home ask me about the highlights of my first trip overseas. The Tower Bridge. The Tate Modern. And, sure, Buckingham Palace even if the Queen declined to invite me in for tea and hot cross buns. Frankly, though, it’s a wonder I spent any time above ground at all.

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