So, one of the main advantages of having lived abroad in cities whose citizens rely heavily on public transport (London and Paris) is this: you learn to walk faster.
It’s probably an incremental change. I’m not sure when it happened. When I arrived in the UK in 2007, I must have walked at the ‘normal’ speed (i.e. the speed at which I walked in Thailand prior to departure, which can’t have been very fast). Then, as the years go by and I moved from Oxford (where I biked it most of the time) to London, I walked faster.
See, you can’t not walk fast in London. Well, unless you’re a tourist. There’s this speed – the London speed, to which every Londoner appears to adhere to. And it’s fast. If your walking speed is inferior to this much common rate, you noticeably fall behind the pack. More, you get disgruntled stares (maybe it’s all in my head) from fellow footpath trodders. Understandably so. One has work to do. And one shouldn’t be stuck in traffic if one isn’t in a car, or a bus. You get the idea.
So yes, over the years, I learned to walk faster. Then I went to Paris for a year, and realised this most wonderful fact: Parisians also walk fast! You’d think the French would be strolling along enjoying the beauty, the life of Paris. Oh but no. The French also got work to do. (I went to Marseille just before I left France, and no, French people there don’t walk fast. Marseille had a kind of a leisurely stroll feel to it. I loved it.)
I’m not sure how fast I walk. I know I walk faster than many of my friends – be it for preference, stamina, or leg length. I’m not the fastest walker of them all. But I’m quite fast, if you know what I mean.
Fast enough that, one day in the summer of 2012 – the Olympics summer – in London, I was on my way to work. (Yes, I was working that summer. With Eurostar. At St Pancras International Station. The pretty station in the pretty listed building next to the nondescript King’s Cross. Well, that’s not fair. The nondescript King’s Cross got renovated. Anyways. Back to the story.) I was a running a bit late. The thing with working with train providers is, you have to be on time. Always on time. For everything. Or – you know – you fuck up the whole system. Well, not exactly that. Actually, I don’t know what’d happen. You’d get told off by your superiors and brownie points taken, I think, but not much else. Anyways, point is, I didn’t want to be late. Now, due to miscalculation or non-waking up of the me, I was running late that morning. By one tube. What does this mean, you ask? It means I missed the first tube that would have taken me to the station at exactly the time that’d allow me to get to work on time. I know. A bit tight. But sleep is very addictive.
So I was à la bourre. Apologies for the random insertion of French. It was the first expression that came to mind. (Also, I’m incredibly proud of the fact that I speak French. And the incredible restraint I’ve shown in not throwing in random French expressions had a relapse. Apologies.) Basically I was in a hurry. Not any hurry. But a super hurry. I literally (well, not literally) flew out of the tube and legged it to get to work. Have you been to King’s Cross-St Pancras station? It’s big. I’d taken the Victoria line from North London (Tottenham Hale. Yes. I know. I survived though.), and there was a bit of a distance between the southbound Victoria line platform and the exit that would take me to St Pancras, right by the staff entrance door. (Ooooh. Mysterious. I bet now you want to know where the staff entrance is. Well, you won’t. Security reasons. Also, I’m enjoying keeping you in the dark.)
(I looked up à la bourre. Word Reference translates it as ‘pushed for time’. Hmm. Well. Not quite. I find the French version more… expressive. Not happy. Let’s stick with French.)
So I was shooting my way through throngs of crowd in the underground station. It wasn’t exactly rush hour, but since the station serves two large train stations, well, you can imagine. People with luggages. People with suitcases on their way to work outside London. People everywhere. So I was legging it. I also had music in my ears to – you know – pump myself up. I was literally walking to the beat of the music. And as I was flying through the barriers that separate the tube station from the outer world (a.k.a. St Pancras in this case), a hand touched my shoulder.
Now, my first reflex, as a Londoner naturalisée (oh God, so sorry. The French keeps coming up.) was – not to panic – but to, well, be puzzled yet overwhelmingly indifferent (oxymoron?). I keep at it. The hand appears again. This time the rest of the hand (well, rather, the extension of the hand into the person) also comes into view. It’s a black man. I know I shouldn’t have this next reaction, nor be telling you about it, but I’m a straightforward person, so here it is: the indifferent puzzlement turned in a flash into slightly scared yet sceptical mode. Just because he was black. (Well, is. I’m not aware of his current whereabouts. Nor of his life and health. I’d rather hope he were alive and well. My writing brain keeps implying otherwise. Better shut up.) So I got a bit scared and took the music out of my ears. (So I could, you know, more accurately assess the situation.) In any case, the man got my full attention.
Stranger: You know, for such a small person, you walk very fast. *smiles a bright toothy, shiny smile* *nods at me knowingly* *walks off*
And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the most random thing that ever happened to me in London. I look back at it with fondness. Not often do you experience this sort of spontaneous unforced interactions between strangers in London. I cherish it. And it made my day. I allowed myself two seconds to feel confused yet happy about it. Then continued on my quest to reach work on time.
Not sure if I made it in the end. Anyways, it doesn’t really matter now, does it?
So, the fast walker that I am, I had a bit of a culture shock when I came back to Bangkok earlier this year. People walk slow! I mean. I understand tourists leisurely strolling, stopping to take pictures, but it’s not only tourists! People on their way to work walk like they’re incapable of exerting more strength in their legs! They drag their legs. They stroll. And – most importantly – they don’t get out of the way!
Worse is packs of students who walk in horizontal formation at a speed worthy of a prize. It’s like walking behind a row of crabs! You can’t dodge ’em, and they keep moving in the weirdest directions it’s hard to anticipate and overtake! Urgh.
So yes, that’s the whole point of this post. I wanted to complain. And complained I have.