Meeting new people (1)

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rajStudents Urge for Immediate Permanent Ceasefire in Sri Lanka

Raj was very unassuming as he wandered onto the tube. So unlike the rest of us arrayed in our fashionable finery, which said little more about ourselves than how much we might spend on not looking too plebeian, he walked on to a few worried glances.

He had spent the last few days protesting against British foreign policy in Sri Lanka.

We had only 2 stops for me to attempt to learn his life story. Definitely not long enough. I do know that he’s starting a post-graduate degree in Economics here in London, in part because he doesn’t feel he would have the same educational opportunities back in his home country.

It was liberating going up to the person in the carriage that everyone else is studiously trying to ignore in order to start a conversation.

It was also fascinating to see a protester on the move. Next I want to see a sports’ mascot as they make their way to the place where they stop looking out of place…

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The long commute…

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London Euston – Manchester (eta: 19.46)
Manchester – London Euston (eta: 21.35)

I had a looooooong commute home on Tuesday night. Just over 2 hours. My excitement at having a little plug port for my laptop, however, had not worn off by the time I lugged my bags and booty off the carriage at Euston.

This was a one-off for me and I relished the time to work and watch a little of the West Wing, but for a whole lot of people across the country it is cheaper to live several hours away from the city in which they work. It makes me wonder how they might rate their work/life balance.

With as much as four hours – perhaps more – a day spent in a train carriage, does that part constitute the work, the life or some state of limbo which has its own unique characteristics involving su doku puzzles, niche magazines and the risk of deep-vein thrombosis.

When people converse, particularly for the first time, the question “what do you do?” often comes up. There may be a discussion of hobbies, of family. Sometimes there may even be a brief exchange about commuting: “phew, that must be difficult, Leeds to London.” But this would not be explored any further, be taken to the next level – as one similarly would not when talking about family or work. Why is this?

Perhaps because the mysteries of someone’s commute, the habits and traditions they create to make the process more comfortable or tolerable, are sacred ground. Or perhaps because most people are not aware they exist…

Commuter heresy takes a back seat to convention

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So having promised to myself that I would talk into the oppressive silence and onto a complete stranger, I found myself cattle-prodded into an increasingly crowded train and onto a bout of stage fright.

How hard can this be? Was my morning’s mantra. For a woman who prides herself on her ability to wade into someone’s sphere of being with nary a panicked stall, I was finding it hard even turning the ignition key.

Of all my strategic ideas, of all my plans of attack, the one that felt most natural, the one that instinct gripped the steering wheel with was moaning about the commute. Here I was sharing more physical contact with the woman next to me than I have any person in the last few weeks, and what better way of introducing myself than saying the polite equivalent of Fuck me, is this uncomfortable.

Over the course of the next 3 stops I learned this lady is a project manager for an arts charity that works with adults with learning difficulties, who studied Environmental Sciences and would usually take the bus, but for a meeting across town that morning. I did not, however, learn her name. That would be a concession too far perhaps. Or it just did not occur to me to ask.

In my previous post I suggested that speaking through the veil of non-interaction was a heretic act on the commute, and I still believe that it is, if you initiate with conversation that is out of context. By using the context of the commute itself and the safe assumption that my potential conversant was as uncomfortable as I was, I followed convention.

Perhaps I should test the limits of this convention, strain the boundaries of acceptable introduction to breaking point. Which begs a question:

is Theology understood by living within a status quo, or do you need to step off the beaten track to see the path being walked more clearly?

Plucking up the courage to engage

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I think I may try to talk to someone tomorrow.

This is a nerve-wracking prospect and I should plan my approach. Ideas currently under review include:

  • checking what my neighbour (or someone suitably close with a book rather than a paper) is reading and jovially creating a conversation related to the book. Provided I have read it. Or not, it’s always good to practice the art of the blag
  • wearing a prominent “I heart Obama” type badge/t-shirt/sandwich board and hoping this will provoke someone else to engage me in conversation
  • using the inevitable stumble into a stranger on the way out of Peckham Rye to begin a friendly-type conversation. While hoping the stranger doesn’t assume this is a come-on.
  • praying that God might provide an opportunity to engage my neighbour in conversation. This could be done out-loud while in the train carriage, but success would be slightly less assured.

It may be that the morning commute is a less welcoming environment than the one home, I shall use tomorrow morning to guage the climate.

Sara Miles in her talk on Glorifying the Stranger says that one of the best way to welcome strangers is to include them, to give them something to do. Unfortunately the commute welcomes strangers by inviting them to stand or sit in studied silence. I would be working against this norm. I would be a commuter heretic.

How exciting.

A time to talk

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I took the train with my flatmate on Tuesday morning. We chatted, as only two women can, oblivious to the quiet carriage around us. Or perhaps talking that tiny bit louder to fill the echoing space.

I wonder what other people in the carriage make of it. When I’m on my own and there are people chatting away, I can’t help but listen in . And judge them – their topic of conversation, the quality of their jokes, the situations they’re in (oh how tempting it is to wade in with an opinion). So of course I expect people to be judging me and my friend as we talk.

I’m sure the Heisenberg principle must apply to commuter conversations. In the same way we talk louder to fill the strange silence that a collective of people not speaking creates, perhaps our topic of conversations are a little more controversial, our laughs that little more brittle.

Hang on, a quick moment of web-based research has turned my casual reference to Heisenberg on its head: it is not that a thing observed is somehow changed through being observed, but rather that the observer becomes part of the observed reality through the act of measurement and observation.

That has given me pause for thought… but then I think this is what I was expecting: a nascent understanding of myself as commuter, and my own conversion to something (who knows what) through observing my fellow commuters.

The shy giggle

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On the way home I sat in the tube, leaning forward from the bag slung over my back and yes, perhaps taking up a little too much room on the armrest. At the next stop the lady next to me mumbled something and moved to a vacant seat further down.

I looked up and asked with a shy giggle, “Did i do something?”

She answered with her own shy giggle, “No, I just want to be able to lean my head against the glass because I’m so tired.”

I, nervous of any tension or commuter guilt this may have generated say, “Oh, sorry, I heard you mumble something and thought I might have driven you away or….” and descend again into the shy giggle.

She responds again with a shy giggle and we turn slowly back to our own space with that final ah/um that the world over means “That’s the end of that then.”

Perhaps, if the rest of the carriage hadn’t been so quiet, I might have asked her why she was so tired. No, I know I would have. And yet only a few minutes later, on my second train home, the man next to me was having a long and loud personal conversation in a similarly quiet carriage. Is it the semi-anonymity that makes this conversation more acceptable? Is it acceptable? Or is the carriage too quiet for someone to risk asking him to end it?