Straight Talk – Personal Matters
Written by Stella Nicholls
Photos provided by Stella Nicholls
‘There are two places in the world where men can most effectively disappear – the city of London and the South Seas’ – Herman Melville
London’s Red Double Decker buses are among the most iconic symbols of the capital and on arriving in London recently, I was amazed at how many of them there are. Different numbers, different routes but all with one goal, efficiently transporting people from one place to another.
Having never been to London to do the ‘touristy’ type of visit, when my husband and I were recently given the opportunity to do just that, we jumped at the chance. Complete novices, we arrived in London, our ‘maps app’ active on our mobile phone to guide us to our holiday accommodation.
Jumping ‘online’ to do a bit of research, we ‘Googled’ the places that we wanted to visit, the distances apart and worked out the best mode of transport. What would we do without technology? We’ve got this! I thought to myself, with all the modern technology at our fingertips, we’re sure to ace this trip, ‘easy peasy’!
The Underground – my first ever Tube trip was an experience not easily forgotten. Having climbed on at Greenwich on the Jubilee line, I felt as though I was playing a part in a futuristic movie. The platform screen doors, which serve as a safety measure along this line, slide open as the train arrives, to release hundreds of commuters, all intent on their journey and seemingly knowing what they are doing. As we boarded, with not much room to wiggle, I had underestimated the speed with which the train would take off from the station. I was momentarily hurtled backwards, shoulder charging an unsuspecting London businessman, clad in a smart grey suit. Nervously, I apologised, and seeing the funny side of it, had to try and stifle a giggle, I glanced up at him, expecting the worst, but he looked down at me, good-naturedly, with a twinkle in his eye.
There is something about being underground that makes a person feel slightly “Hobbitish” but while the technology is amazing, shooting people around in tubes at great speed, reminds me of being in a giant pneumatic tube pipeline (a system used to transport objects like cash, medicine, even radioactive material at great speed through a network of pipelines and propelled by compressed air or partial vacuum). Efficient but slightly overwhelming, nonetheless, and I was secretly grateful to be ‘above ground’ again, even though my husband had enjoyed every second of the ride.
Next stop, a place that I visit quite frequently in my day to day and, when travelling, it’s one of the first places that I look for and head to. I needed to find the toilets. I have often thought that with all the technological advances that we have in the world, that public toilets should be a bit better, given that we all need to use them at some point during the day (me more than most). What can I say? I drink a lot of water!.
Admittedly, I’ve recently seen some pretty super duper versions in my travels, the ones at the services in Exeter are quite advanced, saving water and eliminating the spread of germs in the process but, alas, the ones that I found first in London were not like that. I queued for close to twenty minutes, behind a group of women who appeared to all be travelling together, in the stinkiest passage I have ever smelt (and I’ve had babies and dealt with many dirty nappies). We found ourselves covering our mouths and noses with our scarves, women united against the smell but also desperate for the loo, otherwise, I don’t think any of us would have waited (I was covetously eyeing the men’s toilet opposite us, which had men whizzing in and out, almost as fast as the tube train). ‘First world’ problem? Perhaps.
After visiting a museum that I’ve wanted to experience for as long as I can remember (one to tick off the bucket list) and deciding to walk to our next tourist attraction, the ‘overwhelmed’ feeling that had started niggling earlier on, really started to take hold of me. I remember thinking that I’d wanted to do this trip for years, why was I not enjoying it as much as I thought I would? I felt a little ‘lost’ even though I was with my husband. Despite the crowds surrounding us, with all the technology available, we had had very little human interaction. No need to talk to a bus driver, just jump on, swipe your contactless bank card and you’re off, the driver not even needing to turn around. No need to talk to anyone on the Tube, or at the museum, where we could have actually done with chatting to a human as, at first, we bumbled our way around outside, unsure of which entrance to use with our pre-booked tickets.
Walking down Marylebone Road, we stumbled upon a beautiful old church with a man outside making coffee. Proper coffee, mind you, with coffee beans and a decent coffee machine, which was on top of his stand and sheltered by the church’s front entrance. We were drawn to him and stood chatting, while he prepared one of the best tasting lattes that I’ve had. He was friendly, kind and had time for us, and we sat down on a couple of chairs that had been scattered around. We drank our coffee, pausing to ‘reset’ and gather ourselves, ready to face the next adventure.
In hindsight, we enjoyed our trip to London immensely, however, the stand-out moments, for me, all involved human interaction. From the kind man on the Tube, the camaraderie amongst women in the toilet queue, the coffee making man at the church, a friendly restaurant owner, who teased us about living in Devon, ‘where people go to retire’ and yet as we left, slipped us some tasty pastries; ‘on the house’ as he put it. To the interactive London Dungeon experience, where actors accompany visitors around in semi-darkness to ‘relive’ some of the horror stories of the past. By the end of the London Dungeon visit, a rapport had even developed amongst our visitor group – united in our ‘frights’, and laughing in relief together as the scary moment passed.
It seems that my thoughts at the beginning of the holiday (of only needing our ‘modern’ technology to flourish in London and have a great holiday) were not true. I realise now that the beauty of the city was brought home to us by some of the locals that live there and their kindness and also by fellow tourists intent on a similar ‘holiday mission’. The human touch.
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