Thursday, 5 February 2009

Living British: Tales of Quiet Desperation

If it isn’t the neighbours upstairs with their driving bass-heavy music, it is the woman across the hall and her opera-singing guests. I tell you, I hate them. I hate them all.

Will I do anything about it? Of course not! I have lived in Britain long enough to know that seething in silent fury is the only way to get through life. Besides, knocking on doors may finally point out who it is making the loud sex noises on Monday and Tuesday nights. Lying so close to the ceiling in the sky bed, I figure that if I can hear the people upstairs coughing, they can certainly hear our various late-night “enthusiasms.” I suppose it all balances out. Still, I hate them.

My social awkwardness has blossomed in Britain. The way we all quietly loathe each other but will behave so politely if spoken to. To more thoroughly explain how much I have learned since moving here, I shall describe a typical journey on the bus during the morning rush.

You are standing at the bus stop. A man is smoking at the bus shelter, blatantly ignoring the bold no smoking sign above his head. We all pretend not to notice, because we know if we say anything the man will turn on us like those teenagers in London, who threw that woman onto the underground tracks. She was nearly killed, you know. Instead we take shallow breaths and imagine the man forgetting to look both ways before crossing the street.

There is a queue of people standing underneath the shelter, as well as a scattering of folks who are not standing under the shelter. The unwritten rule is that the people who are in the queue under the shelter get first dibs on getting on the bus. As the bus pulls up, those who do not want to get on that particular bus stay standing where they are, while those who want the bus extract themselves from the queue and form a new queue next to the old queue. We wait for the people to get off the bus. Then those in the queue get on, followed by those who had chosen to stand outside of the queue. If someone who had not been standing in the queue goes to the front of the newly formed queue and gets on the bus before any of the people who had been queuing “properly,” that person is fervently, mutely despised. Unless that person is an old woman, in which case our unspoken hatred transfers to anyone who gets on before the old woman instead of standing back and allowing her to board first.

Now you are on the bus. You usually go upstairs because there is a better chance of finding a seat. You usually find a seat on your own by the window. If on the off chance every window seat is taken, you can still hope for the middle bench seat on the back of the bus, which will allow you at least one seat of space between you and the next human being.

Most people sit quietly, reading the Metro newspaper or staring glumly out the window. Sometimes two or more teenagers will sit together and have the audacity to play their techno music on their phones, so that a tinny, rhythmic calamity fills the bus. All those wearing Ipods respond by furiously turning up the volume to maximum, in a bid to drown out the heathens. Subtle relief is found in the mildly masochistic enjoyment of the ensuring hearing damage.

As you near the city centre, the bus begins to fill. You notice that you are often the last person to have someone sit with them. While you know there is a chance that this is because you usually sit near the back of the bus, you convince yourself that it is because you are too fat. Despite not actually wanting to sit next to anyone, you still try to crush yourself against the window, in an effort to make your physical presence less of a vile inconvenience.

With people getting on and off, opportunities arise for people who are sitting on the aisle seat to abandon the stranger they are sitting with and seek a window seat of their own. This can be tricky, as if you move too quickly it looks like you are desperate to get away from the person next to you. If you wait too long you won’t be able to move because you will have missed the moment. You want to make it look like you are keen for your own space, but are not actually a ball of unsociable anxiety.

If you are sitting by the window with someone next to you, and you know your stop is coming up, then what you need to do is, two stops before your stop, begin making small gestures to indicate that soon you will need the person next to you to get up so you can get out. Fold up your newspaper. Nonchalantly put on your gloves. The bus will stop at the stop before your stop. Just as the bus begins to take off again, all you will have to do is turn your head and, as you breathe in in order to utter the words “excuse me,” the person next to you will practically jump out of the seat. You will barely have to whisper.

Queue in order to get off the bus. As you exit you may say an optional “thank you” to the bus driver. You are now free to plunge through the crowds of the city, dodging past slow-walking couples and people who are texting instead of watching where they are going. Your eyes dart around, shooting looks of indiscernible rage disguised as hurried distraction. Carry on like this until you reach work. Upon arrival at the office, immediately put the kettle on, open the paper at your desk, and spend a few minutes recovering until someone else shows up and you can all read each other’s horoscopes.

Thus endeth the lesson in British neurosis. I hope you have enjoyed it.

In other news, while I am thrilled that Rooked has indeed made it to the semi-finals of Blog4Reel, I am annoyed that I only just realized that I can actually vote EVERY DAY, and am now running out of time to add a more resounding punch to the voting board. So anyone out there who wants to see the cumulative adventures of a suspicious word-wizard, a woman on stilts, and a diminutive secret agent named Silas make it to the big screen, you will have to vote. Each and every day. With chutzpah.

Three recent favourite quotes of the week: “I tidied my desk. Do you want to see it?” Liz then led me down the hall to show me her newly tidied desk, which included the charming placement of a single, shiny red apple.

Margaret Beckett - Jesus she’s an ugly woman. And she goes caravanning and talks about it.” -DW

“I was just about to de-wedge myself. I’m glad you didn’t see that.” JY

Moment of the day. Queue hopping at the co-op, trying to judge which one might get me through to the check out faster. I abandon my post behind a dishevelled old man just in time to hear him let out a raucous fart that resounded like the pumping air brakes of a tractor trailer.

Finally, welcome decembrius and any other newbies who may be reading this. Mmmmm….strangers...

And for those who are not strangers, thanks for still being...strange.


Anonymous said...

We are all polite serial killers. I don't know how many strangers I've murdered in my own head.

Dale said...

I must say that it sounds very like riding the bus in Portland, Oregon!

Loved this. Especially the bit about the gestures to indicate you'll be getting off soon.

C.S. Perry said...

I wish that we had more British "reserve" here in the states. Fewer people would get shot at the stations...that's for sure. But we are, after all,the Ugly Americans.
Maybe I need to buy a gun.

And thanks for the voting help. I guess I could've mentioned that you can vote every day.
So vote with vigor and vote often.

Right On.

Jacqui said...

:-) Oh how I recognise this! Actually, I think I may be of foreign extraction, either that or age is kicking in and I am becoming a grumpy old woman for I did once demand that the person sitting beside me on the plane, who blatantly ignored the request of their air hostess to turn his mobile phone off, did in fact turn his phone off. To my surprise he did and I came out of it injury free. However, I have still to pluck up sufficient courage to tell Johnny Ned to turn down his infernal racket; although I do feel myself getting dangerously close at times...