Fresh off the boat

NS October 25th, 2009

richmond view

He walked up behind me at the bus stop, where I had just arrived moments earlier. I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye and found nothing warranting closer inspection. Late 30s, dark suit, dark hair, briefcase in hand. Nothing more than a guy on his way to work, though it was well past rush hour and most businesspeople had already been in the office for an hour or so. I lifted the corners of my mouth in the almost-imperceptible ‘this is London and I don’t know you so I’m being a bit wary’ smile and turned back to looking for the bus, which was due any moment according to the electronic message board.

He took one step closer and asked, while gesturing towards the message board, “Do all of these buses go to Richmond station?”

“Yes, it’s only the 65 that goes past here and they all go to the station. Should be one here by now but that thing has said ‘bus due’ for a good five minutes now. You know how accurate these things are,” I said with a shrug and an subtle eyeroll, to indicate my disapproval of London’s public transport system, a required topic of conversation while waiting for a bus or train.

“I just got here yesterday so I’m not sure how this all works. How much does it cost?”

I explained about Oyster cards and cash fares and the benefits of travel cards and in the course of hearing his replies, recognised his accent as Australian. I asked him if he was over here on business or had actually moved over and he affirmed it was the latter. He’d been in Hong Kong for a year previously and was now being relocated here. His family would follow in December, once he’d gotten the house sorted and organised. He’d only arrived yesterday and this was his first attempt at navigating his way through a strange transport system in a strange land and he had no idea what he was doing.The hot water and heating weren’t working in his new house and he’d had the pleasure of a cold shower on his first morning. What a suitable introduction to Britain, I thought!

I told him not to worry, that I was an expat too, and that I’d been just where he was before. This seemed to really put him at ease and he started asking me questions about London. I answered them as best I could, trying to balance practical tips and insights with avoidance of information overload. I asked him where he would be working and helped him figure out the best route for getting there and advised him on which fare option would be cheapest. He said he hadn’t been on a bus or a train for so long that he wasn’t even sure how they worked anymore. Bless him. I remembered so vividly feeling the same way when I first arrived here, having no idea what I was doing or where I was going.

When the bus arrived I went ahead of him and showed him how to press his Oyster card against the reader. He looked up and then around him and asked me how he let the driver know when he wanted to get off. I laughed and said “Were you looking for a bit of string at the top to pull? That’s what I did as well,” and he sheepishly said he had. I showed him the red ‘Stop’ button and explained that you used the rear doors to exit only.

The bus was crowded so it was hard to chat much once we were on board, but I watched him out of the corner of my eye as we progressed along the road and the Thames came into sight on Richmond Hill. It’s a great view even on the greyest of days but with the cloudless blue sky, dazzling mid-morning sunshine and autumn leaves at their most glorious, it was truly spectacular. When I saw his eyes light up and his neck crane to take in more of the view as we flew down the road, I felt a sharp pang of wistful nostalgia hit me in the stomach. Oh, to be fresh off the boat again! To be on such an adventure, seeing everything in a new and wondrous (albeit slightly scary and confusing) light. To not know what is around the corner or what will happen next. To not be afraid to talk to strangers waiting for the bus or openly reveal that you don’t know where you’re going. To not be so accustomed to and weary of navigating London that you don’t stick your head out the window to see just a little bit more of the Thames before it’s gone again, or the historic cobblestone streets and centuries-old churches and pubs that make up the living, breathing fabric of this city.

Thank you, Aussie-guy-at-bus-stop, for making me remember what makes this place great and what makes the expat experience so exhilirating. For all its frustrations and sadnesses, living a life where there are always surprises and moments of childlike wonder is a gift, one that can be unwrapped over and over again.

Image credit: jochenWolters’ Flickr photostream, via a Creative Commons license

9 Responses to “Fresh off the boat”

  1. nicola says:

    Lovely post. It made me remember some of my first jaunts around Chicago – that feeling of complete exhilaration walking over the river on Michigan and turning back to see the spread of the city skyline amidst the most vibrant blue sky. I called a friend. ‘God, I love this city!’ I enthused. And I didn’t want to be anywhere else at that moment in time.

    Now I have just finished reading Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson for the umpteenth time. The thing I love the most are the vivid and realistic, sometimes verging on caustic, descriptions of the UK. It made me miss it with a passion that sometimes astounds me. And I wonder if one day when I am home, that I will miss Chicago with the same intensity.

  2. Iota says:

    A cold shower. That poor man…

    I’ve been reading Nappy Valley Girl’s blog with the same feeling. She has just moved from London to Long Island, and her posts are all about first impressions of life in America. It’s made me feel stale and dull, reading her wide-eyed excitement at things that had the same effect on me, but are now mundane.

  3. Trish says:

    As an Aussie about to embark on a similar adventure, I hope I bump into lots of people like you in wherever-I-end-up. On his behalf, thanks for a lovely first day.

  4. clareybabble says:

    I’ve lived in the UK all my life and I don’t know how to use an Oyster card either!

  5. andrea says:

    thank you for this. it’s a great reminder to me to take time to enjoy all that my wonderful city of chicago has to offer. sometimes it’s nice to pretend to be a tourist and re-discover all of those wonderful things that first made you fall in love with the place you live.

  6. We are so suspicious of strangers who talk to us in London, that’s true. And the transport system is SO inpenetrable to the uninitiated. Every now and then, though, I make sure I walk across Waterloo bridge on the way to work and that great, turning swathe of the river, with Parliament on one side and the towers of the City rising on the other never fails to remind me where I am. And what makes it special.

    (Apart from those days when the similarly slow-moving river people make think of Eliot’s lines about death having undone so many, that it)

  7. Lovely post and nice to see London through new eyes again.

  8. jen says:

    eh, i’m still cynical as hell ;) :D

  9. Beth says:

    It’s a strange feeling to realize that one is more at home here than in the country one grew up in. Thanks for this post, I enjoyed reading it.