My UK trip is rolling on and has been fantastic so far. Old friends have been caught up with and favourite haunts have been re-haunted. Even the weather has (mostly) cooperated with days of warm spring sunshine for the most part. Naturally it rained over the Easter break, but we Brits have learned to expect that and sunshine would have been confusing and downright rude, don’t you know.
My biggest challenge so far has been the London marathon. No amount of training could have prepared me for the gruelling physical challenges found in this most trying of events. Aching muscles and sore bodies. Grim determination to complete and it must be said, compete. Bloodied and bruised, sorry and sore. And sometimes it has been four times a week too. How do people manage it any more than that I ask?
Surely, you are asking, I can’t be serious? A marathon, four times a week? My answer to that is yes, I am. You see, the basis of this debilitating marathon I am talking about is the seeming inability of a Londoner to actually walk anywhere. The whole city physically moves at a pace that would leave most 100m sprinters shocked and awed. And all tackled with a determination that would make a long distance runner quail and shake.
I spent 11 years in London and have no recollection of walking so fast. It was just the tourists who walked slowly. As locals we used to joke, jest and curse as we weaved our way around the streets and the tube, heads up, confident in our stride. We knew every entrance, exit and bus route to maximise our time in transit and nothing, but nothing was going to stand in our way of achieving record times. Of course, when you are a part of something, you don’t notice it – it is just the norm.
Much of it is habit – I also used to know exactly how far down a station platform to stand to get the best chance of an empty carriage; instinctively knew which line to take on the tube and therefore which route to take through and to the stations. Fourteen years have wiped that auto-mechanised, auto-pilot approach to movement from my brain. Now I am stumbling around, checking maps and checking the underground maps to work out where I need to be and go. A tourist in my own city. It feels strangely comforting too, to commune with the mass of visitors in the city: a knowing look and smile that says “Yes, I am lost too”
Now I no longer walk around at such a blistering pace and have become that obstacle in the street, with a target on my back which screams “Visitor” to every native here. I literally find myself being pushed and shoved out of the way and barged into, all because I took 1/100th of a second longer to make a decision on left or right than the person behind me. Merely walking along a street has turned into a major physical challenge that I feel I have not trained for; a sport where I no longer know the rules. Even my friend RN has taken to making a distinction between walking somewhere with me (we leave earlier and walk more slowly) and her own excursions out into the rushing streams of life in London. I also suspect that there is a secret sense of relief on her part when I don’t head off with her.
Chatting to an Australian lady last night, who has been her for four years, we came to the same conclusion. This is the only part of London life where people can be so pushy, literally. People you meet are so genuinely polite and charming that it seems disingenuous at times, leaving you wondering what is going on behind the mask. Of course it is just that people here are polite and charming. Therefore we decided that the constant speed-walking is an outlet, a way of dropping the charm offensive and getting back to caveman and cavewoman roots with a bit of bashing and shoving. In a very British way, naturally. I don’t believe that I have ever heard the word “Sorry” so many times, in such a short space of time as I have in the last few weeks in many, many years.
Of course, the longer I spend here, the faster I am finding myself walking. Old habits die hard, they say. The best thing about this is that I am now starting to see targets on other people’s backs. Guess I just need more practice aiming…