Relocating to Britain? Cultural awareness and train travel

Welcome to our seventh instalment in our "about Britain" series. For the uninitiated, Britain can appear to be a pretty odd place.

We have odd habits, odd food, odd weather, odd taps and an even odder sense of humour. It's nothing that a good bout of cultural training can't sort out, but I'm going to run a series of posts about what makes the Brits so wonderfully weird - or weirdly wonderful - which may help anybody relocating to understand what the heck we are all about.

Today's effort takes a look at train travel.

The London Underground

Travelling on the London Underground system can evoke a range of different reactions. Fatigue and perspiration are the obvious ones that spring to my mind. Yes, it is very hot down there - I guess the Central Line take us closer to Hades than I first thought. Always carry a drink - especially in summer.

The sheer pace of the Tube can be exhausting. If you are not from a major city, the general pace of life in London may seem very fast, nowhere more so than on the Tube. But despite the amazing frequency of trains to get so many people from A to B, everybody seems to be in such a rush down there. Here are a couple or three pointers to help you keep moving and not get pushed out of the way by a local going about his or her daily business.

Move quickly. Do not dawdle as though you have all the time in the world, even if you have got all the time in the world. You need to keep up with the pedestrian traffic, otherwise you will find people knocking into you or shouting at you to get a move on. Stuff needs to happen and the world needs to be saved and if I miss this train the next one could be a whole two minutes away. Don't be the obstruction to salvation.

Stand on the right. When using the escalators, stand on the right. Never stand on the left, otherwise you will be trampled to certain death by the flock. The left hand side of the escalator is for those people who either cannot manage their time efficiently or just like running everywhere. If you don't feel like rushing, stand on the right. I can never work out quite why we overtake on the left on the Tube but on the right in a car. Maybe there are more aliens in London than actual Londoners and it marginally eases congestion caused by the conundrum of which side one should stand? I don't know and I can't be bothered to Google it.

Have your ticket ready. It is very annoying when approaching the ticket barriers to find that some silly sausage is fumbling in their bag for their ticket. The barriers are quick. Once a ticket has been put into the slot, it is almost instantly spat out at the other end and once it has been retrieved by the traveller (or Oyster card presented to the touch reader), the gate is ready for the next ticket. What confuses a lot of people is that you can actually present your ticket whilst the gate is still open from the previous traveller. If you wait, you will incur the wrath of London, as three seconds of valuable time are lost. The ticket readers are very efficient - perhaps the manufacturers of self-scan tills should talk to them.

Alighting v. boarding

It's a strange word, "alight." It always sounds to me that it should mean "get on" rather than "get off." The "a-" prefix tells me that there is motion towards, but it doesn't mean that at all and I wonder how many overseas visitors this confuses.

Apparently, it comes from the Old English "alihtan," originally "to lighten, take off, take away." The notion is of getting down off a horse (as one generally does these days) or vehicle, thus lightening it. I can see the logic behind it even though I struggle to understand the difference between to and from. And to think I studied Latin as a child. No wonder I had tensions with my declensions.

Nowadays, as we no longer get around on horseback (apologies to any Texans reading this) it is used almost exclusively on trains, where you may be advised to "alight here for services to Birmingham New Street," for example. If you're anything like me you'll look into space for inspiration as you try to figure out if you need to stay on the train or get off it in order to get to New Street. 

I've found a way to help me remember: "Alight your horse and drink your milk."

Let them alight

It never ceases to amaze me how impatient some people can be when attempting to board a train. Granted, there are often not enough seats to go around, so even if you've paid a few grand for your season ticket you will probably end up standing, but a little bit of standing never really hurt anyone, did it? I don't think I've ever read a news article about anyone passing away because they were forced to stand on a train. Horses even sleep standing up and I've only ever seen a dead horse at the Grand National where some jockeys alight involuntarily. But horses don't use trains, do they?

So, whilst I am patiently awaiting my turn, like most good Brits do, there are always a few jostling for position so they can jump onto the train ahead of those who have a little more integrity and adopt the more traditional queueing system. And you can bet your bottom dollar, or indeed you last nickel, or if you are feeling uber-confident, your life, that somebody will, when the train has come to a halt and the doors opened, just step into the carriage before those wishing to get off the train have done so.

How very rude.

Not only is it discourteous, it is also disruptive to the general flow of pedestrian traffic and flies in the face of common sense. Everything just works so much better when we harmonise, n'est-ce pas? No jostling, no tutting, no glaring, no arguing. Ahhh, isn't the world such a lovely place after all?

No, it's not.

I don't like to move it, move it

Well, everything is going swimmingly so far - my fellow travellers and I have waited patiently until all the passengers who wanted to alight have done so. Top marks. As the front of the queue makes it way into the carriage, the herd slowly shuffles forwards, edging closer to the door. Why are we moving so slowly? OK, as I finally get to the door, I realise that a handful of people have decided to congregate around the door as though it were some sort of mystical gateway to eternal happiness, youth, intelligence or a larger penis. No, sorry, standing here definitely does not make you more intelligent but it will make you look like a bit of a dick. 

Of course, we all grumble when the trains are running late. Sometimes it is because nature has provided us with the wrong type of leaf this year, or the wrong type of snow. Sometimes it is because we have been provided with the wrong type of rail operator - Southern. Other times, it is because we come face-to-face with the wrong type of passenger. Yes, the half-wits who fail to notice that, due to their presence in the doorway, people have to squeeze past them to get on the train. No wonder it takes so long to get on the trains and no wonder they are always behind schedule.

Conductors should be armed with electric cattle prods and those who are too engrossed with Facebook or Snapchat or Kanye West or merely their own vacuous thoughts, oblivious and unsympathetic to the plight of fellow passengers, should be woken up by a short, sharp blast of the prod.

We have ways of making you walk.

Look me in the eye

Travelling on public transport shows just what a funny lot we really are. Public transport? Should be private transport, more like. Yes, we do like a bit of privacy. Don't talk to me. Don't even think about talking to me. In fact, if you so even look at me, I'll have you arrested.

When I was a kid, they used to drum it into us not to talk to strangers. So we didn't speak to strangers. Ever. Now Britain has been left with a dysfunctional generation that doesn't trust anybody to whom we have never spoken before. Stay well away - strangers must be weird. Unless you know him, how do you know the bloke who lives down the road isn't married to a horse and doesn't steal underwear from washing lines?

As a slight aside, LinkedIn perpetuates this philosophy. What must be the world's number one online networking platform tells us that they, "...recommend only inviting people you know and trust..." It seems counter-intuitive. Can you imagine the same in a real, live business networking environment?

"How did the networking go, Trevor?"

"Like a dream."

"Get any good contacts?"

"No, thankfully. The place was full of strangers again, and you know what my mum told me."

Back in the railway carriages, we're just the same. Silence. We only talk if we are with somebody we know, or to say sorry if we accidentally tread on somebody's foot, or if we're drunk. Heads buried in copies of the Metro or eyes melted into smart-phone screens. And we daren't look any of our fellow passengers in the eye - that's tantamount to harassment and molestation in Britain. I suppose the upshot is that British cops arrest criminals rather than shoot them.

The worst of it is, that despite the above, we still teach our kids not to talk to strangers.

Never underestimate the importance of cultural awareness.

Stuart Beaty

Celsium, Birmingham, UK