Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Travels with Muriel III

There are two things the British do really well: public transport and the British Museum.

The British Museum is... well, it's wow. Just wow. Try and go there before you die. Really.

We got to the museum from the chichi little London suburb of Richmond via the Underground - in on the District line and then one change at Piccadilly. It's very crowded (like everything here) but boy is it efficient. Michele, the friend I'm now staying with in Hitchin, tells me that the Underground (and public transport in general) is savagely underappreciated by the Brits, who make comments like, 'It's like a Third World country's,' which is funny if you happen to come from a country like South Africa, where there is effectively no public transport system at all. (Both Michele and Brigitte - neither UK-born - mentioned that the Brits do whinge about everything, and if there's nothing either valid or handy to whinge about, they'll make something up.)

British people are known for disliking human contact - physical, visual or emotional - so the way they deal with the crush on the Underground (and elsewhere) is by pretending they're on their own: they sit staring forward and nothing on God's green earth will entice them to make eye contact with any of the other 60 to 80 people crushed into the same train compartment.

Sometimes, apparently, two British people together might pretend to be on their own; in the case of the couple on yesterday's journey to the museum, on their own in their own bedroom. They licked and sucked each practically without cease for more or less the entire 30-minute ride; it was like watching marmosets grooming, only without the cute factor. Fortunately, just as I could stand it no longer and was about to shout at them, 'For the love of Christ, stop it!' they arrived at their destination and got off - still joined by the tongue.

During this public soft-porn demonstration I had tried to make eye contact with several of my fellow travellers, raising my eyebrows in a 'Can you believe this?!' kind of way, but not one of them acknowledged either me or the heavy petters. It really was most peculiar.

Oh, the Brits have also recently got very good at recycling. Domestic waste is sorted into various different coloured containers for plastic, glass, paper and compostable material, and these are put out on the pavement on garbage-collection day. My friend Brigitte was a tad embarrassed about the contents of her glass bin, which included possibly 10 empty wine bottles (not an unthinkable number, really, for a week's worth of consumption by two people plus, probably, a few friends here and there).

Her neighbour, a nervous-looking woman called Susan, clearly had even more of an issue with her empties than Brigitte. Susan didn't realise that I was with Brigitte (I was standing out on the road, be-hatted and be-gloved and be-scarved, enjoying the bitter biting cold of a London morning), so didn't click that I was observing and would be reporting back. Susan took the opportunity, while Brigitte was inside the house switching off lights and checking that the gas was off and so on, to surreptitiously transfer the contents of her glass container (probably about 20 empty booze bottles) into Brigitte's.

When Brigitte came out of the house and into the street, she looked down at her now-overflowing glass container and did an extremely amusing double-take. 'Vot is ziz?' she said (her German accent becomes very pronounced in times of stress). I took great delight in telling on Susan.

This morning is the first since I arrived in the UK that I haven't woken up with a crashing hangover, which has made such a pleasant change that I'm now off to Cambridge to look at colleges and churches and maybe even do a spot of punting. We're going by rail, of course, and this time I'm going to try not to end up in First Class by mistake (as I did last night, on my return trip to Hitchin from London) - although it's wonderfully comfortable, Michele has warned me that if they catch me, 'They will fine you!' Oo-er.

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