LONDON – I don’t know if this means that I’m a local or merely insane, but I have developed an actual affection for my bus – the number 49. Yes, I called it “my” bus. When I see it, I feel a very real leap in my heart as I wish it all the best on those busy London streets. It takes me everywhere I need to go – school, the nearest Tube station, the cheapest grocery store. It is my lifeline to London as I know it.
When I wait at bus stops for my notoriously late double decker, the 49 clan huddles in the wind and rain together as we wonder uselessly why it’s so late and how we wish it could be on time for once and talk about finding a more reliable bus. But the next morning, we all wait for our inconvenient number 49 and say the same things and board anyway when it arrives.
The bus – my bus – is just another aspect of rooting myself in this city. It’s a part of how I define who I am in London. My postcode is SW3 6NA, my library is the Kensington Central Library, my grocery store is Waitrose on King’s Road, and my bus is the number 49. To me, it’s more than a big red machine that takes me where I need to go, it defines what I see on the way, who I sit by, when I arrive. It is the wheels, so to speak, to my experience for the rest of the day.
It was a shock when I first arrived and had to become so adept at a public transportation system – in Spokane we solve the problem of getting from point A to point B with cars, bikes, or feet. I can’t drive a car here, riding a bike may be the most dangerous idea of all time (for me), and it would take me two hours and two very sore feet to get to my work on the other side of town. So buses it was.
Like most anything, my first attempts at smoothly riding the bus like a local were laughable at best. Scared to ride the top deck, I’d stand in the priority area for wheelchairs and buggies and anxiously stare at the screen that announces the next stop in a cool English woman’s voice. Then I’d rush to the doors too early and wait there for my stop where I’d shakily exit, glad to have “successfully” navigated the public transit system once more.
After mastering the basics of riding a bus, I had yet to learn the most important lesson of all – the culture of riding a bus. To put it lightly, it is not a social affair. Besides asking to be let out or if someone needs the priority seat that you’re in, the average Londoner prefers to sit in silence for the duration of their route. I found this custom challenging to say the least, especially when most rides that I took were with a friend or two. But after a few solitary bus rides, I understood.
The bus provides an essential part of one’s day – the ability to relax and reflect. As one of the largest cities in the world, London is understandably busy. People are always rushing, yelling into their cell phones, dodging across a car-laden street. That is, until they enter a bus, pop in their headphones or open a book, and sit for 30 long minutes in relaxation. After a day of sprinting like mad, it’s the perfect cool-down lap.
The 49 is my cool-down lap. As much as I might complain about its lateness or participate in the busied frenzy that is London, as soon as I take my seat on the top deck and hit “play” on my iPhone, I am granted 30 precious minutes of reflection back onto my day. I can sort out the jumble of emotions one feels as a foreigner, I can take a step back from thoughts of homework or responsibilities or finances, or I can just press my forehead against the cool glass of the window and watch the dramas and sitcoms and streets pass me by.
The 49 gives me a sense of identity in this impossibly massive city. It gives me a 30-minute moment to start and to end my day. The number 49 truly is my bus.