Monday, 5 March 2012

The way we are: Panic (Πανικός)

The underground in London should be incorporated - or maybe it already is? - as a field trip during a Sociology 101 course.

It did not take long for Timoleon to get used to the transport system in London. Despite the novelty of being amidst crowds of oceanic proportions, he began to ignore them from the second day soon after his arrival. By the third day of his trip, the crowds all began to feel so normal. He no longer felt daunted amidst strangers. After a week, he even began to enjoy it. As he waded through the various hues of skin colours, the different contours of facial shapes, the eccentric dress styles, he felt truly free. Walking along the streets, sightseeing, window-shopping, people-watching; he had stopped worrying that he would lose sight of his wife or children and fall into an abyss. The sun had hardly ever made an appearance in those few days, but everything was very well sign-posted, the bright colours of the man-made world stood out against the dull grey concrete and the neon lights lit up the darkness most hours of the day, so you could not get lost.

The buses were very worthwhile when used as sightseeing coaches by sitting on the top deck of a double decker. They weren't as fast as the underground, but when you're holidaying on a strict budget, speed is not a priority. The family would leave Nektario's flat in the morning and take a different bus each day. In this way, they covered a lot of the ground they had wanted to cover on foot (and very cheaply). The bus gave them a chance to catch a fleeting glimpse of aspects of London that they thought they might like to explore in more detail (which is how Timoleon spotted the Imperial War Museum), while it also allowed them to see things that looked quite interesting in a guide book but would not have lived up to their hype (the Elephant and Castle needed no further attention than the quick glimpse they got of it through the bus window). But the buses were good for sightseeing only during the daylight hours, not at night when the only lights are the ones on the streets. They were cumbersome to hop on and off with tired children in the late hours, who proved a heavyweight to lift up and get moving when they had fallen asleep on their parents' laps, while the parents themselves had their gaze firmly fixed on the window, not wanting to miss out on any action going on outside the bus, even if the evening sights were limited.

Waxy O'Connor's
London, Friday, 17 March 2006; min 1°C, max 6°C.  It happened to be St Patrick's Day; I was expecting to see more green-clad people in the centre of London, coming out of pubs holding jugs of green beer, but I was disappointed - I suppose I must go to Dublin to see that.

That particular Friday started off like most other days, with a long bus ride. It kept the children amused and allowed them to rest their feet before they started trekking through the glass and concrete maze of tourist delights consisting of shops, squares and museums. This time, the bus had left them close to Harrods. Timoleon felt like he was living a dream at the sight of the green sign, but upon entering the renowned edifice, he felt let down. It lacked the lustre associated with its glamour, as if the veneer had washed off years ago. Old-fashioned escalators, topped with decorative statuettes reminiscent of colonial times: which year are we in? Timoleon thought to himself sarcastically. The displays were filled with pretty things carrying a hefty price tag, but of no real use apart from the purely ornamental. The clothes were all pastel coloured, and overly gay-looking in his eyes: in fashion today, out of fashion tomorrow.

harrods food hall

What caught his interest most of all was the food halls. Pretty mounds of colourful vegetables, clearly distinguishable rice grains mixed with herbs, potato wedges with crisp roasted edges, chunks of meat in brick-coloured sauces whose taste he could only imagine. The food sat on white platters under brightly lit display cases. It looked so fresh.

"We could buy a meal from here tomorrow and eat it somewhere in a park, how about that, Rania?"

"There's food all over the place," she scowled disapprovingly. "It's not as if we're going to come back to Harrods just to eat! There's more to see in London than this. Let's take the kids to the toilet and be off again."

The restrooms proved more than enough for them to say that they'd experienced the opulence and luxury of the upper-class image that Harrod's image gave off. Both the men's and women's toilets were equipped with linen towels and a selection of perfumes, a very pleasant way to refresh themselves instead of the usual nipping into McDonalds and wondering who'd been there before you. If Harrods did anything for Timoleon, it was to whet his appetite for a bit of a London shopping experience, but along more affordable lines.

The children were complaining of sore feet. It was close to lunch time, so they decided to find a place to rest and have something to eat before continuing with their tourist activities. They chose the cheapest menu meals from the placards found outside the restaurants near the Kensington tube station. After what seemed like a cheap and nasty meal at an Italian restaurant run by Chinese chefs with an Albanian waitress who'd worked in Elounda as a nanny for a rich Arab family (Timoleon found the ethnic mix amusing), they took the tube to Piccadilly Circus where, despite the cold, they sat on the steps and watched what seemed like a whole world go by whizzing past them every few seconds.

The shop windows in the area looked enticing. People were streaming in and out of them holding carrier bags of all shapes and sizes. They really couldn't do much shopping with the children, who treated any store as an amusement park - they played hide'n'seek among the clothes racks, shouting 'boo' as they ran down the aisles and crashed into each other. When they got tired, they simply squatted in the middle of the floor, while customers circled them. Meanwhile, it was cold, a dry sort of cold, but when the wind blew in the more open spaces, it rippled through Timoleon's body like an icicle piercing his head through his ears. With their bodies warmed up, the children began pestering their parents about finding a toy shop. They had indeed promised them that if they behaved themselves, they would take them to one. Even though they hadn't, both Rania and Timoleon wanted to experience the toy emporium themselves, to get that vicarious pleasure from seeing the cornucopia of a child's world, one that they'd never had themselves at their children's age, if the pleasure would now be more vicarious. They had missed out on touching, owning, playing with toys in their youth, but as adults, the sensation was the same, even if they were just viewing them from the display cabinets. Electric train sets, remote-controlled cars, video games, board games, the full range of Barbie homes and outfits, Batman circling the ceiling, rocking horses, floors and floors of stuff that they now knew they never really needed to make their life complete, but which still made them wish to be a child again and nag their parents to buy them all for them, as their children were doing now.

Perplexed tourist
Perplexed tourist
Security alert!
They left Hamleys in a state of exhilaration, having just relived their childhood, or more like filled in the gaps to the missing elements. Their purchases reflected this, having bought the children each a small toy, more as a memento for themselves to remind them of what they had been and seen. Now they were back outside in the cold. It had been a long tiring day, but a very enjoyable one, spent walking, shopping and eating in the middle of London. The evening looked promising, but with two toddlers in tow, it was not open to them. They had to get back to the flat. Naturally, they headed for the quickest transport option: the tube. It was now dusk and home time for many people. They were now standing outside Hamleys. Timoleon made a turn to the right, the way they had arrived. But Rania had another idea.

"Let's walk to another tube station to see a bit more street life. We're midway between two of them," she said, looking at her map. Timoleon was suspicious. His wife liked walking, so nothing seemed too far for her, especially since she was faster than he did. She would say: It's just down this road. And indeed it was, although it may have entailed a half hour's walk. "Look," she smiled, chuckling and pointing down the road, "you can see it from here." Which is how they found themselves at Oxford Circus, instead of using the same route back to Piccadilly Circus, just to cover more tourist ground so that they could say they saw more of London.

As Timoleon entered the station, he got that suffocating claustrophobic feeling of being among too many people in a small amount of space; for some reason, it bothered him here, like it did on his first day in London. Something did not feel right. There seemed to be many more people waiting for a train than at other times. It looked like a really exacerbated case of rush hour people traffic.

There are always exceptions to the rule...

He felt a sense of relief as he heard the train approaching from the whistling sound on the other end of the track. At the same time that the train was approaching the station, he also noticed some white smoke coming out from one of the tunnels. There was no odour of smoke or sight of fire. Just the white gassy cloud forming above the train. It didn't take long for everyone else waiting on the platform to notice the aroma-less smoke. Some people simply took off there and then, without saying a word, without looking behind them as they fled, without taking their camera out to photograph the 'event'. Some had a look of silent fear on their faces as they hurried away, while others gazed blankly ahead of them and walked quickly. No one ran. Nobody seemed to even blink or bat an eyelid to the scene. But there were quite a number of people who remained on the platform, waiting for the doors of the carriages of the just-arrived train to open, which seemed to take ages. It was a gambler's choice: risking suffocation or saving yourself by waiting to jump onto a train that was bound to set itself in motion in a few seconds. As they waited for the train carriage to empty, they looked on enviously at the passengers exiting the station, who had arrived safely at their destination. Feeling optimistic while surrounded by pessimism, they decided on the latter option, as it seemed a warmer and quicker option, however foolish and selfish it felt at that moment. They knew what they should be doing but they weren't doing it.

Is that a fire? Waiting, waiting, waiting... Emergency or not, people want to go home...

More and more people were now defaulting. They'd come into the carriage, sit down and then stand up and leave, even though there was still no announcement being made to vacate the station. Many of the passengers were too tired to care; they all just wanted to get on a train and go home (or wherever else their final destination was). There was as yet no official around to tell anyone what to do, so they simply waited in the carriage, hoping that the train would finally close its doors and set off, turning a blind eye to the panic that was obviously starting to spread on the platform. Finally, there were just five passengers on the train: Timoleon, Rania, their two children who were revelling at the idea of an empty carriage, and a man who was making no move to leave the carriage. He was wearing just a shirt and a pair of corduroy trousers. Timoleon wondered how he protected himself from the cold outdoors. Amidst the mute clamour of people's hurried steps, this man was sitting down, looking quite lost, staring vacantly at the wall through the carriage window on the other side of the tracks.

Oxford Circus
Buses, taxis, fire engines, humans - it was indeed beginning to look like a circus on Oxford St.

"What's going on?" Timoleon asked Rania. He was hoping his foreign-born wife would have a better idea of what was happening. His lack of language skills did not confuse his instincts; his judgment was blurred due to his sacrificing comfort for common sense. He could see what was going on; it was plainly obvious to all. What would he have done in such a situation if he were in Athens? Even if he weren't the one to be panicking, he could count on everyone else doing so. There would be screaming and shouting, and the sound of a stampeding rush of elephants making for the exits. But there was none of that here, not even from the people who were leaving the platform. He could not pinpoint what it was that made him decide against taking off the moment he saw the smoke in the station. That was the logical sensible thing to do. It wasn't the sight of the approaching train that made him hopeful of a quick departure from a potentially terrifying scene. No, it was probably a case of just feeling a little worn out. It was much easier to sit down and wait for someone to tell them what to do and make up their minds for them.

Fire engine!Down Regent StreetEvening Standard
Sirens bring traffic to a standstill - but the punters are still hopeful.

"Excuse me," Rania asked the man hopefully, "is this train heading for Victoria?"

"This train ain't going nowhere," the man replied grimly. Timoleon and Rania prepared the children to exit the carriage, where they were beginning to feel quite comfortable. At that moment, two uniformed men carrying megaphones and walkie-talkies were walking towards the carriage. The man in the carriage made no attempt to leave.

Rubber-necking A crowd of commuters waits patiently by the closed tube station, rather than take the short walk to an adjacent one; they have been through this before.

Timoleon felt lost in the sea of foreign sounds and the foreign ways of reacting. Rania told him to take one child and walk ahead of her. "We can't stay together," she said to him, charging ahead. There was no time to complain that you can't read the signs or you don't know where you are going. There was no need to ask for directions, at any rate; everyone was heading in the same direction - out. What seemed like zillions of people were climbing up the stairs. No one was speaking, not a sound was coming out of anyone's mouths. Everyone was simply walking in silence towards the station exit. No one was interested in anyone or anything else at that moment, apart from saving themselves. He recalled the 7/7 bombings and the scenes shown on the television news. He also recalled a discussion during an English lesson in his youth, about the consequences of needless panic in a London underground station. It was immensely relieving to be back at street level; he did not know where he was and it did not seem to be the best time to ask for directions. It was now dark; he found Rania with his daughter, and they began to distance themselves from the crowds.

It's nearly all over...
These good people probably just want to get home and have their dinner but they can't. There's a security alert. Remember, it's London, it's March and it's cold.

"What's happening?" the children were asking. They were too young to panic, but their young minds knew when something didn't feel right. They could hear the sirens of the fire brigade coming closer, but it was too dark and too cold to hang around for more sightseeing. Timoleon and Rania crossed the road. The crowds of the wide high street gave way to empty back roads and quiet streets, where the only cars in sight were silent, parked by the footpath, and there was not a soul around. The only people visible were in the pubs which had a subdued atmosphere, except for the green balloons hanging on the sign outside one of them, which tragi-comedised the scene.

"If we keep walking, we'll find another tube station," Rania tried to assure him. "They're all clustered together in the area." Timoleon was not convinced, but he did not have a better idea. A black cab whizzed past them.

"How do Londoners stop cabs here?" he wondered loudly.

"Like they do in Athens," Rania replied.

But to no avail. The few cabs that passed them had passengers or they were not interested in his family. 

"Do you know where you're going?" he asked Rania.

"Not really," she replied with a crushed tone in her voice. "Let's just keep walking."

They came across a man carrying a briefcase with a newspaper under his arm. "Excuse me," Rania spoke, "could you tell me which is the nearest tube station from here?"

"Oxford Circus," the man answered without too much thinking.

"Oh, that's just been evacuated," Rania explained. "Could you tell me where the next one is?"

"Oh dear," he frowned. He had a clear accent and a friendly look. "Well, are you northbound or southbound?"

"Um... we're going to Clapham Junction." Rania was gasping for breath from the cold. She watched her daughter clutching her scarf over her nose and wondered if they'd freeze to death before they could get back to the flat. It was better to be in motion than to be standing still.

"Oh..." He thought for a few seconds. "Euston Station, he replied confidently. "Take this road up to Euston Road and turn right. You can't miss it, but it's quite a long way from her." They thanked him and walked in the direction that the man had pointed in. But they still felt lost, despite following his instructions. They came across a trio of young men holding beer bottles. They looked as though they had just come out of a pub.

"Excuse me," Rania was asking again. "Is this the right way to the closest train station?"

"No, you need to turn the other way. It's Oxford Circus." A clean-shaven blond boy bundled up in a warm-looking black coat answered. He looked like Prince William. Again, more explanations about the evacuation. A dark-skinned boy dressed in similar clothing to Prince William asked: "North- or southbound?"

"Oh..." Rania stumbled. "I think we're lost."

"Well, the answer depends on where you're going," Prince William answered.

"Clapham Junction."

"Clapham Junction?" All three of them looked surprised. "What ya doin' 'ere then?" the last one asked. He had dark hair haging like a bowl over his round head and he wore glasses. Had his forehead been visible, Timoleon could have ascertained if he were actually Harry Potter.

Rania was beginning to get overwhelmed by it all. "We've got lost and we just wanted to find a train station that would get us back to our hotel. We're tourists," she offered, by way of explanation.

At once, the lads understood and began to confer.  "Goodge St," said Harry Potter, "or Tot'nam Cour' Road, it depends on where ya goin'."

Neither Timoleon or Rania could answer to that at that particular moment. "Whatever's the closest, I guess," Rania smiled meekly. The young men probably had no idea what it meant to be towing two tired toddlers in the cold all the while getting lost in unknown territory. While Rania was listening to the instructions, Timoleon spotted a tall dark narrow tower in the distance. The hi-tech world was new to him. The tower reminded him of the science fiction novels that had captured his imagination in his youth. 

"... so when you get to Mortimer Street, then you'll find Goodge St station," Prince William continued, "you can't miss it, it's on the Northern line, goes straight through to Waterloo where you can change for Clapham Junction."

They thanked the young men and continued silently on their way. They had lost interest in conversation, but there was nothing of interest to spark a discussion in the dark. But they didn't seem to feel the cold any longer. Their minds were pre-occupied with the quest to find the underground station. Their bodies had heated up by their walking for so long. Rania walked ahead with their daughter, with Timoleon following closely behind with their son.

"Are you cold, son?" Timoleon was worried more about the children. They must have been feeling very tired by now.

"No. I'm just a bit tired. But I won't fall asleep here until we get home."

"You're a brave boy."

"When we go home, can I play with my new robot?" Timoleon smiled. The children weren't complaining but they could sense their parents' worry.

They eventually arrived on Mortimer Street, to their great relief. It turned out to house an interesting array of shops. The window displays would have been a source of entertainment on a slow paced walk, but their minds tonight were on resting their feet.

"Are you sure we're walking in the right direction, Rania?" Timoleon was getting impatient.

Rania was tried of playing the reluctant leader. "There's a lady walking towards us. Ask her." ANd so Timoleon did.

"Ah, scooz me," he started, "is this the good road, please, for the underground?"

The woman, who was walking with what looked to be her son, looked surprised. Maybe it was the gruff tone of his non-native accent. He was worried that he may have frightened her.

"Yes, luv," she smiled warm-heartedly, as if she were used to strangers in the area. "Goodge Street," she enunciated very slowly, "it’s on the same street as this one," she pointed down onto the pavement, "but it changes name further down the road," she said, pointing further ahead. "You'll find the station on your left at the corner of Tottenham Court Road. Did you get that?"

She sounded so pleasant, only too pleased to help them. They thanked her and continued along the road till they reached the junction, where they saw the familiar underground logo shining in the distance. Relief! Just at that moment, a black cab pulled up for a passenger to some out. Before Timoleon said anything, Rania had flagged it down. He did not stop her. They were all tired and the sooner they got home, the better. He had the impression that London taxis were expensive, but this time, the situation clearly called for it. The Moroccan driver was a very chatty bloke. He seemed accustomed to tourists asking him about his job.

The conversation slowed. Timoleon watched the change of scenery as they drove through the city centre and on to Clapham Junction. The city was eerily quiet at this hour, althought it was not late at all, by Greek standards: just before half past eight.

"You're tired, aren't you, Tim?" Rania spoke in Greek, interrupting his gazing. He could feel her confinement. Had she been left to her own devices, she would have walked all the way back to Clapham Junction. Nothing felt too far for her. She had flagged down the taxi for their safety. His daughter was already sleeping on the seat, and his son was ready to do the same soon.

"Yes, we all are." He paused for a moment. "But I've loved it all. I don't have any regrets. I'd do this all over again if I had to."

"Even the evacuation?"

"No, not that, I could do without that." They both smiled.

"Do you think you would have reacted in a different way if we were in Athens and not in London?" she asked him. "I think there would have been more screaming and Panayia-mou."

"No," Timoleon said firmly. "I've always tried to remain calm no matter what's happening." Rania nodded. "That's a personality thing. We don't all behave in the same way, even if we're all the same people." 

The "all clear"

Finally, the all-clear: everything back to normal...
Panic over
... almost back to normal (the panic signs haven't been switched off).

... What a shame Timoleon and Rania didn't stick around at Oxford Circus station. If they had, they would have found out that Londoners are used to this sort of thing happening, and they would have just waited until the doors opened up again and they could carry on their way...

The evening shots have all been borrowed from a set of Flickr photos. I wasn't the only one interested on that same night in the way people behaved in a state of panic. 

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