Lessons from a lapsed commuter

I think I’ve forgotten how to commute. It used to come easily to me. But as I discovered yesterday, commuting into central London isn’t really like riding a bike. After not doing so for 15 months (commuting, I mean – I haven’t ridden a bike for ages), the skill didn’t return as naturally as you’d expect. Here are some lessons I learnt.

That’s Tower Bridge

1. Make sure your umbrella isn’t broken.

Okay, I know I chose the worst day possible to go into the office for a day, after a period split down the middle between furlough and working-from-home. But the challenges began when my umbrella broke. It started to drizzle as I left home, and I pulled my jacket hood up over my newly-straightened and now-long hair. A few minutes in, it was clear the hood wasn’t enough to keep me dry, so I put my umbrella up. (I’ve had little use for my umbrella in my current commute from the bedroom to the lounge.)

The rain was steady but gentle. Not enough to make my umbrella collapse, though, which is what I now realised was happening. I pulled it up to get that reassuring little click, and the entire shaft broke in two. I now had half an umbrella in each hand (I hate it when that happens). I managed to put the two pieces together again, but I had to hold the two halves of the umbrella together for the rest of my walk to the pier.

(Full disclosure here: part of the reason I was so eager to go into the office was because it meant I could travel in by boat. It’s much more fun when it’s not pouring with rain, or at least when your umbrella’s still in one piece.)

As I approached the boat, I tried to close my umbrella but it wasn’t co-operating. Like a child not wanting to do what you’re asking them to do, it went all stiff-legged and plain refused. I talked kindly and gently to it and was about to throw it into the river (not really, I wouldn’t do that to my umbrella, or the river, or my child, promise), when it folded itself up. I put on my mask, tapped in with my Oyster card, and tried to hide my frustration and my wayward brolly as the nice man welcomed me on to the Thames Clipper.

2. Wearing a mask is not just about wearing a mask.

I learnt yesterday that you can’t do the following things all at once. They don’t work well together:

  • listening to a podcast with corded earphones
  • wearing a mask that has loops around your ears
  • wearing hoop earrings
  • having newly-straightened now-long hair.

I honestly don’t know what I was thinking. But the combination of these four things involved a disproportionate amount of faffing. And then when the cord of my earphones got caught under the arm of the seat as I stood up, it pulled nearly all those things off my head at once. I think I still have a bit of whiplash.

3. Sometimes memories are more romantic than reality.

(a) I alighted at Bankside and managed to get my umbrella open and in one piece (ish) again. I couldn’t wait to take the wonderful walk past Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, gazing at the changing tides of the Thames, St Paul’s in the distance, before walking past the Tate Modern, through a stylish Richard Rogers-designed complex and on up to the office.

But, to be honest, it’s not that much fun when it feels like someone’s walking alongside you pouring a bucket of water over your head all the way. The rain was relentless and sometimes horizontal, matched only (apart from the horizontal bit) by my determination to stop the rift between the two halves of my umbrella. Add to that puddles that required a diving suit and snorkel to get through, and you’ll understand the walk wasn’t as much fun as I’d hoped it would be. Oh, and I didn’t even see if St Paul’s was still there. I think it is, though. I’d know, otherwise, right?

(b) In my previous commuting life, I had a regular morning stop at a coffee shop a few blocks from the office. I got to know the server there; she was a delightful and chirpy, chatty young person who got to know me, my reusable cup and my usual order. We’d chat about our various interests; she knew I was writing a book, and I knew she loved writing poetry. ‘I think up poems when I’m out and about, and I don’t always remember them,’ she told me one morning. ‘Can’t you use a notes app on your phone?’ I asked. ‘I don’t have that kind of phone,’ she said.

I bought her a notebook so she could write down her poems. The day I gave it to her turned out to be my last day of work in central London before lock-down. I’d written a note in the front of the notebook, encouraging her creativity. She loved it and wanted to hug me to say thank you, but we couldn’t.

The coffee shop is still open, but it’s somehow lost the charm it had before. When I got there yesterday, I looked through the window from under my broken umbrella and the unfamiliar face behind the counter pointed at her watch and told me they weren’t yet open. I went back a while later and she had no recollection of the person I’d met there last year. ‘She must have been a temp, I don’t know anyone of that name,’ she said, with little interest in me or my usual order.

Shradha, if you’re out there, I hope you’re still writing your poetry. You brightened my mornings last year.

4. Make sure your backpack’s waterproof.

I got to the office and to my assigned desk, now called a docking station. I peeled my soaking jacket off and tried to stop my sopping trousers from sticking to my legs. I took my notebooks out of my backpack and both were sodden. So my backpack, like my umbrella, wasn’t waterproof. And when I went to the bathroom later, I saw it wasn’t only my notebooks that had gone curly and weird from the rain. My previously-straightened and still-long hair had done the same. (Oh, another lesson I learnt: don’t forget to take a hairbrush with you. I spent the whole day with what looked like a long, damp shaggy carpet on my head.)

5. It’s weird the things you miss about the office.

I had a number of Teams meetings online yesterday and in almost every one of them, my colleagues working from home said how they missed the trees they could see through the window behind my docking station. And they cooed to see trains going past in the distance too. At least that kept their gaze away from my weird-looking-hair silhouette. On the other hand, I loved being able to see some colleagues and the office again in 3D, and being able to chat to colleagues from merely walking distance away. There was a bit of shouting because of the distance and the masks, but still.

6. London is still amazing.

It was sad to see how many shops had closed since I’d last been in central London, and the amount of empty office space. But I was encouraged to see places that were still open and some signs of the buzzing central London that I know and love. A few blocks from the office, I stopped when I saw a group of people standing together, posing under see-through umbrellas. I didn’t want to walk into their photo so when they started walking, I did too, and walked straight into their film shoot. I hadn’t seen the camera crew under the arches around the corner. It’ll be easy to spot me in the midst of that group – I’m the one with a broken umbrella.

I was glad the rain had ended when I left the office at the end of the day, as my broken umbrella had now been assigned to the bin. I’m sure I’ll get used to commuting again, I will grow to love going into London on the boat again, and I will get a new umbrella. But I probably should have put in some practice before yesterday. My shoulders still feel tense today; I’m not sure if that’s from the weight of my backpack, the incident with my earphones, or the tension from gripping my umbrella. One thing’s for sure, my Wednesday hair appointment can’t come quickly enough.

Sunshine signing off for today.

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