Saturday, July 14, 2012

Culture Surprises: London - 7/12

Like 'Culture Shocks', this is 'Culture Surprises'. 'Culture Surprises' is my travelogue and peoplogue. Travelogue to discuss about all my experiences in every new place I visit and peoplogue to discuss about all my experiences with people from different cultures I meet. So, it is not necessary that I talk about only cultures here. It's about everything new that I come across. So, purists... please bear with the coinage of the title!

Part 7...

Most of our guys who go abroad for short term assignments would have a hair cut just before leaving India. And then they would have a hair cut as soon as they are back on day one itself. Because it's expensive to have a hair cut there. They would say that it would cost Rs. 500 or 1000 for a hair cut. So I also planned to have a hair cut before leaving. But where did I get the time for all that? Not only that. I was also thinking that there were possibilities of settling there for years together. So I also thought in those lines for many things. I just told myself, 'You can't come back for a hair cut every month. So it's just one more additional time. That's it!' and left. Within few days of reaching there, I would be tempted to get into the barber shops whenever I saw one. In most of the shops, they had written 10 pounds. Those sitting inside were also other people. There was only shop where I would see a lot of Indian crowd always. It's an Indian shop. The charge was less too. 5 pounds. How can I control myself? I just got in one day.

The first difference that our people show us as soon as they land in a western country is their hair style. They would post their completely changed face on Facebook or some other social media. I always used to wonder if that would be their wish or they would request the barber to change it like that or the barber himself would give them a special advice that that is the best suited hair style for them or anyone who has a hair cut in those places will only end up with that kind of a hair style. I sat there hoping that I would get an answer for that that day. If I would get a new face to post on Facebook that would be a bonus.

Looks like the norm is same in all barber shops all over the world. As per the norm I waited for hours together to get the job done there as well. I was observing the technology being employed by them. They finish most of their work with a machine. It's just the finishing that is done manually. The work also gets done faster. It's not rocket science. It's a simple technology that could be easily brought to India as well. We have seen how even more difficult technologies have been brought here. If this also comes fast it would be good for us. What would be more difficult to bring than the machine and the technology is the operational skill. It may take time.

The procedure was begun with the same question there as well - "Short or medium?". Having a haircut is such a nice thing. So the longer it takes the happier I am. Thanks to the machine it got over in no time. It looked nicer. I don't know if it was a London thing or specific to that shop or just a perception problem I had. I don't think I can tell that clearly without having a few more haircuts there. I get that satisfaction once in a while in our place also. I was happy that I got that the first time itself (it's the only time as well) in London.

Whichever place it is, one of the most important things to be talked about is, the transport facilities of the place. It goes without saying if it is London. It's one of the best things in London. London has one of the best public transport systems in the world. It was good in Singapore as well. London is bigger than Singapore. However it has the same or better quality transport network. When I was there I read an article about it in one of their dailies. Only problem is the charges are exorbitant. It's five to 10 times more than Singapore's. Even taxis are like that. In Singapore, the biggest and the only big expense is the house. In London, everything is expensive. Transportation expenses contribute a great deal. Around 200 pounds are gone for transportation itself. That's for one person. If the family is big? Half the salary will go for that itself. If at all you got into a taxi by mistake, you are gone. It's end of the story. I just boarded once. My goodness... I almost got blood pressure. We know the meters are meant to run but no that fast!

London's transport network includes four different types of vehicles - train, tube, tram and bus. We all know train. What's this tube? Is that your question? The train that runs underground like a tube is called tube. It looks like a train only. But the interior is little different. In trains, there are rows of seats with 3 seats on one side and 2 on another in each row. People move around in the aisle in between. It's the same structure as what we see in the trains and most of the buses in our place. But in tubes, it is long and continuous bench-like seats on both sides. There is more space for people to stand in the middle. Tubes are narrower than the trains. Trains go to outskirts and outstations. Tubes run within London city alone. The place where I stayed, Croydon, was in outskirts. So I used to travel by train half the distance and then change to tube. Train looks like a series of boxes. Tube looks like one long box (though even that is a series of many boxes). Train goes very fast. The tubes also go fast. But it seemed as though they are slower maybe because either they run underground or they have too many stops. Trains have toilets whereas tubes don't. Needless to say what it would be like if there were such toilets in underground tubes!

We already talked about tram. When it runs within the city it seems to be running slow. But when it goes out of the city, they just zip through. Next is bus. You don't need an introduction of it. We have seen enough of them in our place itself. But it's only Volvo buses there. My family and I were so lucky to see people stamping on each others' legs and fighting exchanging bad words there as well. The buses are not as crowded as the trains, tubes and trams.

All vehicles are maintained very clean. Almost everyone gives preference to elderly, disabled, pregnant women and people with young children. Sometimes some people don't get it. Maybe the definition of decency is changing there as well. The taxis there have a peculiar look. It's an antique look like that of Ambassador cars back here. I think I told you already that throughout London I could see a lot of antiquity. I also saw another antique thing while travelling in trains. The television antennas that stayed for just 20-25 years back here are still there. Almost all houses have an antenna on their head. I was wondering what they were still doing with it there when we have gone past that so long back.

The tickets are the same for all four types of transports. The weekly pass that we buy for 50-60 pounds helps to travel for a week. Everything is automated. If you just put the money and tell it what you want, it gives you exactly what you asked for and gives back exact change as well. Unlike the fellow human beings that are fond of our money back here. This machine used to be there only in train stations in Singapore. But here you can see them in every bus stop. There are more than one machine in each bus stop. You just have to show the pass while boarding and get down wherever you want. Mostly people prefer daily and weekly passes to tickets. Buying a ticket for each travel may leave you bankrupt in a day or two.

The transport facilities in London made the city look very small. It's bigger than Chennai - Bangalore. But, I never got that feeling while traveling. If you have to travel the same distance back here or in London itself by road, it wouldn't be that easy. I told you earlier that I had two weeks of work in Croydon and two weeks in the city. The two weeks I had to work in the city, I used to travel from Croydon to Paddington, where we have our office. I never felt the distance I traveled. I would travel this distance in 45 minutes mostly. I used to travel by train from Croydon to Victoria Station and then from there by tube to Paddington. There was some work going on in Paddington station at that time. When I go next time (If I) I think I would see a modified Paddington.

Victoria Station is an unforgettable one. It's a busy place. You would find the place always buzzing with busy people briskly moving from one place to another. When I first went there, it made me think, 'Oh, does it mean the British people are not lazy?!'. Not only that. Every time I alighted in Victoria Station, I was reminded of the Central Station in Chennai. There is some similarity between the two stations. Maybe because both the stations let the train terminate their services there.

I could see a lot of Srilankan Tamils there, be it Victoria Station or in my travels between Victoria Station and Croydon. When I was returning home one evening I saw a young pair speaking something sweetly. I couldn't make out if it was Malayalam or Tamil. I know it isn't a good manner to overhear others' discussion. But I couldn't control myself this time. Finally I figured out it was Srilankan Tamil. Another time, there was a guy who talked so loudly, like in our town buses back here, with some relative back home. Though he was speaking to his relative, it was heard by everyone in the train. He even sang some MGR song during the conversation. Sooo much they feel at home!


Saturday, July 07, 2012

Culture Surprises: London - 6/12

Like 'Culture Shocks', this is 'Culture Surprises'. 'Culture Surprises' is my travelogue and peoplogue. Travelogue to discuss about all my experiences in every new place I visit and peoplogue to discuss about all my experiences with people from different cultures I meet. So, it is not necessary that I talk about only cultures here. It's about everything new that I come across. So, purists... please bear with the coinage of the title!

Part 6...

Within few days of our landing there we heard a lot about snow everywhere. Everyone was talking about it with a lot of interest. I saw something like salt on the roads on the second or third day. First I thought it was the remnants of previous night's snow. Then I understood that it's a kind of salt that is sprinkled on roads to melt the snow as a precautionary measure. They call it 'road salt' or 'defrosting salt'. Then on another evening there was a fall of some white small thing from sky. Again I thought it was snow and realized even that was wrong. Even that has a different name, they said. It's called 'flurry'. 'Oh my goodness, how many different varieties within this?!' - I was getting more and more confused and curious about snow.

Another evening, I went out to buy groceries for home. While going itself I saw that they were shedding some sand kind of thing everywhere (it's the same salt I talked about in last paragraph). When I was coming back, I could feel a soft - white thing falling down from sky. Within five minutes, even before I reached home, I could see that the roads had all become white as if someone painted them all white. That beautiful thing now is snow. As I had to wake up early in the morning to go to work, we had dinner quickly and fell asleep. My wife woke me up in the middle of the night with a lot of excitement to show that the nature's painting job was complete. I woke up and saw it in half sleep and went back to sleep immediately.

She explained the whole thing again with the same excitement after getting up in the morning as well. The roads were more beautiful in the morning. Not just the roads, even the buildings, vehicles and parks were all showered with snow white snow. How would you feel if everything around you were white? That's not an ordinary thing, right?! White is such a pleasing color as well. Who doesn't like purity? Even the corrupt and dirty like white, right?! We roamed around and took a few snaps. I have always had difficulty with photography. I was wondering why she was taking so many photos from so many different angles when everything was white! When I sought to clear my doubt I only got a scary stare as an answer! I understand... it's a life time experience and the beauty needs to be captured and cherished for ever. Still...not so much!!!

The next day after snow, there was ruckus across the city with the news about snow in all media. This is damaged, that is damaged, there were accidents... and so on and on. That is when I realized what is so beautiful to see could be so problematic to handle. This is why our forefathers have told, "Beauty is dangerous". Are you wondering, "Does it include this beauty as well?"! Yes, that's our style. We would say something first and include everything that comes our way later within that and claim, "That's what I meant!". Who can question us?! That's not new for us. The same ice that we buy for money as a commodity back home was available free of cost everywhere there. Nobody even cared that so much ice was getting wasted. I was so upset about it. But what could I have done for that? There were many things that I used to get free of cost in my childhood for which I need to pay an unbelievable price now. Nobody is upset about that, right?! So I should learnt to live with these things! :)

It took two to three days to lose all the snow from sight. That was okay. They said that it's even worse in many other European countries. On the other hand, some were saying, if it was in US, everything would have been back to normal within few hours. So it's only those can bear the pain get so much pain. Imagine the same thing was happening in our place. Not even 5% of this effort would be put. Our leaders would plan all their overseas travels during that time of the year only every time. The servants of the public would take bribe from those who have the power and money and serve only for them. But the leaders there try to calm down the public by constantly appearing before media and explaining various steps they took to control the effects of snow. The government and corporation staff take all the pain to restore normalcy as quickly as possible throughout the city. Even after all that those people complain so much about the quality of service provided. "You collect so much tax. What the heck are you doing with it?" is the question that everyone raises. That shows how far ahead their democracy is.

Daughter and me!
It's like being in Kodaikanal when the Kurinji flower blossoms, like being in Mumbai during Ganesh Chathurthi, and in Kolkata during Durga Pooja. We could see snow two-three times during our one month stay there. We must say we were so lucky in one way. All these wouldn't have mattered if I had alone. It's because I went with a four-and-a-half year old daughter, I have allocated so much space for a thing like this. If you look at it, otherwise nothing has changed in my life after seeing the snow. Nothing changed after I saw the train for the first time. Nothing changed after I saw airplane for the first time. Nothing changed after I crossed the seas for the first time. Nothing changed after I saw the sea for the first time. Nothing changed after I saw a mountain for the first time. Nothing changed after I saw a waterfalls for the first time. Nothing has changed after seeing snow also. So it's just proved again that just seeing something will never change anything in your life. That's it!

The experience of snow is one and the killing cold is another. Even that got better after first few days. Rather we got used to it. We did discuss earlier about how they have designed everything around them to safeguard themselves from cold. I missed two important things in it. One, our habit of cleaning with water (I hope you wouldn't ask cleaning what!). They wipe off with tissues. The main reason is that the water will always be ice there. They can't wash like how our people do in ponds here. Even in their ponds it will only be ice. Hence they have reduced their reliance on water as much as possible.

The next one is, I heard that they mix lead or something with the tap water to prevent it from becoming ice. So someone told me not to drink hot water that comes from tap even if I wanted to drink hot water. It was suggested to take cold water, boil it and drink even if I wanted to drink hot water. I didn't know this before. So on the first few days I was drinking the hot water straight from tap. I was thinking I was too smart to save time by using the hot water from tap even for making coffee. Then I realized how smart it really meant!

After the first few days I felt a kind of itching throughout the body. I was thinking maybe if it was because of my drinking of hot water from tap. Then I heard that it was common for those go to cold places for the first time. Some said it was due to the cold itself and others said it was due to the lead mixed in hot water in which we took bath. I was even told that there is a cream that I could buy from shops for that but I managed without it.

There is a button below the traffic signals in all places. If the pedestrians pressed it the signal immediately turns red for the vehicles and the pedestrians get a green signal to cross the road. This change happens immediately. I saw this in Singapore as well. But it wasn't this quick in Singapore. Sometimes it happens immediately. Sometimes it takes longer. But in London, it's immediate. It's almost like, 'you press and cross'. I don't think I have seen this anywhere in India. Their logic is like this - If it is a crowded place they can wait till all the vehicles stop but in less crowded places why should the pedestrians be kept waiting for so long?! But where is the less crowded place in India? So that proves why it's not required here!

I also saw another interesting thing. The moment they see pedestrians standing near zebra crossing in the sides the vehicles stop immediately and let the pedestrians cross first. In fact, the pedestrians don't even have to look around if it is a zebra crossing. They can just cross with closed eyes. If you are driving a vehicle, it is your responsibility to slow down, look around and stop if required wherever you see lines on the road. As an Indian, I couldn't digest the way the pedestrians crossing the road so slowly like a duck with the least worry about all the vehicles waiting for them to cross as if it was only them and their road. Can you imagine that kind of a scene in our place? You will be cursed to death. We see every day how even people of our grandparents' age get cursed when they cause even the slightest of inconvenience to moving traffic here. Even their parents and grandparents are not spared when it comes to scolding. So the pedestrians are the kings and queens there. It's the drivers who have to be more careful. If you drive like how you do in India I am sure within few days you will end up behind bars. Now imagine this - Let's say someone who is so used to their traffic rules came to our place and crossed the zebra crossing like the way they do there. Especially the children who come here have to be instructed properly on all these. Otherwise, it may lead to unimaginable consequences.

What may be the reason for giving so much respect to the pedestrians? Maybe the population, I thought. If it is only once in a while that someone would cross the road like that then there is no problem for the drivers to slow down, look around and then go. If we did that so patiently to every pedestrian in our place, someone who is starting to office in the morning will reach his office only by 6 o'clock in the evening.

The trains are packed in peak hours. The central places of the city are always crowded. Someone said, "It's only few specific places that are crowded here. But if you walk around our streets, some times you won't even find one person unlike in India!". Their empty streets were really scary to me - someone like me who mostly likes empty roads and once in a while crowded places for a change. They made me realize, 'It's better to be safe in noisy places like here than to be in seemingly peaceful but unsafe place like there'. :)



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