He walked up behind me at the bus stop, where I had just arrived moments earlier. I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye and found nothing warranting closer inspection. Late 30s, dark suit, dark hair, briefcase in hand. Nothing more than a guy on his way to work, though it was well past rush hour and most businesspeople had already been in the office for an hour or so. I lifted the corners of my mouth in the almost-imperceptible ‘this is London and I don’t know you so I’m being a bit wary’ smile and turned back to looking for the bus, which was due any moment according to the electronic message board.
He took one step closer and asked, while gesturing towards the message board, “Do all of these buses go to Richmond station?”
“Yes, it’s only the 65 that goes past here and they all go to the station. Should be one here by now but that thing has said ‘bus due’ for a good five minutes now. You know how accurate these things are,” I said with a shrug and an subtle eyeroll, to indicate my disapproval of London’s public transport system, a required topic of conversation while waiting for a bus or train.
I explained about Oyster cards and cash fares and the benefits of travel cards and in the course of hearing his replies, recognised his accent as Australian. I asked him if he was over here on business or had actually moved over and he affirmed it was the latter. He’d been in Hong Kong for a year previously and was now being relocated here. His family would follow in December, once he’d gotten the house sorted and organised. He’d only arrived yesterday and this was his first attempt at navigating his way through a strange transport system in a strange land and he had no idea what he was doing.The hot water and heating weren’t working in his new house and he’d had the pleasure of a cold shower on his first morning. What a suitable introduction to Britain, I thought!
I told him not to worry, that I was an expat too, and that I’d been just where he was before. This seemed to really put him at ease and he started asking me questions about London. I answered them as best I could, trying to balance practical tips and insights with avoidance of information overload. I asked him where he would be working and helped him figure out the best route for getting there and advised him on which fare option would be cheapest. He said he hadn’t been on a bus or a train for so long that he wasn’t even sure how they worked anymore. Bless him. I remembered so vividly feeling the same way when I first arrived here, having no idea what I was doing or where I was going.
When the bus arrived I went ahead of him and showed him how to press his Oyster card against the reader. He looked up and then around him and asked me how he let the driver know when he wanted to get off. I laughed and said “Were you looking for a bit of string at the top to pull? That’s what I did as well,” and he sheepishly said he had. I showed him the red ‘Stop’ button and explained that you used the rear doors to exit only.
The bus was crowded so it was hard to chat much once we were on board, but I watched him out of the corner of my eye as we progressed along the road and the Thames came into sight on Richmond Hill. It’s a great view even on the greyest of days but with the cloudless blue sky, dazzling mid-morning sunshine and autumn leaves at their most glorious, it was truly spectacular. When I saw his eyes light up and his neck crane to take in more of the view as we flew down the road, I felt a sharp pang of wistful nostalgia hit me in the stomach. Oh, to be fresh off the boat again! To be on such an adventure, seeing everything in a new and wondrous (albeit slightly scary and confusing) light. To not know what is around the corner or what will happen next. To not be afraid to talk to strangers waiting for the bus or openly reveal that you don’t know where you’re going. To not be so accustomed to and weary of navigating London that you don’t stick your head out the window to see just a little bit more of the Thames before it’s gone again, or the historic cobblestone streets and centuries-old churches and pubs that make up the living, breathing fabric of this city.
Thank you, Aussie-guy-at-bus-stop, for making me remember what makes this place great and what makes the expat experience so exhilirating. For all its frustrations and sadnesses, living a life where there are always surprises and moments of childlike wonder is a gift, one that can be unwrapped over and over again.
Noble Savage is a fusion of commentary on leaving the motherland, parenthood, culture, world news and feminism, written by a freelance journalist, expatriate and mother of two.