Monday, 24 November 2008

Training part 2: Coaching.

The companion return leg of my massively productive outward journey was far less smooth than its blog-post-inspiring sibling. Having neglected to check the existence of trains running the reverse route on the day I wished to return home, I was thrust into the sticky arms of the National Express coach service.

The combination of no leg room, a bumpy journey and a headrest made for someone either two inches taller or two inches shorter than me was exactly what I'd expect to get from everyone's second-choice method of long-distance transport. I've always wanted to be one of those people who can easily make conversation with the stranger sitting next to them in these kinds of situations - with the lights off and little chance of sleep, I imagine it would allow the time to pass much more easily. With my particular brand of insecurities and social anxieties, I've never been able to quite pull this off. It generally takes me longer than a single journey to get a comfortable rapport going with a stranger, so unlike those people who can end up with a real bond after a few minutes of conversation, I rarely get past the small talk stage.

On this occasion, I was sitting next to Ana, a Brazilian woman living in Portugal and working in Manchester. Her English wasn't particularly good, and my Portuguese is non-existent, but we manage to get across that she was a cook in a grill-based restaurant serving Mexican, Portuguese and Brazilian food. She likes cooking, and likes it when people enjoy her food. She finds Mexican food boring and too hot ("too piri-piri, too piri-piri") for her, but loves Portuguese food. She explained that no matter how much she showered (which she constantly referred to as "douching"), her hands still smelled of spices, and she was right - the smell of onion and some sort of chilli was ingrained in her skin. She agreed that my hands in turn smelled of nothing at all.

She was travelling to London to stay with a friend of hers, and when she initially instigated conversation with me, it was to ask whether the coach went to "Golden Green", and if not, whether the driver could be persuaded to stop there. I suggested that he wouldn't make an extra stop there, but that she could maybe travel to there by train from Victoria station once we arrived. She did ask the driver a couple of times whether he could stop anywhere other than Victoria, but he was unsurprisingly reluctant.

She said that she found England too cold, and I agreed that it was very a chilly weekend in Manchester. I said I didn't like it when it got too hot, and she laughed at me. She said her hands hurt from the cold, and that she needed a bigger, warmer hat. I tried to explain that I'd bought a new coat that weekend because of the cold, but I don't think she understood.

For large portions of the journey, I tried to sleep, only catching a few moments here and there, while she craned her neck at the motorway signs out of the window, shouted down the phone in Portuguese and occasionally pulled her hat down over her eyes, crossed her hands over her handbag and appeared to sleep for a few minutes, until her phone rang again.

By the time we got to London, the result of her phone conversations was revealed, as her friend had in fact gone to work already, and so was not available to meet her. This meant she now needed to get to Heathrow. From Victoria. At midnight. On a Sunday. As we walked into the station through the bitter cold, she told me about what she was looking forward to: a hot shower ("ver' hot. ver' hot douche. fifty C douche."), a good meal and a good night's sleep ("by this time tomorrow, I be at home in my bed").

We had a look at the boards, and couldn't see any trains heading to Heathrow, so I took her over to the ticket office. No trains to Heathrow, they said, try the underground. We ran down to the underground entrance but the men there said she wouldn't make it to Heathrow by train before the tubes shut down for the night. They suggested she try to get to Paddington and get a train from there, so we ran back upstairs to the front of the station. We wandered over to the taxi rank and I asked a taxi driver how much to Heathrow. £60. "Too much!" she said, aghast. And to Paddington? £12. I tried to explain that she could go to Paddington and then hopefully get a train to Heathrow, and she seemed happy with that.

"Thank you!" she said, "You come to Portugal. You and girlfriend come to Portugal. I help you. You stay with me there." Then she gave me a hug and got into the taxi. I instantly felt guilty that I didn't run to a cashpoint and get out the £60 to get her to Heathrow, rather than subjecting her to another unfamiliar station, and without a guide this time. I really hope she made it to Heathrow, and I really hope she's in Portugal now, enjoying her food and her hot shower and her bed.

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