Whenever I am in touch with old friends from Australia, they are always keen to hear how I am getting on as I settle back into life in the old dart after so long away.
As the result of many conversations, both online and offline, I’ve noticed that a number of common questions (FAQs?) keep recurring.
“How are you coping with the weather?” or “Has much changed?” or, particularly in recent months,“How do you find the commute?”
The reason for this latter question is that since starting work in early November, I have joined the ranks of ‘the commuter’ – shuttling back and forth between my Sussex base and London by train, 5 days a week.
To be frank, I picked probably the worst time of year to begin this new adventure, leaving home in the dark and then returning home in the dark as well.
And on top of the darkness, my early morning platform vigils have been accompanied on occasions by wind, rain, ice and snow.
Not to mention the fact that trains have been delayed regularly and on a couple of occasions, cancelled completely, leaving me marooned at home for the day.
But despite all of this, and acknowledging that it is still early days, I’ve found myself quickly adapting to the new routine and even perversely quite enjoying it most days.
It’s strange, but the fact that my train journey lasts a full hour has proven to be an unexpected bonus since it means I get a seat every time, unlike those people who have the ‘advantage’ of living much closer to London.
60 minutes sitting, reading and relaxing versus 30 minutes standing , swaying and stressing? I think I know which I’d prefer.
As a newcomer to this commuting malarkey, I’ve also been observing with interest the rituals of the seasoned commuter, with the aim of honing my own nascent routine further.
The first observation is that commuters are creatures of habit. They typically cluster together at strategic points along the platform, knowing this will precisely align with the doors on the arriving train, thus giving them an advantage in the rush for the best seats.
(My early enthusiasm for standing at unpopulated spots along the platform has since been revealed for the folly it is as I too now seek a huddle to join each morning).
The rituals continue on the train journey itself.
In the morning, this generally involves thermos flasks, newspapers (or increasingly, tablets) and plenty of dozing. It also involves almost obligatory earphones and frequent checking of smartphones. Talking is not actually banned, but tends to be frowned upon.
By contrast, a more convivial atmosphere pervades on the evening journey.
It seems here that various groups of returning commuters will rendezvous in specific carriages, often at specific tables and share a bottle of wine or down a couple of cans of beer. Conversation is freer and its volume tends to increase as the journey proceeds.
Being a commuter has also made me more clock-conscious.
When I lived in Sydney, my ‘commute’ involved a gentle 15 minute stroll through leafy Paddington, creating an almost seamless transition between work and home.
It didn’t really matter what time I left home or work – I knew exactly when I’d reach my destination.
However, in my new life, I know if I don’t leave the house at a particular time, I’ll miss my train which will make me late for work.
Likewise, in the evening, if I don’t leave work by a certain time, I’ll miss my ‘good’ train and the journey home will be rather less enjoyable, not to mention my subsequent evening becoming severely truncated.
But that greater discipline applied to my working hours and the longer gap between leaving one location and arriving at the other has actually helped me to separate these two parts of my life more effectively.
When I leave work in the evening, I have time to ruminate about the day, unwind and then think about the home I am returning to so when I walk in the door now, I am completely in non-work mode. And on a Friday night, it has an almost end-of-term feeling to it.
I never really got that feeling in Sydney where it seemed I was walking in the front door almost before my computer had finished shutting down at work.
I spoke to a neighbour recently who has just started a job in London and is thus following a similar path to me. He is hating the commute already and doesn’t know how long he can keep it up. And that was after just 3 weeks.
Without wanting to come over all Zen here, I think a lot of it is down to your attitude.
I have chosen to see the commute in a positive light – facilitating a big job in an exciting city, but also enabling me to live in a beautiful part of the world.
And as if that wasn’t reason enough, it also gives me the rare luxury of time to myself – to read, to think, to do a bit of work or just to gaze out of the window and daydream.