Why do we fall in love with places?
People, I understand. Animals? Sure. These are beings that can love you back. But a place doesn’t care about you, so why do we care about it?
Personally, I’ve got a crush on King’s Cross rail station. I’ll try and explain it to you, but I’m not completely sure if I can explain it to myself.
My first experience with King’s Cross (hereafter referred to by its station code, KGX) was a combination of adrenaline and terror. Hmm, a bit like falling in love? By the time I left the country, I exited the station weeping the bitter tears of a break up.
After a few months on the job, my boss suggested I extend the duration of my UK stays while we waited for my immigration to process. Up to this point, I was going home every ten days or so. I agreed, considering Delta Airlines was the only party truly reaping the rewards of this arrangement. Although I was a wee bit stressed about being away from home longer, I also knew this would give me more time for weekend exploration.
I decided to celebrate my extended residency with a full weekend in London. That first trip from Peterborough into KGX, I had the usual emotions. You know the ones- excited and nervous. As I waited in line to purchase my ticket, I was in a swoon from the romance of it all. I approached the ticket agent with a smile and an earnest ‘One round trip ticket to London on the fast train please!’
He did not share my enthusiasm and shoved the tickets my way with a grunt. I commented it was my first train trip to London and asked if he had any advice.
He responded by taking a bite from his cheese and pickle sandwich.
Undeterred by this decidedly unromantic gesture, I joined my fellow travelers on the platform where I controlled a strong desire to jump up and clap when the train pulled into the station.
Apparently, my inner child thoroughly enjoys train travel. Watching the countryside whiz by, I put my nose and hands against the window, fighting the urge to squeal every time we passed a field of sheep. I looked around but everyone was staring down at their phones. That’s when I noticed some loud voices coming from a few tables down.
I peeked through the crack between the seats to investigate and strained to catch what was being said. There were four men with a mountain of beer cans between them. I’m pretty sure they were speaking English, but between the slurring and thick accents, it was indecipherable. Then, they chanted something (later, I discovered they were football fans heading to a match). I was fascinated and a bit disgusted. This was not the classy British train travel I had imagined.
We pulled into the station and I sat in my seat while waiting for the crowd to thin out. Stepping off that train was heady stuff. Sure, I had excitement and nerves when I boarded in Peterborough. But, now, it was ratcheted up to a whole new level. I wasn’t just happy, I was euphoric. I wasn’t just scared, I was terrified.
I blinked and tried to focus. There were swarms of people, so I just let the crowd sweep me along while my eyes investigated. The terminal was vast with an odd architectural combination of modern and old fashioned. My ears were adjusting to the strange sounds of air brakes wooshing, accented conversations and… the announcers voice. I listened intently as she swiftly called out the names of towns I had not heard of before.
Inside the concourse, I tried not to gape. The ceiling is a vast white steel grid with lighting that gives off a lavender hue. There were screens showing the various destinations of trains ready to depart the station. Around me stood crowds of people, all staring intently. Initially, I thought they were as confused as I was. That is, until the announcer’s voice would call out an impending departure. Then, all hell broke loose. People pushed past me, galloping towards the ticket gates.
Then, I was alone.
I stood under that canopy and reveled in the moment: I was alone in London and it was time to make some magic.
I spent most of that weekend in a similar fashion to many lovely weekends to come. Mostly walking and getting lost, with a stop at a major museum and one fine meal. That weekend, it was a day at the Victoria and Albert Museum (walking at a criminally slow pace because, well, I could!) followed by afternoon tea at Harrods. *sigh*
I returned to King’s Cross on Sunday evening feeling quite proud. What adventure! What confidence! What, wait, what train do I need to take???
I looked up at the screens that just 36 hours ago, I had gazed upon with admiration. Now, I cursed them under my breath. I could see Peterborough listed in 6 different journeys, but I had no idea what I was looking for. I stared at my ticket hoping it would give me clues, but none were to be found.
I heard the announcer’s voice call out ‘The next train departing from Platform 8 is the First Capital Connect service to Peterborough…’ and I took this as a good omen. It was not. I had failed to listen closely to the announcement, as she called out the 12 stops that would happen between KGX and Peterborough. This is what is referred to as the ‘slow train’ and in addition to being a 90-minute journey (instead of the speedy 45-minute fast train), it is known for being less costly and full of drunks. Apparently, they use their savings on extra pints.
This turned out to be a perfect ‘teaching’ moment because I learned to read a timetable the next day.
KGX and I soon became good friends. In addition to weekend jaunts, I occasionally had work meetings, which I particularly enjoyed.
I know it sounds like bragging to way I actually enjoyed work, but I did. While everyone face held the same grim expression as they rushed into the city, I walked with a Mona Lisa smile. I always wondered if anyone else was secretly as excited as I was, thinking ‘Am I really and truly working in London today?’
There were so many special moments in that city. The markets, museums, restaurants, neighborhoods, football matches, shopping trips with the girls, concerts, visits from family and friends. Lots of living and learning. The person I was during the first trip, was not the same person nearly three years later.
Through it all, KGX was my gateway to new adventures and constant companion.
Now, just like in a real relationship, sometimes your beloved has quirks that irritate you. KGX was no exception. The station was very cold in the winter. It cost 30p to use the toilet and the turnstile to get in there was always confounding some poor tourist. The Pret-a-Manger was so crowded, that the line was like a scrum and getting a seat took more jockeying than the Grand National.
What made up for these, admittedly, modest faults was the thing I loved above all- the announcer's voice.
Pleasant, proper, efficient. While the epitome of British-ness, her voice wasn't always sweetness and light. Sometimes, it held a hint of scorn. Call me crazy but listen to her announce the train departing for Leeds. Does that sound like disdain to you? Like heading to Leeds is some consolation prize.
Sometimes, her voice induced panic. ‘The train at Platform 1 is the 22.00 East Coast service to Newcastle. Calling at Peterborough, Newark Northgate, Doncaster, York, Northallerton, Darlington, Durham and Newcastle. Will passengers intending to travel on this service please join the train now as it is ready to leave.‘
At this point, it’s usually 21.57 and I’m running past Platform 8. As the 22.00 is the last ‘fast train’ to Peterborough, if I miss it, I will be forced to ride the slow train, and nobody wants that.
What is it about that voice? Over time, I felt many things when I heard announcements at KGX. The comfort and reassurance of familiarity, but also the adrenaline rush of adventure, travel and independence.
The sensation of comfort I experienced was different than that of being at home, where routine dulls everything and the brain flips to autopilot. I always stepped off that train as though my autopilot switch was flipped ‘off’. Everything just snapped into focus. After a few trips, I was familiar enough to just enjoy what was happening and soak it all in. Perry says it's ‘like playing a game you are good at’. You know the moves, but there are enough variables to keep it interesting. And while failure always remained a possibility, the routine avoidance of failure still managed to have a deftly skillful feel to it.
It never got old and I never took it for granted. The last time I walked out of that station, there were fat, hot tears on my cheeks. I could hear the announcer’s voice fading away as I rode down the escalator to the Underground.
‘Will passengers intending to travel on this service please join the train now, as it is ready to leave.’