London's Tube: Don't sweat it, it's a world away from Beijing

In Beijing, I took the subway once. In London, I take the Tube everywhere.

The contrast between my experiences below ground in the two cities says a lot about just how different these Games are for the average American.

In Beijing, I boarded the subway after a full day of meetings in one of the city’s business areas. The moment I stepped into the train and the doors closed, everyone turned and stared at me. I looked around and realized very quickly I was the only foreigner on the train. I also realized I was a novelty.

In a recent episode of public radio’s “This American Life,” they did a whole episode about how fascinated Chinese people are with Americans. They’re so fascinated, in fact, that American expats are asked regularly to be on TV there. Children, animals and foreigners get the best ratings on Chinese TV, and Americans on the show said they felt like performing monkeys every time they were on TV there.

And that’s exactly the way I felt. The Olympics were in Beijing, and it had delivered a worldwide freak show.

London couldn’t be more different.

Sunday night I jumped on the Tube to go up to north London to get dinner. I was at King’s Cross and three people piled into the train from the Olympic Park area. They were in their 30s and all had their faces painted with Olympic rings. One guy had a giant, inflatable hand with the Union Jack on it and kept trying to high-five people.

They hadn’t actually been to Olympic Park but had spent the day at Westfield mall on the edge of the park — just to soak up the atmosphere of the Olympics. The Olympics were in their town, and they were having fun with it in a campy, tongue-in-cheek way. It was both mocking and sincere.

There was a lot of hand-wringing before the Olympics about what a disaster public transportation would be. The extra 3 million journeys expected for the Olympics — on top of the usual 12 million a day — was expected to wreak havoc. But three days into the Games, there’s been none. In fact, the Tube has been so easy that Rio 2016 CEO Leonardo Gryner reportedly gave up his private car and started taking the Underground everywhere.

“What a great legacy is that for the system and the system we’ve created,” said Chris Daniels, who manages Lloyds TSB’s Olympic sponsorship.

I’ve taken the District Line in morning rush on Monday, the Picadilly Line in the evening rush, Victoria in the lunch hour and the Northern Line in the middle of the day. Trains arrive quickly, crowds are manageable, and I’ve run into no delays.

The only problem that I’ve run into came on one of the 80-plus-degree days last week. I rushed into a car on the Tube ready to get a blast of air conditioning only to be hit by dead, still, hot air.

“Excuse me, “ I said to the woman beside me. “Is there air conditioning on the Tube?”

“No,” she said, squinting at me.

I explained to her that in New York, the subway had air conditioning but occasionally you could sit in a car that didn’t. All you have to do when that happens is move down a car.

You can’t do that with the Tube, but it’s cooled off in London since then. The Tube has been comfortable. Instead of sweating on it, I’ve been able to watch the people and enjoy not having anyone stare at me.

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