One of the first lessons I learnt in London was walking and all that went with it. Hey, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against walking, in fact I love walking (at least by Nigerian standards). I used to walk a lot back home especially in the scenic Life Camp area of Abuja where I then lived. They weren’t straightforward though, my walks, what with friends, colleagues, neighbours and patients stopping frequently to offer me rides. They soon learned I loved to walk and let me be. Many found it difficult to understand-this doctor’s choice of walking, when he should be cruising the streets, but I guess they learnt to indulge my eccentricity. So you see, I am no stranger to walking, or so I thought.
Arriving in London, changing from one line to another on the Underground, the walkways seemed interminably long. I thought, “It must be my luggage. Once I’ve dropped it off, it will be better”.
The next day, I made my way to my college, stopping to ask directions as I went along. Philip, the friend I was staying with probably started it. When I asked which tube to take to the College, his derision was loud…”Tu…be? It’s just around the corner, maybe a 20 minutes walk”. Okay, I thought and set off, my London A to Z clutched firmly in my hands. I got lost, and how! Stopping to ask directions from passers-by, I would receive the reply, “it’s only a few minutes walk, you can’t miss it, it’s a large white building”.
Walking for a few minutes, I would find no large white building and would then get confused…perhaps I took the wrong turn there… No, it must still be ahead, or was it that grey building? And so on, till I would bump into another passer-by and ask for fresh directions.
This was a constant feature of my life in London and I soon realized the problem was one of perception. Talking to other Nigerians, I found they had had similar problems. The English perception of a short walk differed significantly from ours. So when a helpful old English woman said, “It’s ten minutes walk”. She meant ten minutes, English walk. Soon when I asked directions from Nigerians living here and they said, “It’s a 5 minutes walk from the station”, I learnt to ask…Naija walk or Oyibo walk? I probably did more walking in my first two weeks here than I had done in the previous two years in Nigeria. Now, I’m no longer even counting.
I think the variation in perception derived from the brisk pace at which everyone seemed to walk here. The purposeful, broad stride was the rule everywhere I looked. I thought how businesslike, no dawdling, how impressive and efficient. Until winter came and bustling down a busy London street with my younger brother, he said, “Say oyibo dey walk fast no be say dem dey rush go somewhere, na cold.” He soon attributed the frequent tea drinking to the same cause. He was probably right. That also took some getting used to, this obsession with tea or coffee. Hardly would we have started a lecture, when the lecturer would be announcing when the coffee break would be. And soon after returning from that, we would go for lunch, back to the class and yet another coffee/tea break. It took some getting used to.
So now when you see people bustling briskly down London streets, or downing cup after cup of hot tea or coffee, you know why. And if an Englishman says “it’s only a short walk”, put on your jogging shoes.