Imagine you’re waiting for a train; you’ve just flown into a new, bright city, and you’ve found the main station for the underground system, and you want to get to a particular station.
You are here to perform at an exciting Event. You have been invited by The Organisers and they have been clear to you that you are not the star of the show, but an integral contributor nonetheless. The Event is an exciting opportunity for you, and while The Organisers did not give you a specific thing to perform, or an exact time for you to be there, you’d like to get to the venue soon so that you can plan and prepare. You’d like to make something special for the audience. So you go straight from the airport to the underground station, and begin to explore which train you should take.
When you finally track down a map for the underground (it was hidden behind a pillar) you realise that it is all in another language.
This is to be expected; you are, after all, in another country. You are not daunted by this, and so begin to read the map, scouring the names of the stations to find a match for the one The Organisers gave you in which the event would be taking place… only, you cannot find the exact station. There are several similar spellings and several very similar words, but none are an exact match. You are perplexed: perhaps you wrote the station name down wrong? So, you send a text message to The Organisers of the event, asking which station is best: the one all the way in the East (but on the same underground line), the one in the North which requires three train changes, or the one two stops from here, to the West?
The respond quite promptly, happily: ‘So glad you’re on your way! You can go to any of those stations – it’s up to you!’
This confuses you and so you respond: ‘Which one will you be at?’ They reply that they’re actually not based in the city at all, but in the next town over, and will be focusing on other events there for the next few weeks, but are sure you will have a great time. They add: ‘We’ve got some friends in any of those stops that can help you out – just let us know which one you go to, and we’ll put you in touch!’
So you decide to head to the station in the East: you can get there without changing trains, and while it is a longer journey, it seems like the simplest option. To do this, you have to enter a one-way system, which leads you down some stairs to the lower underground trains, and so you go down, carrying all your luggage. Once on your way, you decide to text The Organisers and let them know that you’re heading that way, and wonder if they could give your contact details to their friend who is at that station: perhaps they could meet you there? … but you realise that there is no signal this far underground, and you can neither send nor receive any messages, and you can’t go back up because of the one-way system, so you decide to head onwards and contact them when you get to this station. You might have to wait a while, but at least you will be on-site and can start working.
You wait on the platform at the end of the one-way system, waiting for the East-bound train to take you to the Station-that-sounds-like-the-one-you-were-given, where The Organisation has friends that might help you. The LED board suggests the train should arrive in two minutes, and so you gather up your bags and get ready. You notice no one else is waiting on the platform, and this gives you a slight sense of trepidation: are you on the wrong platform? Being in a strange country and the only person on a strange platform, unsure of where you’re going is an unsettling experience.
But the wind and noise of an approaching train calm your nerves slightly and a shining, new metal beast rockets to the platform. A door aligns directly in front of you – you take this as a good omen. It begins to open with a sci-fi shoosh, then stops halfway. You lean in and push it open further with your elbow, struggling with your bags, and step up, step on, and into the train, and then look around for a seat.
There is no one else on the train except a single woman with several planks of wood and some tools, hammering away at a structure of some kind.
You also notice that there aren’t any seats. Only a collection of old, dining room chairs, not fixed to the floor. As the door closes, a beautifully printed infographic in a multitude of languages advises you to build your own seat.
The train starts to move, but you have no materials to build your own seat. You must look a bit panicked, and the woman with the wood gestures to you, suggesting you borrow hers to construct somewhere to sit, but you politely shake your head and sit down on the floor. The train rocks violently and you lean against the side, holding your bags before they wobble away down the carriage. You remind yourself that you’ve been on worse journeys (you think…?) and say to yourself that it won’t be a long journey: just sit tight.
You estimate the journey will take about 45 minutes, and so you settle back, watching the lady building her own chair. You notice that while the outside of the train was new and shiny, the inside seems in places to be held together with tape and glue. Near where you are sitting, graffiti of genitalia has been scratched into the wall. At the other end, you can see the driver’s back through the window of the door to their cabin. You cannot tell if they are male or female. His/her hat is at a jaunty angle, and you can see boredom in the way he/she stops and starts the rickety machine at various stations. At these station stops, you notice people climb on with their own boxes to sit on, or use one of the rickety dining room chairs.
There is no sign of a conductor.
After about six stops, a group of youth jump on, run through the train, push some people off chairs, or steal hats. They whoop and laugh like young, untouchable youth do. They rush to the driver’s cabin, open the door and pull him/her out and slam themselves in the cabin. They start playing with the controls. No one else seems concerned, and so you try to relax, but when the train begins to move backwards, the youth laugh louder and scream and you get nervous. The driver – you can now see his face, he is a he – looks resigned, and even slightly bored. This seems to have happened before.
Eventually, after about ten confused minutes, the youth get bored and stop the train, escaping though the windows and racing down the track into the darkness. The Conductor pulls his hat off, dejectedly walks into the cabin and restarts the train. It takes a few shuddering moments, but then moves forward. It stops at a station, and you realise you are back where you started. A few people get off the train, and a plump woman in a uniform steps in, yelling sharply and surely something you don’t understand. People begin to offer papers, and you assume it is a ticket inspection, so you stand up, and hold out your ticket. She looks at you, and begins to speak in another language. You let her speak, and at a pause, smile and apologise saying: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand you. I do not speak your language.’ The woman in the uniform looks angry and begins to loudly say the same thing. People on the train look away. You say again: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Should I get off?’ and point to the open door. She looks at you, and stares at you with an open mouth. You make to leave the train and she pushes past you, onto the platform and keeps walking. You assume it’s OK to stay on the train so you sit back down, and the door closes, and the train heads off again into the dark tunnels to a place where you know no one will meet you, and where an event that you are supposed to be performing at might or might not happen.
You finally arrive at the station, go up into the cold winter light, and you try to call The Organisers, but their line is busy, and, after a while, becomes disconnected. You look around for any signs of the event, or a stage, or something to suggest that this might be the site where you would be performing. Nothing.
So you decide to perform there and then. You’ve come all this way, after all. So, find a quiet corner and you set yourself up, and begin your work. Passers by continue with their busy day; a few people stop and watch for a minute, and then disappear into the street scene. A few children play at your feet, and then are also gone.
Those people who stopped and watched you perform seemed to enjoy themselves. You catch a few eyes and they smile; you can tell however, that this is not for them. They have different concerns and different tastes. If you could find out what those are, you could do something that they might understand more; adjust your work to make it more suitable/enjoyable to them. They might stay longer and dance or sing along. They might join you and show you their own creative expressions. Dialogue would be nice.
But you don’t speak the language here. It would have been nice to have a translator, but there is no one around, and so after a while, you stop.
You gather your things and try to call The Organisers again, but the line is now dead. So, you decide there is nothing else you can do: you head back into the undergound and head back home. The train to the station and to the airport is uneventful: you are used to the rock of the train and the violent youth. The train doesn’t come to a full stop as you get off, and it rolls quickly on, along its rickety tracks into the darkness.
You notice a few others standing on the platform. They could be like you: waiting for a train to take them somewhere, and not knowing how the system works.