Thursday, July 16, 2009

Over there

The way we do things in the U.S. gets a lot of attention (some grudging, some not) abroad and many Americans wonder why we can't be more like Europe. I suppose that a certain amount of cosmopolitanism is not bad.

Many Americans return from stays in Europe and wonder why our cities (and our public transport) cannot be more like theirs. Now we hear much the same sentiment when health care "reforms" are discussed.

But the comparisons have limited usefulness. Let's face it: our culture (which I like a lot) does not bring forth the same public sector as is found in many (not all) European countries.

This morning's LA Times includes

"Waxing philosophical on the London Underground ...
On the Piccadilly Line, drivers have been given manuals filled with authors' quotations from which they may recite, in hopes of breaking the monotony of riding the Tube ... On a sweltering summer's day, packed in with sweaty passengers indifferent to the merits of deodorant, does anyone on the London Underground really need reminding that 'Hell is other people, as Jean-Paul Sartre wrote?

Apparently so, according to a quirky new campaign to show that commuting and contemplation on the Tube don't have to be mutually exclusive activities.

Drivers and other staffers on the subway system's well-traveled Piccadilly Line have been given manuals of quotations from famous authors and philosophers that they can intone over their crackly intercoms whenever the mood strikes.

Instead of being instructed to "have a nice day" like their American counterparts, passengers here in the British capital may now hear gems like, "A throne is only a bench covered in velvet" (said Napoleon Bonaparte, who never had to fight for a seat on the Tube) and, "There is more to life than increasing its speed" (said Mohandas Gandhi, who was never stuck on a stalled train while trying to rush to a job interview).

The punchy proverbs aren't just food for thought, says Transport for London, the body that operates the Underground. They're also art.

For years, the transit agency has tried to broaden passengers' horizons on the Tube, which logs, on average, about 3 million customer journeys a day. The agency's Art on the Underground program installs artwork at various stations and commissions new drawings for the cover of its pocket subway map, which has a print run of 5 million every time the map is updated.

The idea of sprinkling people's journeys with pearls of wisdom sprang from the mind of Jeremy Deller, a prize-winning artist who generally avoids taking the Tube but felt it worth trying to enliven the experience of those who do. Londoners have an ardent love-hate relationship with the Underground, with the emphasis usually on the latter.

Deller despises the incessant stream of admonitions to "let passengers off the train first" and "please take your belongings with you."

"It's soul-destroying," he said. He initially proposed what might be called a piece of nonperformance art: a day of no Tube announcements at all.

I have no idea how long this London experiment will last. But I do know that this can never happen here. Some ways just simply belong over there.