A lot of us

A week ago I left Lyon for a trip to the UK. I’ve been to London and Oxford several times over the course of the past year to visit friends studying there. When people ask me if I’ve traveled much within France, I’m ashamed to say that really I haven’t. For the most part, I have done my best to absorb Lyon, but I haven’t branched out terribly far at all. Part of this comes down to practical factors and part of this is more due to my disposition.

Another big factor is the growing realization that our relationships are probably the most important “thing” we can invest in. This was especially reinforced on my most recent trip when, instead of taking a plane, I decided to take a series of busses. This is what this looked like:

22h00 Thursday night – leave my Lyon suburb, head to the bus station (Bus #1)
23h00 Thursday night – bus is supposed to depart (Bus #2)
23h30 Thursday night – bus actually departs
5h30 Friday morning – bus arrives in Paris
13h00 Friday afternoon – take bus from Paris to London (Bus #3)
19h40 Friday evening – bus arrives in London
17h00 Saturday evening – take bus to bus stop in London (Bus #4)
17h20 Saturday evening – take the tube (a bus) from London to Oxford (Bus #5)
19h30 Saturday evening – arrive in Oxford (walked from there to friend’s place)
19h00 Monday evening – take shuttle to Oxford (town) tube station (Bus #6 — technically a van? Van #1)
19h20 Monday evening – depart on Oxford tube to London (Bus #7)
20h40 Monday evening – arrive in London, try to find next bus station, wander around because was misdirected
22h00 Monday evening – board the wrong bus (that I didn’t know at the time was the wrong bus) to Amsterdam (whoops) (Bus #8)
00:20 Tuesday morning – switch busses right before the Chunnel train to the correct bus, headed to Paris (Bus #9)
07:10 Tuesday morning – arrive in Paris
07:30 Tuesday morning – depart from Paris (Bus #10) to Lyon
14:00 Tuesday afternoon – arrive in Lyon
14:10 Tuesday afternoon – take the local bus from Lyon to the suburbs (Bus #11)
14:40 Tuesday afternoon – arrive at the closest bus stop to the house, walk home from there

This seems absurdly complicated, but it’s not actually that much worse than flying (just getting to the airport from the house I’m living in now requires a walk, a 30-minute bus ride, two metro connections, and a 30-minute train ride, and getting to central London from either London airport is not much better). It was also the cheapest and least CO2-emitting option (with the exceptions of foot/bike travel or train, the former requiring too much time considering I covered around 1,270 miles, and the latter being cost prohibitive for me).

Human-statue interaction in Paris, France. June 2014.

Human-statue interaction in Paris, France. 6 June 2014.

Note well: this was still an extravagant trip as far as I’m concerned. In terms of emissions, by going via bus instead of plane, I saved about 100-150€ and emitted an estimated 0.26 tons of CO2 (by bus) instead of 0.98 tons (by plane). [This is according to this tool: http://www.nativeenergy.com/travel.html.] In terms of cost, I spent over half a month’s wages on the trip. I only had to ask for one afternoon off because of federal holidays, so that helped give me enough time to do the journey by bus.

I don’t love traveling. In a lot of ways, it seems very wasteful. Your human needs don’t go away when you travel, but the ability to meet them sustainably does. Temptations like fast food seem even more inevitable when you don’t have a kitchen or any idea where to go to eat. Beyond the fact that getting from one place to the other usually requires vast amounts of fuel, you have additional restrictions, you are stripped of most tools (so you’re unlikely to fix things that break or need mending), and you are often forced to accept disposable materials you don’t actually need (like plastic spoons at ice cream places).


Gold man’s commute. Paris, France. 6 June 2014.

If one of your priorities is living sustainably, travel can quickly become a nightmare. Yet, another side of sustainability is emotional, relational, social sustenance. Man cannot live by bread alone, or even bread and high fructose corn syrup.

The rest of this common expression, originally found in the Bible, is “but on every word that comes out of the mouth of God” (or variations depending on your version of translation). This isn’t exactly what I was thinking about while I was on eleven busses, but what mattered to me most about the overall experience was something equally intangible.

Other than my brief walk around Paris, I spent practically all my time off-bus with close friends. I spent a lot of time just hanging out with people I care about deeply. I went clubbing in London and played croquet in Oxford. And I also spent a lot of time sitting next to, in front of, and behind strangers on busses.

I took the trip to be able to spend time with my friends. I took the trip to celebrate my birthday, a birthday I wasn’t really in the mood to celebrate. I took the trip to see Paris (because, you know, I live in France). All of those goals were met.

In addition, I became entangled–if only circumstantially–in the stories of many others’ journeys. This is what was eye-opening about traveling in this slow, slow way. I began the journey well away from my fellow passengers. At the departure kiosk in Lyon, I was diffident, reluctant to fraternize. By Paris I was asking for directions (in French) in the Metro information booth (something that would normally throw me into a fit of anxiety), ordering meals alone, and then making small talk (also in French) with the bus driver of the bus to London.

By the time we were crossing the English Channel, the bus driver, his girlfriend(?) sitting next to me, and I were on speaking terms, joking about my birthday and whether there was video surveillance in the toilet (you had to be there). By the time I was headed from Oxford back to London, I ended up chatting with the bus driver when I stupidly tried to get off the bus too early, and then when I took the wrong bus from London I had the best transit experience ever: I made friends.

As I listened to the driver announce our destination (once we were already 10 minutes away from the station) I realized that we were headed to Amsterdam, and while my name had been on the boarding list somehow, I was on the wrong bus. Luckily I was in the front seat, so I just leaned over and asked the driver what was going on and what I should do. This, in itself, was a triumph for me, given that at some point in my life I would probably have been so shy I would have just stayed on the bus all the way to Amsterdam to avoid talking to anyone (let alone trying to figure this out in French).

Then, after the huge relief that I could just switch busses at the border crossing, the non-Francophone Dutch kid next to me struck up a conversation. It was the kind of highly soluble friendship that happens on busses, but it was friendship: for 2 hours, we chatted about bike-friendliness in different cities, public transportation in general, student life. He let me listen to music he had recorded with the friend he had been visiting in London; I slipped his headphones over my ears to be met by Norwegian Wood and then a series of other Beatles songs.

We progressed to singing softly our favorites while the rest of the bus slept–or tried to. At the rest after the border crossing, one man started complaining to the bus driver about a noise in the window that was preventing him from falling asleep. The three of us–driver, this man, and myself–then launched into a comparison of Paris versus London versus life in the countryside. (In French.) My bus showed up; the bus driver joked that it was time to say goodbye to my boyfriend.

At that point, I was still over seven hours from what I might as well call “home” these days, but I had started feeling at ease on these busses. We moved at a pace I’m used to from decades in cars, but with a solidarity that is still very unfamiliar. It wasn’t just me going where I wanted to go, it was all of us trying to get there together. Air travel isn’t entirely different–I often feel a sense of camaraderie with my fellow flight-mates, especially on longer flights or ones with severe turbulence or delays.

Yet long-distance bus travel is different, because it takes a lot of time. It is different because it is so close to the ground. We are not united because we are all at least a tiny bit afraid the plane is going to crash; we are united because we are all people going the same direction for many hours.

Over the course of my bus rides, I had numerous other tiny interactions. I watched a bilingual family of four negotiate a 7 hour bus ride with two small children. I watched a different family get turned away at the UK border. In an airport, I would have been on my next flight or next train by the time they were sent back, but with the bus, we all had to wait.

The thing is, we’re in this together. I’ve written about my skepticism about conscientious consumerism before, but here’s another angle: when we talk about consumers, we’re talking (normally) about singular units: me. You. Not us. In my life, I often feel that isolated. Like my decisions really don’t matter, because they’re not connected to anyone else’s decisions. Like my decisions really do matter, because I’m an entity unto myself.

In reality, we are the ones driving climate change. We will be affected. In fact, for many of us in the ‘developed world,’ we may not be the first affected, and so it is even more important for us to feel a sense of solidarity with humanity, not only with our immediate neighbors or closest friends.

No bus is a perfect cross-section of humanity, far from it. Still, when you are on a bus, you start to see and interact with people you might normally never be in touch with or might even avoid. You sit, and you have little choice who you sit next to. As much as we talk about sustainability as an environmental question, it’s really a human question. The planet will go on whether or not we’re here. What’s in jeopardy is our own survival.

Also in jeopardy: our sense of community, of belonging, of connection to our fellow human beings.


While writing this post, I found two resources you might find interesting:


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