True or False: Londoners Hate Tourists? Fa..Tr..Well…
While tourism is a year-round reality in a city like London, the summer sees a particularly high rate of vacationers and soon-to-be-students flocking to all of the city’s best-known places and often outnumbering full time residents 3 to 1. The culture shock resulting from these encounters can be harsh for both sides. Many tourists feel Londoners are snobbish and unwelcoming, and many Londoners look upon tourist season with all the enthusiasm of a locust invasion. I’ve heard tourists complain (loudly) that they feel targeted and disrespected. As an alien — no, not the cool kind from X-Files, the kind that emigrated from another country — allow me to dispel this notion. Londoners are not targeting tourists. Rather tourists gleefully draw targets on themselves by sticking out like sore thumbs and acting in ways that make it very obvious to any and all that clearly, you are not from here. That sounds bad doesn’t it? Partly it’s meant to, but if I could impart some helpful wisdom as someone who has had to learn to fit in, here would be my top 6 observations (it could have easily been ten) and suggestions for enjoying your stay in one the world’s greatest cities without pissing off the locals at every turn.
First, a health warning for tourists. BEWARE because London apparently causes a disease that Londoners refer to as SUP – Sudden Unexplained Paralysis. This is the only apparent explanation we can come up with for why people visiting from out-of-town will suddenly stop dead in the middle of a busy street or on the stairs of a busy tube station. One minute they’re moving and the next…they’re a living breathing statue. And the reason why Londoners know that it’s a tourist that’s been felled by this mystery ailment is because there is usually a map, a camera or an A to Z involved. I get it. You want to take a picture, you’re lost, you’re checking your mobile’s GPS. You want to avoid the wrath of the locals and your fellow tourists? GET OUT OF THE WAY OF ON-COMING FOOT TRAFFIC! Step to the side of the pavement or turn a corner, whatever it takes to avoid causing human gridlock and angry stares.
Second, while we’re on the subject of walking the streets of London, measure the distance from your doorstep to the curb. Go ahead, I’ll wait. (Insert Jeopardy music here). Okay, now take the measurement and subtract two-thirds. Congratulations, you now have the average width of most London streets. Remember, many of modern-day London’s streets and roads date back to the 1600’s, and other than repaving little has been done to compensate for the high volume of traffic that the metropolis London has become generates daily, So tourists with those tell-tale rolling suitcases, entire tour groups walking en mass, families and friends walking three or four across often with arms linked — seriously…are you practicing for the Rockettes kick line? — are often the subject of scorn. Londoners sadly aren’t on holiday. We need to get home, get to work, get to the store…you know, us boring types who have this weird thing called a SCHEDULE to keep! We’d be ever so appreciative if you’d consider that we all need to share the same tiny bit of pavement and that, just like in whatever city you came from, the foot traffic is moving in both directions. So if you could adjust your tourist stroll — and believe me, we Londoners know a tourist stroll when we see one — and say, just walk like normal people instead of like the colour guard in a parade…we’d be ever so grateful.
Third…I have a confession to make…I don’t watch Game of Thrones. Yes, I know, I am a television cultural wasteland. But while I don’t watch the show I have an eerie sense of what it must be like (given what I’m told by GOT addicts) to watch the last few minutes of an episode. Those of you who watch know what I’m talking about; those last precious minutes when, just before the screen fades to black and the credits role, a character meets a shocking and bloody end usually born of greed, jealousy or rage. I have this sensation every time I watch a tourist cross the street in London; only their near-demise is caused by stupidity. News flash people: I don’t know what the current traffic laws are in your city, but here in London, the driver has the right of way unless he clearly doesn’t. So those of you who hedge your bets and cross the street against the light thinking either the car, bus, truck will stop (IT WON’T) or that the vehicle looks far enough away that you can beat it — what’s that saying on car mirrors about objects being closer than they appear? — guess again! Everyday I watch a tourist try to beat the odds like they’re playing craps in Vegas and then appear surprised, startled and shaken when the auto they thought wouldn’t hit them very nearly does, with a blare of horns and virtually no drop in speed by the driver. It’s both terrifying and fascinating to watch. A tourist never sticks out like a sorer thumb than when they are crossing a London street or navigating one of our roundabouts (don’t even get me started!). A word of advice. I know you’re on holiday and you want to rush to see it all. Trust me, it’s not going anywhere. Observe pedestrian traffic laws. The life you save could be your own!
Fourth, Londoners are an odd lot. Even after years of travel here and nearly 18-months of living here it still surprises me what gets their back up and what they let slide. But there are 2 things that are pretty much sacrosanct. One is the queue. What’s a queue you ask? To anyone anywhere else in the free world it’s a line…and BOY do Londoners take it seriously. In London queuing is an art form. Londoners stand happily, patiently and quietly in lines all over all the city. To get in to a venue, to get on the bus, to shop; you name it, they’ll line up for it. And woe be unto you if you attempt to (on purpose or accidentally) cut the queue. There’s always that one tourist who’ll be brave enough to try. Who’ll “innocently” saunter up to the head of the queue like they didn’t notice it or didn’t know what it was. Prepare to get told off in a variety of accents and colourful phrases until you scamper back to the end of the queue passing a gauntlet of angry stares. The other thing Londoners are surprisingly sensitive to is priority seating on tubes and buses. In some cities this is still referred to as “handicap seating” which Europe frowns on as a politically incorrect phrase. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched people relinquish their seat to an OAP (senior citizen) or a pregnant woman or someone who is physically challenged. Having spent half my life living in NY it’s a refreshing change. So here again is a spot where tourists (though to be fair it’s not always a tourist) can often stand out in a negative way. I know, you’re tired after your long day of sightseeing; perhaps you waited for some time yourself before that seat you’re now sitting in became available. But if you choose not to move when someone in obvious greater need appears don’t be surprised if you are the subject of some hard stares, even if you keep your sunglasses on (another tourist dead giveaway) or some disgusted sighs and tsk tsks (pretending you can’t hear them by having your ear phones in won’t make them go away).
My fifth observation is directed towards American tourists, and before you start, I am an American born and raised. But having lived outside the US for nearly 15 years I’ve learned a lot about how other countries and cultures view Americans, and just how much most Americans lack an objective perspective of themselves. It may be hard to fathom but outside your own borders, American is not the centre of the universe. It is without question A great country, but it is not THE greatest country in the world. What Americans view as patriotism and nationalistic pride, much of the rest of the world views as arrogance…and in some cases delusion. I cringe every time I run into what I call a walking/talking “Ugly American” stereotype. It’s these moments when I thank God that my time abroad has pretty much erased any American accent I might have had. A lot of people mistake me for Canadian (I spent over a decade living there), and guiltily I let them. There is nothing worse than listening to an American tourist banging on about how this or that thing — from food to weather to whatever — is SO much better in America. Or worse yet, tourists who make fun of British accents or culture in front of British people. And the complete bane of my existence, a mouthy American with a superiority complex and the money to fuel it. I recently sat in the lounge of a luxury London hotel (the kind of place where room rates start at the equivalent of $600 US per night) and listened while a boorish American man loudly “schooled” his preschool age son in just how much better the US was than Great Britain. How, if America hadn’t “saved our butts” during World War II we’d all be speaking German. And how the only good thing about vacationing here was that you don’t have to tip people. Newsflash neanderthal man, there wouldn’t even be an America if it weren’t for your BRITISH fore fathers founding the country in the first place.
And finally number six, my biggest pet peeve of all. London is one of the most historic cities in the world, and according to a recent survey it is the number one tourist destination worldwide. Yet it is also one of the dirtiest cities I’ve ever seen! And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the complete fault lies with tourists, but I have seen some boggling lack of respect and consideration by tourists when it comes to litter. It’s as though, because you’re on holiday and this is not your home, that somehow relieves you from showing common courtesy and decency when it comes to keeping our city clean. This point was driven home recently when I was downtown spending time with a friend (another immigrant to the city). We had forgotten it was Pride and when we were making our way back to our respective tube stations to get home we encountered the aftermath of the day’s celebration at Trafalgar Square. I kid you not, it looked like a bomb had gone off! I’ve never in my life seen debris and filth littering the streets like that in any city I’ve ever been in my entire life. If I envision what the day after the zombie apocalypse might look like it wouldn’t be as bad! A young girl, clearly not from here, walking in front us overheard us commenting on it and turned around and said “it’s Pride, people are having a party, you need to lighten up.” I must be getting old because a part of me wanted to slap her and another part wanted to ask if her mother had let her leave home dressed like that. I may officially be from another era now, but it seems to be one of the last to have been brought up to respect other people’s property. This is not your room….there is no maid service…show a little God damn respect!
So, does London hate tourists? After reading this rant you might think we (or at least I) do. But the truth of the matter is we don’t. Londoners, whether they are born and bred or transplants from somewhere else like me, take a tremendous pride in this city. In it’s heritage, history and culture. We sometimes forget or take it for granted, and tourists offer us the opportunity to see it through the eyes of the world and remind us of just why you flock here in droves each year and why we choose to call it home. For me, this is never more clear than when I make the walk down Whitehall to arguably London’s most iconic landmark, Big Ben. I often head there to catch the Circle Line train at Westminster station. And on those days when I’m feeling tired, cranky and homesick; when I question why I moved here in the first place, I’ll stop and take in the grandeur of Big Ben and Westminster Palace and watch the tourists ooh and ahh and snap their pictures. And if lucky, I might arrive just before the hour and I’ll stop and wait and along with all the tourists from around the world I’ll listen to the bells chime. And in that moment I truly get it — hello world, this is London: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9wWBjnaEck