|Photo taken by Paula Hughes|
1) Avoid talking out loud. There’s not enough space in the whole of England.
2) Sew a Canadian flag into your backpack.
Only kidding. We never pretend to be Canadian anymore.
And in point of fact, since 2008, our likeability capital has increased significantly enough so that we don’t really have anything to fear in public anymore. I’ve been overseas long enough to remember the dark days when Dubya’s simian visage was the face of America to the world and we were seen internationally as a rampaging, war-mongering cowboy. Gone are the days when sympathizers and descendants of Churchill would secret us away under floorboards so that we could say the pledge of allegiance in dark corners. No longer do we find ourselves hiding in abandoned junkyards patriotically playing baseball and furtively eating Crackerjacks. Thankfully, since a cool, worldly dude became president, the foreign exchange rate in popularity and positive reactions is quite favourable.
Having said all that, we may be fans of Downton and Doctor Who, but we are not yet a nation of world travellers and try as McDonald’s, Coke and Westfield Shopping Centre might to make the Olympic village into USA lite, there are probably still some Olympians, their families and other visitors who still might want to travel out into Londontown. It is in this intrepid exploratory spirit that I offer a few tips and pointers to help you get through the next couple weeks.
Beware of Sarcasm
You make friends with some Brits. You get along rather well with them. Splendidly. Famously, in fact. So much so that they invite you out for a night on ‘the razz’ and you’re not quite sure what that means but it could involve neon and fetishes or it could just be a few drinks and a few laughs. You meet your new mates and as you are about to step on the tube to head to the West End for your first stop on what promises to be a night of frolics and fun, you check with Gemma/Nigel to make sure your dress or shirt looks fab or sexy or ‘all right’ (in the case of Nigel) and your new Anglo-Saxon friend turns to you and says, ‘yeah’ and walks onto the waiting tube train. It could be a short, clipped yeah, or it could be a nano-syllable too long, but it’s a noncommital yeah, a clearly ambiguous affirmation, the kind of ‘yeah’ delivered with a half-smile enough to convince you that you’ve got lipstick on your teeth or a major cliffhanger, but I couldn’t be bothered to tell you. Just strike out all night and then wonder why at the end of it all; this noncommital ‘yeah’ is not delivered with exaggerated Chandler Bing emphasis. No one’s said to you, I’m sooo not liking that top or you should sooo go back to the hotel and change right now. It’s much more subtle and something so tiny that it leaves doubts in your head so niggling that they grow and grow until Oxford Circus when you are either ready to claw your friend’s face or give the guy a good bite of a knuckle sandwich and set him straight.
Before you do, slow down. Cool your jets, tiger. Remember that you are in the United Kingdom. Sarcasm and Irony are the official languages of state. You don’t get off the plane at Charles DeGaulle without so much as a ‘Parlez-vouz Anglais?’ and you shouldn’t walk around merry old England of Madame George and roses without expecting the most deadpan sarcasm you’ve never heard. Chances are, your friend just wants to get on the tube quickly because he or she fears that if it begins moving it will not stop and will mercilessly rip part of his or her body as it passes into the next tunnel and chances are you look fabulous, but you will find yourself in a plethora of situations in which you have to be a bit more acutely aware of context than you might otherwise be on the other side of the pond.
Hearts, Minds and The Danger of Assumptions
Try to avoid remarking to locals about how much good the Olympics is doing for the area, for London and for Britain in general. It’s a bit of a sore point. The Brits do love to complain, bless ’em, but this time you might forgive them for it. The official drink of the Olympics is produced by an American corporation; the official caterers to the Olympics are an American fast food chain and corporation; the official chocolate of the Olympics is
British owned by American multinational, Kraft; the official beer of the Olympics is Dutch. It appears to the British public as though either the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG), have gone out of their way to intentionally and perversely ignore British business interests. British businesses are finding their deliveries of stock are getting later and later, their customers are drained by Westfield and one local bookshop owner has stated that she has made more from the Anti-Olympics publishing boom than the games themselves. These events are not benefiting the British or local economy and British business owners will not thank you for it.
However, if you do want to win over the hearts and minds of the indigenous peoples of this island, there is something you can do. Hop the train to Hackney Wick, Homerton or Hackney Central (there isn’t anything in Stratford unless you are from New Jersey and you like that gritty, industrial, Mad Max sort of thing, which I can say being from New Jersey and must clarify as ‘humour’). Get off and walk down the street. Having trawled through the archives of my blog first, you will already know as you are walking that there is an array of fine eateries and coffee shops that will serve you a nicer soft drink than Coke (Victorian Lemonade or Elderflower Cordial?) a superior coffee and finer lunch than you will find in McDonald’s (Apricot chilli jam and cream cheese on toast or crepe filled with goat’s cheese and walnuts?) and a finer pint of British beer at a local pub than Heineken will serve any day (East London Brewery is particularly nice, found on tap at The Clapton Hart). You don’t have to go to Hackney just because I live here and I like it, but be careful to avoid assumptions about the coziness of familiar brands.
Londoners Stand on The Right
When I first moved here, I was amazed by the fact that Londoners use escalators for the purpose for which they are built: to increase the speed of your ambulatory movement downwards or upwards, which is brilliant. I get the impression in recent years that people think the same does not apply to escalators in shopping centres, but it does. And I would have thought that with a nation of health-obsessed gym members like us, we’d take full advantage of a free public stairmaster, but I tried to start the trend in America of continuing to walk on an escalator without stopping or letting yourself laze like a human mannequin on display, but for whatever reason it never took. I kept getting the dirtiest stares when trying to pass others up mid-conversation. Like good drivers though, Londoners walk on the left and allow a slow lane for tourists, but use the slow lane and stand on the right and do not be surprised if you are trampled for not doing so.
Remember, London is Still Keeping Calm and Carrying On
School’s out. It’s true. There are no teachers attending work or students attending school. But bankers still carry briefcases dutifully into the City of London. Nurses still don their scrubs when they get into London Bridge or The Royal Free. And estate agents (someone has to do it) still do up their Eton Knots and don their pinstripes in the hopes that the economy will pick up. But Londoners like to get to work efficiently and they like for you not to obstruct the progress of their city as it forges on in daily toil.
So if you have not mastered the ticket machines at tube stations, step aside and ask an attendant. Don’t try and be a hero. Do not try and figure it out at rush hour with the trader behind you seething because he is already 33 seconds late and on his second machiatto. If you do play at these heroics, do not be surprised when you turn round, triumphantly pleased with yourself at having figured out how to purchase a zone 1 single only to find a hulking green monster who’s just ripped genuine Armani and is now ready, with the rest of the commuters, to rip into you.
I would say this applied during peak times, but in the next few weeks, peak times are twenty four hours a day. So, be mindful of others around you.
Get Off The Beaten Path For Once
There are some obvious things you are looking forward to doing on your London bucket list: seeing men in large funny hats swap shift, paying too much for a black cab, gawking at strangers from atop a double decker bus, that sort of thing. Think for a second though. This city wasn’t planned out like most American cities, grid-like and structured, it evolved and sprawled and reached out and stayed where it was or kept moving or got bombed out of existence only to rise like the phoenix all new and mansion-block like.
London is a savage beauty. I love it for its raw, gruff, bracing multicultural sense of ‘live and let live’. One thinks of the line from Yeats: ‘A terrible beauty… Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.’ That unapologetic, Londonness is also its charm. Bit like New York that way. Don’t expect saccharine. Expect frowning and friendly.
There are so many hidden nooks and corners that if you allow a day or two just to get lost, the dividends are amazing. When they ask you if you saw poet’s corner, you can say, ‘No, but I walked around the Catholic Church in central London used by the KGB as a dead-letter box during the Cold War and wrote the opening chapter to my first spy thriller.’ When they ask if you stood in front of Big Ben and took a picture of yourself smiling, which is something no one in London ever seems to do, you can say, ‘Yeah, but I found walking around a recreated 17th Century Huguenot house, with a narrative that ascends with you through five floors, way more enthralling.’ Again, it doesn’t have to be The Brompton Oratory or The Denis Severs House, but find some corner of this city that few others have bothered with and find some memory to cherish and take back with you. You’re traveling over a thousand miles, some of you for the first time, perhaps some for the last. Make sure you do something that will stay with you, not something you could have done if you stayed at home.
A couple good places to look for the unusual and out of the way in London are:
Enjoy your stay.