It’s that time of year again. School’s out for summer; holiday, celebrate (depending on your choice of singer). As is standard for July to September, London (and pretty much ever other city in the world with history, nice architecture and a live-in population) is swamped with people who have come to see the museums, the buildings and the relatives and friends that live there.
Apart from an abundance of visitors in summer, another thing these cities have in common are reputations for having grouchy residents. New York, London, Chicago, Rome – I’ve been told by various people at various times of the stereotypical rudeness of their populace. Visiting Paris earlier this year, one of the first things a native Parisian asked us was whether anyone had been rude to us yet (nope). Apparently, city folk don’t like to chat. We’re always in a rush. We keep ourselves to ourselves. We’ll mug you soon as look at you, or keep walking if we witness a mugging. We don’t know our neighbours. We laugh at the hicks from the country. Right? Wrong, obviously, or I wouldn’t written that list out in what was clearly a heavily patronising and sarcastic tone.
Of course, in a group made up of many millions of people, there will be some arseholes. But the majority of folk really don’t have Angry Dick as their default setting, and living in a city doesn’t change that. Occasionally, though, instances of Commuter Rage take place, and they happen more often in summer and towards tourists.
I’m ashamed to say that I had one such incident just last week. I pushed past a group of people blocking the path to the train platform and overheard one of them ask, rhetorically I’m sure, why Londoners are always in such a rush. “Because we’re trying to get to work,” I snapped, and kept walking. And immediately felt like a total bitch. I am normally the type to give directions (I’ve actually walked people to their destinations before) and help with luggage. This was one moment on a bad morning when the placement of the tourists, the timing of the trains and the sheer stress of getting to work combined to flashpoint. And of such moments are grouchy city folk reputations made.
Anyway, I was reminded of the time a friend came to visit London and asked for survival tips for navigating transport and streets. Oh, what a question! An endless list of tips was given – but mostly they all boiled down to ‘be aware of your surroundings and use your common sense’. Still, I’m going to attempt a more in-depth rewrite here in hopes of providing genuinely useful advice and also trying to excuse (in advance) any lack of manners tourists might experience.
A visitors’ guide to surviving London (and other cities)
1. Be aware of the space around you. When I did a quick poll of ‘What advice would you give to a tourist?’ amongst friends, most of them replied with variations on Don’t Block the Way. It’s human nature, when faced with a confusing choice of directions or an overwhelming environment, to stand still and take stock of the situation – and understandably many tourists do just that when faced with a new transport system or a crazy map of streets. They stop where they are, pull out the map, read the signs. Fair enough. BUT a lot of people do that in the Bad Places: at the bottom/top of the stairs or escalator, or in the middle of the only path to a train platform, or when they’ve just stepped through the train doors (getting on or off).
The key to survival is to just take a few extra steps. Honestly. Look around you and take those two extra steps to move out of the flow of traffic. Move further into the carriage and then look at the signs. Stand against the wall rather than in the middle of the path. Move to the side at the bottom of the steps. It’s not much but it makes all the difference to the other 1,000 people moving through the same area. Similarly, on footpaths, if you’re strolling slowly and taking in the sights, try not to walk in a row blocking the pavement – leave space for people in a rush to get past. Normally when city people are pushing past you, we’re not trying to be asseholes. We’re just running late for work or trying to catch a train. Tourists and workerbees can share the same space and still do their own thing.
2. Try and avoid rush hour. I know this isn’t always possible – but if you can hold off travelling on the underground for a couple of hours to avoid travelling between 8am and 9am, then do. Ditto, 5pm and 6pm. I once heard a person snap “Just give me a fucking minute to figure out where we’re going,” when politely asked to move out of the way by a station worker. Two points: A) Don’t snap at the staff, they work really hard in a fairly thankless task, and B) Here are some fun stats: 82.96 million people passed through Victoria station (my commuting station) in 2012. In 2011, on average 28,500 people were passing through it between 8am and 9am – and the number grows each year. When there are that many people travelling through an already outdated and struggling transport system in that short space of time, 30 seconds of someone blocking the stairs to check a map can create a massive pile-up of people very, very easily, and once that happens it can take a couple of hours to clear. It’s not a small thing. You really have to be aware of the movement of the people around you as well as yourself.
3. Ask for help with suitcases, pushchairs and wayward family members. Probably reading the above has had a few people going ‘Well, that’s all well and good when it’s just you, but what about suitcases and small children?’ Most people are fairly tolerant of the kids and suitcases actually. And even though no one but my nephew is under the age of 29 in my family, it’s still like herding cats to just walk 200m down the street so I’m not entirely without experience of the frustration and difficulties. It can be difficult – but not too difficult. In stations and around steps, people will help with suitcases and pushchairs. Or they should. If no one offers, shout out and ask (and I apologise for the particularly rude cross-section of society you were stuck with that day. Sometimes people are shamefully useless). Of all those people passing by, someone will likely help, if not out of the goodness of their heart then to keep the traffic moving. Also – when on the underground transport – don’t be afraid to ask people to move so your children can sit down. One thing people ARE crap at in London is offering their seats to people who need them, but we can be shamed into giving them up. In return, please make sure your suitcases and pushchairs aren’t blocking the door.
4. Pay attention to the etiquette. Just because you’re in the same country or speak the language, don’t assume the rules are the same. With the exception of mob rule and mass hallucinations, if the entire crowd is all doing the same thing, you can assume there’s a good reason for that. So look around. Is everyone standing still on the escalator staying to the right? Then do the same, so that people walking on them can get past on the left. Ditto the stairs, where the rules are less rigid – but if everyone is walking down them on the left, try and stick to the left. If you don’t, you will inevitably get run over by the large crowd of people that are about to round that corner up ahead and charge up them on the right-hand side, where you’re now in the way. When waiting to get on a train, that gap in the crowd in front of the doors isn’t there so that you can push through and get on first – it’s to let people on the carriage get off first. There’s generally plenty of time to let them out and still get on the train yourself without rushing or pushing madly. With large crowds, having everyone notice and stick to these things really, really helps keep things moving. Incidentally, if the entire crowd around an entrance or exit is not moving, don’t get arsey and start shoving. The likelihood is that there’s nowhere for the people in front of you to go.
5. Don’t assume we’re all hostile. City people are not an alien species, however Richard Curtis’ films make it seem. The majority of people you are passing on the street in London didn’t grow up in the city. A lot of us moved from far smaller, more countrified areas, and we are aware of how overwhelming the underground, the streets and the train stations are, and we are sympathetic.
We’ve been there. Certain stations (hello, Earls Court) are still confusing to us. City life hasn’t cast a magic spell of antisocial dickery on any of us. We do chat and we generally are able to help if you’re stuck. Really. Maybe not everyone, but mostly, if you strike up a conversation, people will join in. If you’re puzzling over a map, people will offer to give you directions (happened to me on the bus when I first moved here). One woman got on the wrong train, and ended up with eight people looking up alternate routes for her and one bloke interrupting his own journey to rush her and her bags to the right platform at Battersea station and make sure she made it home. Yesterday five complete strangers on my train (ranging from an 80-year-old man in soldier’s dress uniform to a young lady from the Netherlands struggling with two suitcases) had an in-depth conversation about holidaying in Cornwall. And that’s not unusual.
6. The city isn’t closed for the holidays. This is kind of an important one. You might be on holiday, but unfortunately many of the people around you probably aren’t (especially in the major stations at 8-9am). And we do silly commutes from quite far out because none of us can afford to actually live centrally, and that probably makes us the worst for Commuter Rage – because if a tourist blocks the path and we miss the train, an extra half hour was just added to an already long journey home. We are also very jealous of the fact that you’re on holiday in the 30-degree heat, while we’re about to go from an overheated train to an air conditioner-less office. We’re still trying to get our jobs and personal dramas and lives done – and while we hope you have a nice holiday, we’d really like it if you could try not to let your time off make our time on harder than it needs to be. Which links back to everything above, basically, but mostly I just hope, dear readers, that if you bear this point in mind you’ll be more forgiving about the rushing and complaining and scowling faces of the locals in the morning.
7. Some people really are just arseholes. If you’ve attempted all of the above and someone is still an unreasonable dick to you, please just assume they’re a special snowflake with a problem. Don’t assume that the other million squillion people in roughly the same area are like that. Most of us love this city and the corners of it that we frequent. We’re proud of it and the people who live here, and we want visitors to love it too. So please come back and see us again soon.
Useful sites for London specifically
Transport for London – for journey planning
National Rail– for outer-London journey planning
Is it quicker to walk? – a map to avoid pointlessly using the above two maps
Great Little Place – the good eateries
Everything London – a twitter account with good tips and info about what’s on