Monday, April 4, 2011


My travels the other week got me thinking about tourism (just a little, I was on vacation).  Living in NYC, you see a lot of tourists.  When I first moved to NYC, I took on the stereotypical (and I think, to a certain extent, outdated and untrue) exasperated attitude with tourists, in terms of getting impatient when they were walking too slowly on the sidewalk and...actually that's the main thing, not moving fast enough.  Don't worry though, I was always friendly if someone asked for help.

 Improv Everywhere used spray chalk last year on NYC sidewalks to delineate different lanes for tourists and NYC-ers

But after a while, I realized that even though tourists walk too slowly because they are looking at the sights (as they should), I really like tourists. I love that people want to come from all over the world to visit the city I live in.  And it's not just the tourist revenue that I appreciate--it reminds me that I am privileged to live somewhere that people find worthy to visit, to plunk their money down for travel, hotel, etc. to enjoy.  It makes me realize how great this city is, and I'm happy that other people want a piece of it.  

Nowadays, I'll happily answer tourists' questions and probably give them more detail about how to turn a corner than they would like.  I also walk up to confused-looking tourists to ask them if they need help (only if they look really, really confused--people eventually figure things out).  I know other NYC-ers do this also, so actually I'm not sure the whole "stereotypical" NYC haughty attitude really applies that much.

Once, on a packed subway train, a couple visiting from elsewhere asked me about directions.  I told them, and after thanking me, the guy said "You must be tired of people asking you all the time about how to get somewhere."  I responded no, that I would do the same exact thing if I were to visit his city (as long as he didn't live in hell, I wouldn't visit hell for kicks). 

However, despite my more open-minded attitude about tourists, when I was in London last week, I found myself preoccupied with not seeming like a tourist. I walked fast. I carried my camera in my bag and only whipped it out when using it. I wore decent-looking boots, even though I schlep around at home in my comfy Ecco walking shoes. I tried to memorize maps before heading out so that I wouldn't have to stand in the middle of a sidewalk, studiously examining a map.

Why was I doing this? Why is it a bad thing to be a "tourist"? Because I'm concerned with looking like I know what I'm doing?  Why is it a bad thing to not know what I'm doing?

Well, even if I wanted to try and seem like I knew what I was doing, obviously my plan of trying to memorize every street in London before I headed out from the hotel didn't work. I needed to look at a map a lot. A lot a lot. London isn't on any nice grid system.  Streets just randomly stop and others go every which way.

I needed to pull obvious U-turns in the middle of a sidewalk when I realized I was going the wrong way, I needed to snap away with my camera in little gardens where people were trying to have some peace and quiet, I needed to take pictures of my food before I ate it, all that good stuff.

And as time went on, I became less self-conscious.  As in, it's okay for me to just pull over to the edge of the sidewalk and look at a map, because dude, I don't know where I am.  And yes, I'm going to take an annoying amount of pictures because I'd rather remember this than be self-conscious about brandishing my camera left and right.

Now, there are certain things as a tourist that I tried to be aware of.  Like if I did need to stop and take a picture, I pulled off to the side to make sure I got out of anyone's path.  If I was walking with Kevin, we wouldn't walk side by side the whole time so as not to block the path of the many people who were walking faster (apparently I'm terribly preoccupied with the walking thing).

Lucky for me, the Londoners I encountered seemed to embrace a more open attitude towards tourists, and they were all lovely and nice. Except for one person.  A server at a restaurant who made it pretty clear that she was annoyed that we were the last reservation and that she wanted to leave.  I complained about her to the manager, which was my right and I'm glad I did it, but I'm not glad about the bonehead move I made in which I didn't leave ANY TIP at all (by accident--my tourist brain didn't understand the system and I would have left a little tip but totally screwed the servers that night in my confusion.  I still feel a knot in my stomach from this--you know, because they were going to send their kids to college on my $10 tip).

As for walking slowly, the impetus of the Improv Everywhere prank, why not? As long as we make an effort not to block those that are walking more quickly, what's wrong with meandering? I'm on vacation, dude, I don't need to be anywhere.

So how do you feel about tourists and/or about being a tourist?


  1. your boots are better than decent-looking!

  2. that server should have lost her job.

    and, I hate tourists. unless they're trapped in an elevator with me and I can cheerfully pepper them with questions about their hometown and travel plans to get them thoroughly creeped out that I'm going to start stalking them. you are a much better person than I.

  3. I don't mind tourists if they're mindful of where they stop. Too many times I'll be walking downtown and someone will literally just stop in the middle of a crowded sidewalk to look up at a building.

    I don't mind helping people with directions at all, to me, it's the decent thing to do, though I know a lot of people will be downright rude if they have to be *bothered* with a tourist.

    Cameras and maps don't bother me one bit, again as long as the person doesn't cause a herd of people to run into each other by suddenly stopping.

    And I think the only time I get SUPER annoyed is when someone that doesn't know the city decides to drive everywhere...I don't know if you've ever driven in downtown Chicago, and New York from what I hear is downright brutal as well, but it can be the most frustrating infuriating thing trying to get somewhere and ending up behind someone that has no idea where they're trying to go!

  4. I try to be helpful to tourists who are very clearly lost - although I must say the walking thing annoys me. I'm going to try to be better at it (it = not being annoyed), I really am!

  5. Great post---I am pretty embarrassed about being a tourist too, and I think that probably happens to a lot of people that live in "touristy" towns to begin with. Funny enough though, I've found that most big touristy cities I've gone to, everyone has been super helpful. I wouldn't dare ask for directions or help but people notice if you look lost and offer up help---everywhere I've been, even where you've been warned that people are "not nice" like in NYC, Paris, etc. I've never experienced a big city that was "filled" with rude people.

    That being said, I don't mind offering people help, but I do get REALLY REALLY annoyed when I'm clearly running/working out and someone pulls over and asks me for directions. I think it should be a given that if someone is working out, you shouldn't bother them with directions. I think it's so rude, and it seems to happen a lot around here.

  6. Tourists don't really bother me, but I'm always pretty conscious of trying not to look like a tourist when I'm in other places!

  7. I always try not to look like a tourist. But as someone that lived in London for a year a few top giveaways are people who block escalators standing side by side and sweatshirts. Sweatshirts scream American. I once asked a friend who went to Oxford if they had an Oxford sweatshirt. They gave me an Oxford sweater.

    London is notoriously confusing and large. Any Londoner worth their salt relies heavily on their A to Zed, a handy little book that can fit in your pocket, with maps of every part of the city. I highly recommend one if you head back there.

  8. I am just like you, it doesn't matter if I've never been to the city before, I pretend like I've lived there for years. I'll even walk in the wrong direction for a while to avoid having to do a u-turn and look like a tourist. What is wrong with me?? However, as you said, when I lived in Boston I was always really willing to help people that were lost, and actually always thought "why can't I ask for directions"? But, I still can't. So I miss out on taking great pictures, and walk in the wrong direction for far too long to avoid looking like a tourist.

  9. I live in a tourist town and honestly sometimes I just want to hit them with my car!! Horrible huh but when I am driving to work on a sunny summer day and they are driving in the middle of the road with their whole family it really gets to me. On other days though I do not even notice them. I think it might be a little different for me though because I live in what I think is more commonly called a seasonal town (also it is a peninsula) so as a year rounder it feels like you are under attack.

    Also do not feel bad about the tip, my husband is Swedish and they do not tip so as a waitress in London she is probably use to tons of Europeans not tipping.

  10. Yup, I hate looking like a tourist too! I think part of that actually comes from living in London during high school and being constantly mistaken for one because of the obviously American accent. I just wanted to scream I BELONG HERE TOO. But you're right, what's wrong with being a tourist? I'd hate to miss a pretty sight because I was too busy looking down pretending to walk quickly to my fake destination :)

  11. I LOVE helping tourists and think it's actually fun especially if I can use a different language. I love that they want to visit NYC. That being said, the walking is very hard. I know that many people don't live in places where you primarily depend on your two feet and public transportation to get around. When tourists stop midpoint and stand in the middle of the sidewalk or walk four bodies across, I don't think they think about what that would be like if they did it in a car. Stopping your car without warning in the middle of the street or not allowing another car to pass is frowned upon. The streets/sidewalks are our freeways here. It's just about being aware, and I think most tourists are not conscious of that. I try to be when I am somewhere else.

    As for not looking like a tourist, depending on the country I stand out. Actually I stand out a lot of places. :) I even stand out to some degree in my native country. People can tell by my clothes and shoes (just as I can here).

  12. I have ADD and walk like my left foot is shorter than my right. I'm destined to be run over in NYC, I'm glad there's nice people like you to give directions! I'm holding you to it. ;)

  13. I'm just like you on going overboard on the don't-want-to-look-like-a-tourist front. So much so, that I usually end up being asked for directions in whatever strange city I'm visiting! (Part of it is that I have a very purposeful walk ... strangers just don't know that I have no idea where I'm walking TO and could quite easily be walking purposefully in the entirely wrong direction.)