It’s common knowledge the British are plodding and apathetic. Their food is tedious, their weather grey, their culture insipid. Dull-eyed smokers cluster on street corners and commuters trudge from tube to office, their faces stamped with lassitude. In November a bitter wind whips around London and heavy mist curls in from the Thames. It’s an uninviting landscape. I’m here for work, ready to ward off pelting rain and curmudgeons. But I’m surprised when London doesn’t live up to its reputation.
Sure, the city is damp and overcast, the public transport over crowded. But if you take a moment to notice the people, you realize they’re actually nice. Everyone smiles at you, is ready to offer directions or recommendations. Is willing to give up their seat. An eighty-year-old man compliments my woolen hat, a sparkle of life in his wrinkled face. He blows kisses to his perfectly poised wife in the opposite seat. They are like high school sweet hearts.
Every cab driver greets you with “hello luv”, store clerks hand you change with a cheery “have a nice one”. I can still hear the lovely lilt of the English accent in my head. Maybe I see London differently because it almost feels like home. The color and texture of the British pound, the myriad candies and our common love for Will and Harry. The chatter and noise of London seems more relaxed than New York.
The cherry-red cabs and the fanciful facades of buildings lend it a whimsical air. A slight touch of unreality. The same way the Sydney Harbor Bridge juts unfeasibly from the bay.
Then you talk to the locals and they tell you to stay away from the blacks (they’re not joking), cab receipts warn you about rape and kidnapping, about nefarious men in alleyways and unmarked cars. Zebra crossings shout LOOK LEFT in neon yellow paint – as if every pedestrian is in danger of being run down by blind motorists. Maybe all the caution and safety measures allow Londoners the freedom to be nicer, or maybe that’s just politeness, an automatic reaction. Maybe they’re no different from their American counterparts – self absorbed and determined. But I’m a tourist in London and I don’t have time to dig that deep. So, I’ll delight in the polite exterior and the pleasantries and leave them a tip while I’m doing it.