“Stand on the right.”
DURING one of the many excruciatingly painful Ryanair flights that I have to endure if I wish to visit my home, Slovakia, I picked up the ‘In Air’ magazine and came across an amusingly interesting article stating that the inhabitants of each of the world’s big cities’ suffer from some kind of phobia. According to the article, Londoners suffer from chronophobia – a fear of time. Rushing is part of a Londoner’s daily routine, so much so that people are worried about losing a single minute on such a scale that they are applying various rules to avoid wasting of their precious time. For example, the city’s government is planning to divide up the pavement on Oxford Street into two parts – for slow walkers and fast walkers. The familiar signs “Stand on the right” next to the escalators on the underground only reinforce the time awareness of the residents. Thanks to this straightforward rule you can easily recognize who are the real Londoners and who are the ‘ausländers’ as the Berliners call them; the tourists. A few seconds of standing on the wrong side of an escalator is enough to provoke a fretful coughing or “excuse me” right behind your back. This made me realise how much my point of view on life in London has changed from the time I first arrived. I used to be the one standing on the wrong side. Now I am the one who impatiently coughs behind people’s backs.
“Been there, done that.”
When I first visited London in 2000, I was thirteen years old full of excitement and expectations. I was fascinated by London´s environment, by its scent, its colours, its sounds. Everything was extraordinarily strange and I stared at everyone who was different from what I had encountered before. Travelling by the tube was kind of a ritual and I just could not understand why every Londoner is so fed up with the public transport. In my eyes, the journey was a great opportunity to sit down and enjoy gazing at the mesmerizing faces and unusual daring outfits. I loved the idea of walking around, taking photos and visiting all the famous attractions and sights. Taking pictures in front of Big Ben, the flashy advertisements in Piccadilly Circus and the performing artists in South Bank was a must. The thought of coming back home being unable to show my friends that I have been there, I have seen it and I have done that was terrifying. Long, tiring sessions of souvenir shopping were part of the daily schedule in London as all family members and close friends expected to receive one. Who cared if they were all tacky and kitschy, they were from London!
My first London experience was purely touristic. I did not learn much about the real culture or daily habits. Nevertheless, I left London with a content feeling that I have fulfilled the duties of a tourist. Looking back now I see things differently. I am the one who is annoyed with the big groups of tourists mooching around the city. Here, in London, I am not the tourist anymore; I am the one standing on the opposite side of the river.
My own experience could be compared to ‘environmental bubble’ tourism, as called by Boorstin, who believes that the tourists are at the centre of a limited world. As a result of the tourist’s decision to let a guide or an agency organise everything throughout their trip or holiday, the tourist is restricted to the agency’s selection and he/she loses the possibility of contact with the real indigenous culture. I would compare my first experience of London to the trips of young people visiting the cities in Eastern Europe. As I saw groups of young men wondering around the streets of Prague or Bratislava I realised that they probably have no knowledge of the real local culture yet they appeared to be content with the experience and limited variety provided by a travel guide. As a result they usually end up exploring the most commercial places, especially the bars and clubs and the local culture remains undiscovered. In my opinion, these tourist traps organized by travel agencies neglect the real culture of a destination, often the tourist industries capitalise on famous or recognized landmarks and instead of a genuine cultural experience, tourists are wisped around a variety of candy-coated Disneyland attractions with little or no truth to the actual place that they are visiting.
After sitting behind my desk reading through Dean MacCannell’s book, The Tourist, A new theory of the leisure class, and John Urry’s concept of The tourist gaze I realise that I can truly identify with their concepts and perspective on tourism and tourists as such, however, I am not sure which side to take. I really feel I am able to look at the tourists practice from a point of view of an observer yet I experienced being a tourist in the past. Although, I agree with the notion that touristic experience can be very inauthentic and that the tourism industry based on the sightseeing is superficial I must admit that there are some aspects about tourists’s perspective that are positive and unique.
It has been exactly 4 years and 6 months since I moved to London to study and freshen up my life. It has been long enough to get to know the city, to find out how it is structured and settle down. It also has been long enough to become a true Londoner in the sense of rather living here the monotonous everyday life than enjoying the city’s atmosphere and being excited about the opportunities it has to offer. In my opinion, after certain amount of time living in a city we stop appreciating all the things that are visible to the eyes of the tourist. We start ignoring the majestic architecture, the distinctive ambience, the fascinating mixture of cultures. And tourists are able to see and appreciate such things. For us they are invisible as we have encountered them many times before and they have become an unexciting part of our everyday life.
When I was showing my friends around London after writing this essay I was trying to look at the city from the same excited viewpoint that I had 11 years ago; the perspective of someone who is able to see the exceptionality of the place, to be grateful for the sensation of the fulfilled desire. And I realised that although I had to walk a long way to be in symbiosis with this city, sometimes I should stop and remind myself that when I was a tourist I was able to see what I am unable to notice now.
Even though it is interesting to look at the touristic practice and the tourism industry from a critical angle, it is crucial to realise that there are many positive aspects about being a tourist. If we try saying away from the “environmental bubble” tourism or the mass trips organized by travel agencies that capitalise on our longing to find the authentic, we might be able to catch a glimpse of the real culture. We might stop avoiding the tourists’ attractions and realise that the sights actually have cultural value that is worth appreciating. And we also might be able to be more tolerant to those standing on the wrong side of the escalators.
MACCANNELL, Dean, (1999, 1976) The Tourist, A new theory of the leisure class, Berkeley: California UP
URRY, J (1990) The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies, London: Sage