[crea] They can’t really put their finger on it, but something is definitely different: American tourists just stick out. Why though? I look at myself in the mirror of the tiny flat I’ve been calling home, and I don’t think I look particularly “American” – it’s not as if I’m sporting an American flag T-shirt and NASCAR hat. I’m wearing normal, everyday clothes…which apparently scream U.S.A.(in that annoying sports chant, no less – U.S.A., U.S.A…ugh). But I just don’t see it. The Londoners sure do, though.
“There’s just a look,” Andrew, a bartender at a London pub, said. “I couldn’t tell you exactly what it is, but you can just look at them and know: they’re American.”
Well, great. That’s exactly what I want people to think when they see me. So much for the blending in and looking like a cool local idea. If it’s just the clothes thing, I can do that – it’s not like I schlep around in white trainers and jumpers. The problem is it seems to transcend mere outerwear. Why is it that in London an American tourist looks about as normal as Paris Hilton in a turtleneck? The language is the same (almost); the range of diversity is the same and, for God’s sake, America itself sprang from Mother England only a relatively short time ago. Yet, ask any Londoner, and they’ll most likely answer alike: an American tourist is easily spotted.
[one] “I can’t really pinpoint what it is,” Moira, a young, hip mother said as she pushed a stroller through London’s largest green space, Hyde Park. “I guess there’s just a look.”
But why do Americans stick out so badly, when no one can point out the exact differences? This is the question that I have set out to answer as I trawl the streets of England’s capital.
London is an ancient, sprawling city that sits nestled in the southern heart of England, along the Thames River. The London area is, in fact, two separate cities, Westminster and London, but the area is collectively known as London.
Besides being home to some of the most recognizable landmarks in the world – think Big Ben, Tower Bridge, Parliament -it is also a very green city, with variably-sized parks dotting the landscape. In other words, London is a tourist mecca.
Fewer than 7.5 million people actually call London home, but in the summer months – peak season for both tourists and mosquitoes – London is inundated with camera-packing visitors from every corner of the globe. According to the London Tourist Board, 2001 saw over 28 million people flock to the London area, spending over 8 billion pounds during their stay.
In fact, with 50 percent of all overseas visitors to the United Kingdom heading straight for the capital, tourism is the second largest industry in London, accounting for eight percent of the city’s gross domestic product, according to the London Tourist Board.
[two] That’s 28 million people spending over 100 million on the tube and bus system, accounting for 25 percent of all taxi fares and 30 percent of all theatre tickets, the LTB reported. For the London native, that’s also 28 million more people wandering the streets (camera in hand, of course), blocking the tube and crowding the queues.
Of those millions of tourists, the majority – over 20 percent – are from across the pond: the good old U.S. of A. Yee-haw!
Is it the sheer number of Americans crawling all over London that make them so distinguishable? As much as I think this could be the key to this mystery, no Londoners seem to agree with me. To them, it’s not the quantity of Americans, but the quality. There’s just something odd about Americans that Londoners can pick up on right away.
A few people, if pressed, can name one or two ways in which Americans are different. They seem to fall into one of two categories of distinction: dress and mannerisms.
“They’re loud,” Andrew said.
Well, yeah, everyone knows that.
Two Harrod’s workers, Ben and Daniel, added a bit more insight.
“They’re fat and happy,” Daniel said with a grin.
“And they’re strange; they’re kooky Americans,” Ben said.
Great. So far, American tourists are loud, fat, happy and strange. I know that’s always what I want people’s first impressions of me to be.
Luckily, I came across Linda, a London businesswoman, relaxing by the water in Hyde Park and offering a lot of insight into my tourist conundrum.
“They always look kind of bewildered,” she said. “Oh, the clothes! The clothes are different – shorts, trainers, baggier stuff.”
“And they seem to move in very slow packs,” she added, on a roll. “On the tube, they’re the worst!”
Perfect. It seems I’ve hit the American tourist jackpot with Ms. Linda. I have to admit it paints a pretty bleak picture of me and my fellow tourists. There were my grand delusions of fitting in and passing as a local, but no, my dreams have been shattered and lay in a pitiful mess at my oh-so American feet. I was hoping maybe we’d stick out because we’re all so wonderful with an amazing fashion sense. But who was I kidding? Have you seen us? I mean, we’re fat and loud, dress like slobs and move like a snail with a backache.
A trip down Oxford Street confirms everything I’ve just been told. In fact, passing by the window display for London department store, Selfridges & Co., sums it all up. It makes me stop dead in my tracks as I stare in wonder at the scene before of me.
Staring back are two mannequins, and, according to what I’ve learned so far, they’re two very American mannequins.
The man is overweight with a large beer belly and a hanging double chin. He’s wearing huge square glasses and his mouth is open slightly to give the impression he is very lost. Over his tan shorts and bright Hawaiian-print shirt dangles a camera. Beside him, the woman is also overweight with a teased bouffant hairstyle and matching pink lipstick and nail polish. She too is wearing shorts and a vibrant shirt, but is also sporting a visor and clutching a map as her slightly ajar lips mime the bewildered look of her partner.
[three] Clearly, these are meant to be American tourists. I’m surprised more Londoners don’t express aggrevation and a deeper dislike toward people such as the ones staring back at me. I’m an American and even I am getting annoyed at the antics of these clueless looking Yanks.
In my defense, however, I don’t think I look anything like this pair in the Selfridges window. I mean, it has to be an exaggeration, right? Turning my head to the left, I see Ms. Window Display’s twin waddling toward me. I shake my head in amazement, and let’s be honest, a bit of shame. So we really look this awful to the Londoners. It’s a sad realization. We Americans can’t all look this obvious, can we? This display, and its human counterpart, must be a gross generalization. Holding onto this tiny ray of hope, I hit the streets with a mission. I wonder if it’s so easy to tell when said American isn’t fat and horribly dressed? Well, I’m about to find out.
With my arsenal of newfound knowledge, I move up the street to try my hand at American tourist-spotting. Luckily, before I get too far, I meet two helpful Brits, Jules and Nick, who agree to give me a hand and show me how a professional tourist-spotter does it.
The challenge? I randomly select passersbys and both Jules and Nick deliver their verdict: American or British. Then I simply run the lucky participant down to find out which nation they call home. Right. Let the games begin.
Ten rounds later, I think I’ve got the hang of it. Both Jules and Nick were largely successful, scoring seven out of 10 and eight out of 10 correct guesses, respectively (although one poor bloke was pegged as an American and was none-too happy when he heard our results: “I look American?” he asked, astonished. “Well, damn!”).
Feeling fully British and now a pro at tourist-spotting, I think I’ll have a go.
The target has been identified, searching for telltale signs: eyes darting back and forth with mouth hanging open slightly (check), trainers (check), baggy shorts (check). Right. I approach the stranger, eager to see if I’ve sussed out a real American tourist.
“Sorry,” he answers, as my face falls, “I’m Canadian.”
My face lights back up; that’s close enough for me.
[four1] I guess I just have to face it – we look different. It’s not like I think it’s terrible to look like a tourist and maybe be a bit lost and take tons of pictures. Hell, I’ve taken about five rolls in the two weeks I’ve been here so far. Just lose the fanny pack and garish jogging suit – if you can’t wear it at home, you can’t wear it on vacation. But, in the end, it’s more than every loose-fitting T-shirt in the wardrobe. I have to hope, however, with hard work and lots of practice, I can start to look not-so American and more like an anonymous tourist, here to do some sightseeing and a fair bit of shopping, not a walking billboard flashing my nationality in red, white and blue neon.
But I’m resigned to say I’ll probably always stick out just a bit, at least to the Londoners. I can hide my camera and map and not, under any circumstances, wear shorts, but, according to all I’ve learned today, it still won’t help. It’s more than just clothes that differentiate us – it’s a whole lot more. I guess it hard to explain; I can’t quite put my finger on it.

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