Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Tour guide vs. Tourist: The ultimate face-off

“You’re too loud!” A man’s nylon-enshrouded arm waved for my attention, for everyone’s attention. He looked miserable.

He sat among rows of over-prepared tourists, all wearing shoes so sensible they had no place in London. Some were shod with hiking boots. Others with bulbous white trainers, the sort resembling miniature cruise liners on each foot, which is, I suspect, their natural environment. But we were on an open-top tour bus in the centre of London, not the Alps or a 14-day cruise to the Bahamas, though a few wore the T-shirts.

Somehow in a sea of immigration and unparalleled diversity, amid faces and accents of all hues and tones, these tourists still managed to concoct a look that said: We don’t belong here.

Looking back at the still-waving man, I paused, microphone in hand, to assess the situation. He locked bespectacled eyes with mine and crumpled his face like he had a migraine that was entirely my doing. This one’s a problem, I thought – my first delinquent passenger as a new London tour guide.

Perhaps I could have ignored him, had I tried harder. But when I continued to speak, he looked at me like my voice was a busted sewer pipe; like my tour was a test-run for a new method of psychological torture; or, like I was his estranged wife who’d just informed him I’d not only be taking the dog, but the house on the lake as well.

As a tour guide in London during high season, it helps to have a thick skin. Since I don’t have one, I cope in other ways. I see my job as a sit-com, and I’m the main character. The concept offers the false sense of security I need, that everything will work out by the end and I will glean some useful lesson from each episode no matter how cringe-worthy. Each antagonist is carefully chosen for comic value. In this episode, I’d apparently acquired a failing marriage.

Following their father’s lead, the children, swathed in beige safari gear, covered their ears with their hands. Their bony arms akimbo made for pointy elbows in the faces of nearby passengers. The boy moaned and rocked a little. If my voice inflicted as much pain on him as it seemed, I hope the poor child never gets a paper cut. He’d have to be euthanized.

“Maybe you could take it easy and stop talking for a while,” the condescending husband character suggested, gesturing at our suffering offspring, as though it was a perfectly reasonable thing to ask. “You’re talking a lot.”

But I’m a tour guide. Sixty-five passengers, including this man, paid me to talk for two hours straight, from Westminster Abbey to Tower Bridge, and now his issues wanted me to stop. “There’s a public bus that follows the same route and costs ten times less,” I thought, but didn’t say. “And isn’t the commentary the entire point of a sightseeing tour?” I didn’t say either.

Instead, I covered my microphone with my hand and managed a much more discreet, “I’m sorry sir, but these people are expecting me to tell them about London.” I gestured at the other passengers who were polite enough to busy themselves with a statue of a horse. Incensed, he stood, rolled his eyes and took a different seat. My seat. The one reserved for the tour guide.  He was now close enough to make me fear the episode might receive an R-rating, if not for intimate touching, then for the rage I might unleash if he continued to play his role so convincingly.

While leading a tour I usually stand, so I didn’t actually need my seat, but I did wonder why he wanted to be closer to the apparent source of his misery. The answer became immediately clear – now I could hear him, too.

In close proximity, he met my every historical fact with a cluck, every anecdote with a huff. The children writhed in pantomime pain just a few seats ahead. Exacting their powers of peripheral observation, they regularly checked for their father’s approval and got the exact opposite from me. Objectively, I must say the scene was impressive. The children’s belts were cinched so tightly and the chinstraps of their sun hats so taut, that their relative range of motion showed real dedication to the cause. If practice makes perfect, I see a future in Japanese bondage for these two.

Hyde Park, Queen Victoria, Marble Arch, I rambled on in the face of adversity. But my mutinous sit-com family was contending for a Golden Globe. My passengers, the live studio audience, were now fixated on this subplot rather than London. A few kindly shot me glances of solidarity. Everyone else shot me looks saying, “I’m so very glad I’m not you.” My studio husband just wanted me shot. I couldn’t wait to be rid of this man and his two snivelling protégés.

With no amicable end to the arrangement in sight, as the bus pulled over to collect more passengers, I had no choice but to start the proceedings. “This is your stop,” I said directly to the man, and I meant it more than I’d ever meant it before. In retaliation he unleashed an expression of unbridled disgust to match my squinty face of disapproval. Following a brief, but intense stare-off, the father finally resolved to add me to his list of failed relationships. He cast a look so final and so clear, I knew exactly what he was saying. “Fine,” said the look. “You can have the dog and the goddamned house. But I’m taking the kids.”

Directing audience attention away as he arranged his things and prepared to leave me – children, backpacks, snack packs, water bottles, camera, map and suntan lotion – I pointed out the Bob Forstner car showroom, because no one can resist a Lamborghini. It was the perfect location for a scene change.

When the bus pulled away from the stop, I looked down at the sidewalk and watched the disgruntled, neurotic triumvirate shrink into the distance, becoming nary more than a tiny beige smudge in a crowd of otherwise pleasant tourists. In this moment I realized I might never see the family again. And with that came relief.

I never wanted those kids anyway.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Wild England

I’ll admit I was expecting some trees. Camping would be the perfect break from the cacophony of London, I needed – respite from the queues, the cost and the constant threat of pickpockets and train delays.

For the peace of the countryside, I was willing to incur a few itchy welts and fall slack with my hygiene. From my tent in the shadow of the trees, I would mistake the sound of the wind for traffic, and the buzz of mosquitoes for shit electronica reverberating through from the neighbour's flat. But then I would awake to my refreshing new reality in the countryside. And I would take a long, deep breath of clean country air and smile contentedly – completely relaxed and rejuvenated. There would be little to do, other than play cards in the dancing orange light around the campfire, and perhaps cool our beer in the frigid North Atlantic sand.

I had no idea what I was in for, but driving through a military weapons test site on the way to the campground was the first sign I wasn’t going to get the peace I’d been expecting.

Camping in England is as dissimilar to camping in Canada as our respective versions of football. The only wild creatures at our campsite in Durdle Door, near Poole, were feral children and mothers who ran madly among the tents scream-crying, “Where’s my baby!?”. Fortunately, every tent was within earshot of all others, so their children were usually located fairly quickly, which meant the fathers could stop cursing and the mothers would stop hyperventilating and they could get back to bickering about whose responsibility it is to watch the kids. Teenagers roamed in small packs, hunting stray beer and tentatively stalking each other’s elusive virginities.

Rows and rows of beige and tan rectangles lined the paved, speed-bumped streets of the campground, surrounding the small field designated for tents. To get there, we walked a gauntlet of beady eyes, peering out through white lace curtains, belonging to old ladies, Shih-Tzus and toy terriers. All capable of terrible yapping should anyone stumble onto their perfectly manicured territory, too near the potted mums, pansies and plastic ornaments. In England, this is a campground. In Canada, we call the phenomenon a trailer park. Nowhere else would you see so many white shoes outside a retirement home.

Our tent overlooked two trailers, a few parked cars and a beautiful valley dotted with grazing sheep. There would be no campfire, I realized, but not because we risked inadvertently starting a forest fire – there were no trees in sight – but because we couldn’t risk ruining the grass. We didn’t need a flashlight, because even on cloudy nights, the streetlamp next to our pitch provided all the light we needed.

There was no wilderness, but nature made itself known. It rained from all directions. The wind blew in with gusto, sucking out our slack tent walls and snapping them back with twice the enthusiasm. Camping in Canada, I thought, trees would provide some shelter from the weather. Camping in England, I could just walk to the campsite pub, next to the shop if I wanted shelter. Not only did the pub offer cold pints and a quiz machine, but full English breakfast and steamy lattes in the mornings.

When I realized waiting out the storm in a pub was an option, I also realized the campsite was more populated than my Canadian hometown. My parents still live there, where there are so few people, a general store is barely viable. They drive fifteen minutes to the nearest town to find a meat selection like the one at this campsite. Where I’m from, most of the meat is still running wild in the forest.

I really thought that in heading to the English coast for camping, I’d be getting away from it all. Relatively I was. London offers everything you could ever want, and everything you definitely don’t – Buckingham Palace and council estates, multiculturalism in the streets and people under trains, orderly queues and regular stabbings. Fame and misfortune. London has it all.

At Durdle Door, our campsite, things were simple. Only lattes, cold cans of beer, salty ocean water, and beautiful coastline could be found, all within a two-minute saunter. Even the sun made an appearance eventually, and long enough to sear my pale, deprived pins. It didn’t matter that camping in England wasn’t like camping in Canada. Nothing in England is like Canada. That’s the point of travelling. I reminded myself of this as I passed a yard sale on my way to the pub.

Still, I longed for the smell of wood smoke to permeate my belongings, for sparks to char and scar my hooded sweatshirt and for pinesap to ruin the seat of my jeans. I wanted to worry about real animals – bears, coyotes, skunks and raccoons – rather than suburban foxes stealing our Mediterranean olive assortment and feral teenagers stealing our beer.

But instead of worrying away the days of our trailer park residency, I sipped my coveted latte and took a really good look at my welt-free self. Breathing deeply, I let the aura of freshly mown grass and sun-warmed pavement fill me with the sense of summer, and I accepted the beautiful absurdity of camping in England. Because with all the authenticity it seemed to lack, it also lacked mosquitoes.

As the sun sets over the trailers, here I am making delicious kebabs to cook on the bucket barbecue. The entire camping experience was made possible by friends who organized basically everything, and the entire reason we had a nice time. They also took this picture.