Photo: William Perugini/Shutterstock

Blending in With the Tourists in London

London Narrative
by Josh Heller May 17, 2012
Josh Heller ponders tourism, art, death, and globalization while riding bikes in London.

AFTER MY GIRLFRIEND LEFT LONDON, I stayed on Rowan’s couch for a week. He was the first person that I’d met at my transglobal internet television job. We bonded at 12am PST / 9am BST over our mutual interest in Art, Spanish, and The Sugar Hill Gang.

He’d regularly send me inexplicable pictures of lions, links to mixtapes, and info about art openings in Culver City. We were good friends online. We’d only really hung out in real life for 45 minutes the last time I was in London; now he was handing me the keys to his house, and the keys to his beloved blue bicycle.

Grandparents and customs officials cannot grasp the nature of friendship in the 21st century; if you trust somebody on gchat, why wouldn’t you trust them with your bike?

Well, I guess, there’s a good reason not to trust them with your bike: they’re from America and are completely uncoordinated at riding on the UK side of the road. I almost crashed into oncoming traffic five times within a two-block radius of the apartment. Making my first right turn was so confusing that I just jumped off of the bike and crossed at the crosswalk.

I practiced biking around London Fields and eventually got the hang of it, so I spent the next few days skirting the £1.40 for the bus and left my Royal Wedding Commemorative Oyster Card in my backpack.

I asked the mime if he’d watch my bike. He didn’t respond, but I knew it would be safe with him.

I rode my bicycle behind the “Classic 38” bus, and then locked it next to a street performer in Leicester Square. I asked the mime if he’d watch my bike. He didn’t respond, but I knew it would be safe with him. I’d go on foot to blend in with other London tourists.

In front of a backpacker trap, I watched Mexican mochileros getting enthused by reading a menu in Spanish. I saw Norwegian travelers transfixed by a hip hop CD salesman’s pitch. I studied American vacationers taking photographs of allegedly historical sites with antiquated cameras, while Japanese tourists took pictures with devices that I’d never ever seen before.

I heard an Italian girl getting yelled at by her mother while she was eating a McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich. I noticed a woman wearing a hijab posing for photos in front of demonstrators who’d occupied a square beneath Westminster Abbey. These peace protesters were demanding that NATO “Free Iran.” I thought that having NATO force Iran to become free probably wouldn’t be a very peaceful process.

On the bridge, a man from Tehran sold Chinese-made “I [heart] London” t-shirts. I watched a Chinese tourist in a gold lamé jumpsuit drag her mother across the Westminster Bridge to take photos of her in front of the London Eye. I let a group of kids with cerebral palsy pass me in their wheelchairs. Their faces filled with smiles as they received their tickets to the aquarium.

Beneath the London Eye, a group of German secondary school students were wearing KoRn t-shirts, plastic bobby helmets, and felt court jester’s hats emblazoned with the Union Jack. They were upstaged by biracial French teenagers casually dressing like the world’s most stylish models. Germans (and the rest of the world) have to compete with the fashion sense of French teenagers. Though the French were certainly not as orderly as their German counterparts.

I sat down and wondered why I had become so obsessed with transcribing the multiculturalism of the cosmopolitan metropolis. Is it because my brain had been riddled with a short attention span by the never-ending triviality of the internet? Am I a perverted voyeur who can only derive pleasure from staring at other people? Am I too shy to talk to actual humans, that I must construct stories about them based solely on speculation?

Or maybe in documenting the moment, my writing is kind of like Balzac. But then I got distracted by a guy wearing a Santa Monica Polo Club sweatshirt.

I realized I was wasting time theorizing the depth of my own psyche; I needed to get to the Tate Modern by 3pm for the Hirst exhibit. So I found my bike, thanked the mime, and rode along the water to that power plant that turned into a contemporary art power house. The bike proved to be more efficient than I predicted.

I arrived at the museum an hour early. I walked around the permanent collection. Last summer inside of this gallery I’d argued with my sister about the merits of Mark Rothko. “It’s just a square, man,” she said.

Dying only happens once, and for most people getting really rich probably won’t happen at all.

“No way, this is a transcendental experience!” Even though I totally was paraphrasing what I’d read in the program, I couldn’t help but agree. Staring at the intricacies of the hues and textures of this huge canvas made me feel small. I was staring into a beauty that was larger than myself. The sort of thing that can connect any human being with one another (provided that they see more than just a big square.)

I waited for 30 minutes to see Damien Hirst’s £50 million diamond-encrusted skull. A dozen people at a time peered through lucite at the tiny diamonds glimmering in this dark room. I wondered how many highways / airports / water-treatment-plants a struggling nation could build with that skull.

I walked through the rest of the exhibit passing medicine cabinets, spin-art, beach balls, live butterflies, and dead animals. A father explained to his toddler why they were walking through a baby cow carcass. A child covered his mouth at the smell of a decomposing bovine head.

I guess it’s cool that he became rich off of the art world, but this isn’t really doing it for me. Conceptual art, the way that Damien Hirst does it, doesn’t really capture the everyday. It celebrates death and exorbitant wealth. Two things that most people don’t deal with on a daily basis.

Dying only happens once, and for most people getting really rich probably won’t happen at all. I guess I just prefer art that explores the mundane common experiences of everybody and in doing so can elevate everyday life.

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