British Tourists Bitch About New York: Shopping's 'Aggressive,' Skyscrapers Are 'Scary,' Our Behavior? Just Plain 'Rude'

What do tourists from abroad think of traveling here? Are they keen on American food? Are they comfy in our hotels? Do they think we're friendly?
04/01/2013 02:37pm ET | Updated June 1, 2013
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In my last blog, I raised a travel question that's been bugging me for years: What do tourists from abroad think of traveling here? Are they keen on American food? Are they comfy in our hotels? Do they think we're friendly? And, okay, time for the unvarnished truth: Are we Yanks really as loud as they say? And as out of shape?

To help get some answers, two Londoners on holiday in New York agreed to let me trail around with them during a long-weekend stay. Both in their fifties, Naomi Sutcliffe and her friend, Jayne Steele, devoured what they call a "big boy American breakfast," griped about tipping habits in the states, and were less than impressed by some of the more experimental paintings at The Museum of Modern Art. Here's the second part of their New York adventure.

* * *

Back outside the museum, Steele and Sutcliffe spot a little boutique on 53rd Street and duck inside. "Oh, no," says Steele seconds later. "There goes Naomi again on the jewelry." Sutcliffe is fingering a turquoise pendant that sells for $65, and when Steele says she likes it too, Sutcliffe lets out a sigh. "It is nice, isn't it?"

While she's deciding, Steele peers at the bottoms of some shapely milk-glass vases, and I ask her if, on this trip, she has met her shopping goals. "Well, I've bought shoes," she says. "Oh, and a couple of things in Saks."

Sutcliffe nixes the pendant. "But it's fairly pleasant in here," she says. "No one's squirting perfume at you." Although Steele and Sutcliffe think New York shopping is, overall, cheaper than London's, they're still smarting from salesclerks who, they say, were "aggressive and rude."

"Where were we yesterday?" asks Steele. "I know. Coach. I'd only just rested my eyes on a bag and the saleswoman was right on me. It had a twiddly sort of strap, and she started saying you can make it short, you can make it long, you can wear it across your body, there's this and this and this color. I wanted to say bugger off."

"Everything gets pushed and rushed here," adds Sutcliffe, "Someone in a shop or restaurant will just say, 'Coffee?' or 'Name?' and that'll be that, because people are in a hurry."

"It's maybe that people don't know English as a first language," suggests Steele. "I mean that they know only the one word. Not the polite bits around it."

While we admire a display of giant candles sculpted like beehives, Sutcliffe says, "One good thing about all this fast, fast, fast is that people in shops go running about to get you things."

"That's because they're on commission," points out Steele.

On our way out, we pass a stand with reprinted vintage kids' books. One is called "Manners Can Be Fun." The other is "How to Speak Politely and Why."

Steele flashes me a grin. "Could be useful reading for you Americans," she says.

We have a timed admission to the popular Top of the Rock observation deck at Rockfeller Center, and make it just on the dot. One of the elevators that rockets us up has a ceiling made of glass. "My ears just popped," announces Steele at about the 15th floor. Looking up at the shaft: "It's fascinating in a horrible way."

"I don't like it," counters Sutcliffe. "I don't like it at all."

Sutcliffe says she feels better on the gallery level, a stopping-off point that features a display of Rockefeller mementos. "Look!" she says to Steele, pointing at a plaque. "The man who did the building's interior design created the Crest toothpaste tube."

But suddenly, trouble. We are all supposed to walk across an imitation indoor girder surrounded by glass. Glance down and you are looking into a video showing what it would be like if you were balanced on an actual girder at the top of the building. "I do not like this, I say," says Sutcliffe.

But everyone else has done it. And finally, with determination, Sutcliffe all but scampers across the beam, staring straight ahead and flapping her arms like a sparrow. The other tourists applaud.

You can tell by accents that there are other British tourists up here, but Steele and Sutcliffe slink around corners to avoid them. Do they think they're contagious? "We're not like you Americans," explains Steele. "We don't want a homey chat. And we don't care what city they come from, I'm sorry to say."

It's getting near time to find the elevator down, and Sutcliffe has started steeling herself to squeeze into the glass-ceilinged box. But first, they bring out their cameras to get shots of the midtown views. Sutcliffe focuses on the points, the spires, the shiny tips of nearby skyscrapers.

But Steele is fascinated with the New York avenues far below. She's pressed up against the plexiglass that rings the outdoor deck, pointing her camera down. Straight down.

"I'm trying to get a shot of jostling yellow cabs," she says.

"Oh," says Sutcliffe. "I thought you were shooting wildlife."

There is a second when they share a tourist's sardonic smile. Wind is flapping their scarves and sending specks of litter in a mini cyclone around them.

"Absolutely," says Steele. "I most certainly was."

* * *

Peter Mandel is an author of picture books for kids, including his read-aloud bestseller: Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan/Roaring Brook), and his newest about zoo animals passing on a very noisy sneeze: Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House).