London 2012: an etiquette guide for Olympics visitors

It’s Olympic time and therefore I think most of our pending visitors need a simple guide to UK etiquette, you may think this is tongue in cheek but it’s deadly serious – as every Londoner will sadly testify..

Welcome, and before we begin – please accept our apologies. Your four-hour nightmare wait at passport control should not be taken as a symptom of Britain’s contempt for foreigners or even revenge for the TSA.. It is merely a symptom of a woeful lack of spending on a key aspect of travel infrastructure in the run-up to a hugely important event. In other words, it’s not us Londoners who hate you, it’s the government that hates you. Don’t worry, they hate us too.

Please also accept our apologies for Boris Johnston, the London Mayor. We know he gives good interviews on US chat shows but he really is a upper class bumbling twit who shouldn’t be left in charge of an icecream van let alone a city of over seven million. We are also very sorry about Tony Blair. We aren’t sure what happened there. Think it was something about hanging chads – or was that his mate George – we have difficulty telling them apart. Oh and we apologise about inflicting Piers Morgan on all of America but we REALLY don’t want him back.

Canadians: I’m afraid that while you are here you will be repeatedly mistaken for Americans and blamed for all sorts of stuff you had nothing to do with. Unless you can think of a quick and simple way to distinguish yourselves at a glance –  I’m a Canadian, HUG me t-shirt? Maple leaf eyepatch? – then you are just going to have to suck it up.

Americans: While you’re here, why not pretend to be Canadian? Very few Britons can tell the difference, and it will allow you to rescue yourself from awkward conversations about the death penalty and the National Rifle Ass. (The capital of Canada is Ottawa and there are ten provinces in Canada incase you get tested!) (PS if you can pronounce Saskatchewan correctly then you are not Canadian.)

• Under no circumstances should you ask your taxi driver how excited he is about having the Olympics in London this summer. It’s not that he will be reluctant or embarrassed to offer a personal opinion on the matter. That is not the problem at all. Your ears will be bleeding by the end of the conversation. Actually, just don’t ask your taxi driver anything other than “Can you take me to my hotel” and “How much is that?”. PS Cabbies don’t accept American Express, no matter what the commercials tell ya..

• You will repeatedly hear that the East End of London, where the bulk of the Olympic events are being held, is an “up and coming” area. You may wonder what this odd English expression means when applied to your immediate surroundings. You are quite right to. The slum demolishing program started pre-war is running slightly behind schedule.

• Nobody here can answer any questions you have about fencing. Google it.

• Pay no attention to those bow-tied etiquette experts you sometimes see on CNN International, telling you how to behave while in Britain. These people are generally of dubious provenance, normally live in California and tend to peddle advice that is either irrelevant or out of date. For example, they will often say that Britons love queuing and are so fond of apologising that they will often say “sorry” even when something isn’t their fault. In reality, Britons are just as likely to jump to the front of a queue and then punch the person behind them for coughing. It all depends on how muggy it is.

• British people may seem to apologise a lot, but it doesn’t quite mean the same thing here. In the UK, “I’m sorry” actually means either a) I didn’t hear you; b) I didn’t understand you; or c) I both heard and understood you, and I think you’re an idiot.

• You might expect locals to be, in the circumstances, a bit defensive about the weather. But it’s true: it really doesn’t rain like this every summer. This is exceptional, which is why it’s so cold in your hotel room. There aren’t normally this many soldiers in the streets either. No, honestly.

• Britons love bleak humour: that’s why all the hire bikes are branded with the name of a bank currently being investigated for fixing interest rates. It’s supposed to be funny. London’s bike hire scheme couldn’t be simpler, by the way: just go up to the terminal at any docking station, pay by card and take away one of our so-called “Boris bikes”. When you’re done with it, simply throw it into the nearest canal. They’re disposable!

• If you have arrived early, you might just be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the final leg of the Olympic torch relay. Or you might be at a riot. Ask yourself the following questions: are there lots of people holding flames, or just one? Is everybody running in the right direction? Does the nearest branch of Foot Locker appear to be having the craziest sale ever?

• None of us is officially allowed to speak to members of the foreign press. We have all been instructed to avoid eye contact while referring your queries to a team of dedicated information managers who don’t really exist. The same policy applies to ministers from totalitarian states and anyone who turns up at the airport with a camel.

• Do not ask a policeman the best way to get to the West End or how to use an Oyster card. He wants to help, but he’s been drafted in from the West Midlands and is even more lost than you.

Please aid the Olympic authorities and organisers by demonstrating at all times that you are not a terrorist. Do not perspire, take off your shoes, smile in a weird way while texting someone, or point and shout: “Hey! Look at all those missiles on that roof over there!” In fact, if you’re not using your hands for anything, it’s probably best if you keep them in the air where everybody can see them.