All photos by the author
A couple years ago the Social Chair and I were sitting at a bar when the couple next to us asked us a question. They said they’d overheard our conversation with the bartender and were looking for a restaurant recommendation, since they were visiting from out of town and wanted to try something other than their usual haunts. We got to talking about where they were from (“Outside Toronto”), and we mentioned that we were leaving in a week to go visit family and friends both in and outside Toronto. It was at this point in a conversation with a Canadian that I would usually get to play my trump card, since my sister lives in a town even most Ontario natives haven’t heard of. But when we told them the name of the town (West Montrose), they got a little wide-eyed. And then they asked, “which house?”
It turned out that these strangers, from “Outside Toronto,” had almost bought that very house, and after they didn’t buy it their friends did. Their friends, in fact, were the couple who sold the house to my sister and brother-in-law (and since my sister’s family is moving to The Hague, it’s for sale again). In this city you never know who you might meet.
Judging by what I’ve seen on Twitter, and a stale rant that has been making the rounds again (which I won’t dignify by linking here), tourist season has fallen hard on some of you (the fact that it arrives at the same time as allergy season also doesn’t help, I’m sure). But I ask your patience as I make this heartfelt plea: please be nice to tourists.
It’s simple, really. There’s an argument to be made on economic grounds, since the taxes on tourist dollars help pay for essential services in DC, but that’s not my argument. There’s also a case to be made on political grounds, since the plight of a disenfranchised DC voter is often unknown to a tourist from the heartland, but I’m not worried about that either. Much.
I think we should all be nice to tourists simply because that’s what the members of a civil society do. I’ve been a tourist elsewhere, and I’ve had to stop people and ask for directions. I’ve also had people volunteer to help me figure out a map, or a tram network, or a train ticket system, or a menu, and it always brings a little light to my day to experience the reality that people everywhere are essentially good, and wow, I was totally on the wrong bus (San Francisco, twice). Or tram (Amsterdam).
There’s more than that. We are all, like it or not, ambassadors for our city. Every interaction any of us has with a visitor reflects on all of us. If you’re friendly and helpful, we look good. If you’re gruff or rude, you reinforce the stereotype of southern efficiency and northern charm. My own mother has said derisively that “everyone in DC works for the government” (for the record, neither the Social Chair nor I do), evidence we’ve got the deck stacked against us already. Why make it worse?
It’s too easy sometimes to forget that this city, this majestic capital, stands as a symbol of civic ideals. I chose to move here over a decade ago, and I consider the District my home. Every interaction any of us has with a tourist is a chance for the city — and possibly by extension the nation — to make a good impression. I experience discomfort every time I read a rant on one web site or another about tourists doing it wrong (this site has been guilty of that too). So somebody stands on the left side of the escalator in the Metro. What’s your hurry? The next train is in three minutes. Six, tops. If cooling your heels on a Metro platform for a few minutes is the worst thing that happens to you all day, you’re still having a good day.
So be nice. Give directions. Answer questions. Make room at the bar. Recommend your favorite restaurant. Smile. If you don’t do it for me, do it for the mom who raised you right. If you don’t do it for her, do it for DC. We’re not petulant jerks. We live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, where almost everything is free because those tourists pay sales tax while they’re here and most of them pay federal income tax when they’re back at home. I know I love it here, and I hope you do too. Share the love. You never know who that person you help will turn out to be.