V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer

Cities with attitude

Published online at travel.msn.ca in August, 2010, as part of a photo gallery.

The following list of cities is not for the meek or fainthearted. They’re cities with attitude — citizens walk with their elbows out, muscle their way through crowds and speak their minds. Taking too long to order? No soup for you! It’s every man for himself, where a a heaving mass of humanity must co-exist within dense, square kilometres. But that’s what also makes these cities the most interesting. Here’s our list of the world’s surliest cities with attitude.

Milan, Italy

There’s a certain amount of sartorial snobbery in Milan that make most tourists stand out instantly. It’s where Italian designers like Versace, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and Gucci come to show off their wares, and where you’ll find a disturbing number of unnaturally tall, rail-thin models who make the rest of us feel like midget dwarfs in lumberjack shirts. Many tourists may feel one of either two things: a) a condescending once-over that in no uncertain terms makes you feel like the GAP shorts you got on sale are sooo last season, or b) a total, annihilating sense of insignificance. We suggest you go in the comforting knowledge that for the price of one of their fancy schmancy hand bags, you could buy 300 pairs of generic, mainstream shorts. Who’s the sucka now?

London, UK

It’s a city of grandiose pomp and circumstance with its Buckingham Palace and historic architecture. From whence the British monarchy ruled a global empire. And where words like “whence” were once used. Londoners operate under a code of civility that’s at once impenetrable and deceiving. Brits are notorious for being unreadable, inscrutable business opponents beneath their veneer of Victorian propriety. Some call it “cold.” But it’s also this air of refinement that makes this bustling city so elegant and sophisticated. You could be told to bugger off and never know it, as it would be muttered through clenched teeth and a forged smile.

Paris, France

Parisians are typecast for being the surliest, rudest and most smug of Europeans. And let’s face it, why shouldn’t they be? They live in perhaps one of the most beautiful, poetic cities on the planet, they’re entitled to a little bit of attitude. It’s when their smug sense of superiority turns malicious, mocking anything that’s not oh-la-la French that things can get hairy. Here are a few simple tips to minimize merciless, backroom mockery from a condescending Parisian: never order your steak well done — the French like their meat bloody and moo-ing. And never ask for ketchup. It’s, how zey say, very gauche. And please, remember always to use your “inside” voice. Take cues from Parisians who are generally soft-spoken. There’s nothing more irksome to the French than a loud-mouthed North American. Quel horreur.

Toronto, Ontario

It’s the city every other Canadian city loves to hate. It’s dirty, rude and crime-ridden, decry her most hardened critics. But in point of fact, in the latest StatsCan survey, Toronto came out third to last in police-reported crime statistics. Topping the list were prairie towns Regina, Saskatoon and Winnipeg. As for being dirty and rude, we like to call it grit and character. True, Torontonians walk with steady purpose and may mow you down should you dare to amble leisurely down Yonge Street during pedestrian rush hour. But they do, after all, work in the economic engine of the country and have a lot of work to do. And if you live in a mono-coloured city of cookie-cutter houses in the roiling hills of suburbia, then yes, you may be thrown by the traffic, the diversity and the colourful characters you may meet. But remember, you’re not in Kansas anymore.

New York City

If there’s one city where a bit of attitude can actually go a long way, it’s here, the concrete jungle where dreams are made of. It’s where the best of the best come from all over the world, clamouring over each other in a mad dash to get to their respective top — be it acting, writing, finance or worldwide domination. So New Yorkers can be forgiven for being a rough and tumble crowd. At anytime, you’re walking amongst the most competitive, cut throat species in the world, and the most dejected, dispirited failures who’ve been repeatedly told they’re crap. It’s natural selection at its most brutal. As the saying goes —for tourist and actor alike — if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

Seoul, Korea

There’s a dichotomy that exists in Korea that foreigners may find confusing. On the one hand, customer service is absolutely stellar. Every morning, the first customers to walk through shopping centres and retail shops are greeted by rows of sales associates who bow to you as you enter. Business cards are handed over with two hands, in a show of respect and deference. On the other hand, drivers here have no mercy, running red lights, plowing down pedestrians at marked stops, and screeching through the city with a lead foot. Nor do Koreans have qualms about asking strangers personal questions — a cultural norm that can often be mistaken for being rude and nosey. Subtlety is not a Korean forte, as foreigners may also find themselves being gawked at. Like the cuisine, garlicky and fiery hot, the Korean temperament can come on a bit strong.

Hong Kong

As one of the most densely populated places in the world, squeezing 53,110 persons per square kilometre in its most crowded district, you can understand why competition is fierce. Everyone has to fight for scarce, coveted resources, including a seat on the subway. Same goes for being heard — with seven million residents living in a city that had nowhere else to build but up, voices here tend to rise in a cacophony of sound that becomes white noise. Pedestrians navigate narrow alleyways, where exotic sights and smells will greet you. It can be daunting for travellers, especially Canucks who come from a country as vast and expansive as ours. But a trip to Hong Kong will also show you how a teeming, dynamic metropolis can coexist with green space. About three-quarters of Hong Kong’s total area is countryside, 40 per cent of which is designated as country parks.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

One of South America’s most beautiful cities is also famously one of the most dangerous. Tourists are particularly vulnerable to predatory pick pockets during the city’s annual Carnaval, and at night. Cariocas, residents of Rio, have been described as pushy, but that’s also to be expected when living in one of the most densely populated areas of the planet, and especially if you’re an impoverished local living in one of the many favelas or shanty towns which exist alongside the most posh parts of Rio. The city’s crime rate can be intimidating to naive travellers, but nothing a bit of common sense can’t allay. Dress like a local with a pair of flip flops and a Bermuda hat. Leave the expensive jewellery at home and don’t travel with a lot of cash. After all, what more do you really need than a beach towel and some sunscreen?

Moscow, Russia

They’re not exactly known for being warm and fuzzy. But if Russians are reserved, aloof and expressionless in public, it’s only because they had lived under the thumb of Stalinist, communist rule for so long. It’s only natural that suffering would trickle down through to subsequent generations in the form of stoicism. At the same time, for some Russians that half-baked, Western culture of smiling will nilly at complete strangers is the stuff of half-witted, flaky fools. As with every other foreign travel destination, don’t expect Western-style hospitality to be at your beckon call.

Mumbai, India

It’s a city that hosts every aspect of humanity. Some of the world’s most impoverished women and children live in slums and shantytowns next to the glitziest, richest and most beautiful people of India. Nearly 14 million people live in this city of grit (think Slumdog  Millionaire) and glamour (Bollywood is the largest moviemaking industry in the world). No one takes it personally when people push and shove past each other, jostling to get to their end destination. After a Reader’s Digest feature named Mumbai the rudest city in the world in 2006, an editorial in The Times of India acquiesced, chastizing the city for boorish behaviour, sticking gum on vacant seats and spitting at pedestrians from running buses. But In a city where the streets have no name, where survival is the name of the game everyday, it’s completely forgivable that civilities fall by the wayside is  it not?

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