Katy Guest: Olympic London thrills me

It's win, win, win for the capital, a nicer place overnight
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The Independent Online

When I first moved to London, aged 22, it felt as though the city was a big club, dedicated to excluding outsiders. Everything supposedly great about the capital seemed designed to intimidate the clueless and small.

The London Underground map is a design icon, but that's no use to someone who can't pronounce "Holborn" and doesn't know that only long-distance runners should attempt the so-called interchange between Monument and Bank. A night out in swinging Soho usually ended with me in tears on a street corner as all the taxis decided to call it a night exactly as the last Tube departed. That's if I could even find Soho – in the early days I actually mugged up on the London A-Z but that doesn't help when there never seems to be a street sign and you've popped out at the wrong station because the Central Line has broken down, again.

Pockets of London do exist where the residents smile at each other in the street, but they are small pockets, such as Kew, and what's not to smile about when you live in Kew? Mostly, Londoners are far too busy and important to smile – they might risk missing their train, and have to wait two whole minutes until the next one. And there's nothing that Londoners hate more than tourists. Unless of course it's tourists with luggage, taking up vital inches on the Underground.

A drunk man once sat beside me on a Tube train and pointed out with a mad laugh that all the narky commuters had left an empty seat between them and the next person. That's because the only people who sit close through choice are drunk people with mad laughs. Real Londoners are trained at completely blocking out other human beings.

Fourteen years on, I still complain about how horrible London is, while knowing sadly that I will probably never leave. But something has happened to London in the past week that has made living here OK. The evaporation of cynicism caused by a few gold medals and a bit of sunshine is turning London into a normal place, and its citizens into regular people. I've even seen some of them smile at each other in the street. Here's why: it takes a lot to impress a Londoner, but a major sporting event right on their doorsteps seems to have worked. Along the route of the cycling road race, motorcycle police were high-fiving the crowds, whipping up cheers. In Kingston, a man on a balcony above a shop fetched his guitar and entertained the spectators with "Hey Jude". When the women rowers won Britain's first gold medal, someone at Dalston Kingsland station briefly cleared the departure board and spelled out the result of the race. Commuters cheered. And actually met each other's eyes.

All mankind

Hold the front page: Londoners spotted being nice to tourists. At Earl's Court station last week, an elderly English gent played up to a group of excitable French visitors, posing for photographs with his trilby and walking cane. When a gorgeous, heavily pregnant young French woman sat down with her arm around him, the look on his face proved that British seaside postcard humour is not dead.

Park life

A stroke of genius by the organisers of the first week of the Games has juxtaposed medal-winning British athletes with some of the capital's classiest landmarks, reminding jaded Londoners that we actually have some pretty cool stuff around here. Let's hope that visitor numbers double at Hampton Court Palace thanks to a combination of Hilary Mantel's Booker-longlisted Bring Up the Bodies, and the immortal image of Bradley Wiggins on a gold spray-painted MDF throne.

Last weekend, I cycled twice through Richmond Park as I pootled around south London to see the Olympic cyclists flash past. It reminded me of hiring a bike in Central Park, where I complained bitterly about having to live in London, where everything is rubbish, and not New York, where everything is ace. It turns out that Richmond Park is three times the size of Central Park, with herds of deer, flocks of parakeets, and picnicking on the pleasanter banks of the river Thames. You can even hire bicycles (I refuse to call them Boris bikes) for only £1 a day – as long as you drop by a docking station every half hour. Who needs New York?

Happy shopper

Maybe there was one congestion warning too many, but an unexpected consequence of the Olympics is that central London is completely empty. It's been a hairy week for retailers, but for those who live and work in London, it's bliss. The biggest problem with London is that there are too many people in it – it's a wonder that a splinter group born within the sound of Bow Bells doesn't start calling for repatriation of economic migrants back to the Home Counties and the North.

On an average day on Kensington High Street, for example, Londoners are chased down the road by charity muggers, run over by buses, squashed into the kerb by Chelsea tractors, proffered vouchers for tuppence off at a restaurant you don't want to go to and tangled up by relay teams of old ladies walking side by side with two little dogs on strings. Now, amazingly, Kensington High Street is functioning just like a normal high street. It is actually possible to shop in Oxford Street without having a nervous breakdown. Last week, I not only found Soho, but got a seat in a pub there and was served at the bar before I collapsed from dehydration. It's like Christmas, when adopted Londoners all go home for the holidays, only the sun is shining and there's a realistic chance of running into some Dutch bronze-medal winners celebrating in the street.

Oh to be in London, now that the Olympics are here. No wonder locals are asking if the Games can stay.