Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Ugly American? Not I (mostly). Phew…

Well, I just read that Americans are considered the world’s worst travelers. I would take that with a giant grain of salt, taking into account that a) the survey was decidedly non-scientific, b) there are an awful lot of us and some are bound to be, well, ugly, c) we may suffer from some knee-jerk, generalized they’re-Americans-they-must-be-ugly effect. 

Not that there isn’t something to be said in the negative about the behavior of Americans abroad.

Still, I looked through the round-up on why we’re so bad with a somewhat tempered eye.

But here’s why Smarter Travel (care of Huffington Post) thinks that, once the passport’s stamped, we’re so god-awful.

Inevitably, they start off with attire:

White sneakers, a fanny pack, a baseball hat.

Personally I don’t wear white sneakers unless I’m heading to the gym or out exercise-walking. So there’s no way I’d be caught on rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in a pair of New Balances. There really are shoes that are comfortable for walking that don’t look terrible – or at least aren’t white. But, really, who cares? If Grammy and Grampy want to tromp around in their sneaks, so what?

Fanny packs are quite another item. No one wants to get pick-pocketed at the Trevi Fountain, but if there’s one accessory that screams paranoid-American-who-thinks-that-everyone-in-a-country-where-the-people-have-dark-hair-is-a-thief it’s the old fanny pack. Me? I carry my wallet in an inner zipped compartment of a zipped up pocketbook, likely slung bandolier style across my chest, and with my hand on it. With the exception of the hand on it, that’s how I mostly roll when out for a city walk anywhere, unless it’s the kind of walk where I just stuff my ID, a credit card, and a few bucks in my front pocket. (Bandolier-y-ing is actually the most comfortable way to carry a pocketbook on a long walk.) Hands on is only if I’m in a really touristy and crowded place that I’ve read in Lonely Planet is a den of thieves.

Baseball cap? I confess! I’m one of those light-eyed folks who needs both sunglasses and a brimmed hat when it’s bright out. And most of my non-winter hats are baseball caps. But I don’t see how this necessarily marks you as an American. I’ve been in plenty of foreign places where I’ve caught the eye of someone wearing a Red Sox or Yankees cap, only to find out they don’t speak much English and haven’t a clue what baseball is. So there!

The article stresses that you should:

…make an effort to blend in with what the locals wear, especially when it comes to covering up in more modest countries.

Agreed that you probably don’t want to be cavorting around Jordan in a pair of Daisy Mae’s and a halter top. (In fact, based on personal experience in the long ago, I’d say that you don’t want to be walking the streets of Izmir, Turkey, in a pair of cut offs and a tee-shirt if you don’t want some guy grabbing your thigh and giving it a squeeze.)  But my personal attire fatwas would be put out against anyone over the age of 12 wearing a Winnie-the-Pooh sweatshirt (especially if obese), and against couples who hit the road dressing alike. (Sorry, Grammy and Grampy, I know if you order all your travel duds from L.L. Bean or Land’s End you could accidentally end up in matchy-tatchy chinos, polos and windbreakers. But at least do the world a favor and compare your color choices ahead of time. If Grammy wants Barn Red then Grampy has to settle for Marine Blue.)

Expectations of everyone speaking English is another thing that marks us indelibly as Ugly Americans. I am a complete proponent of learning a few words in the local tongue, enough to say hello and do you speak English. Thus, I can utter please and thank you in at least a dozen languages. Plus order red wine in Hungarian. Expecting that everyone across whatever pond you’re crossing is going to understand you is ridiculous. And yet…if most of your travel abroad is to major European cities – as mine is – you will have no trouble, in my experience, finding serviceable English spoken in most shops and restaurants on the beaten track.

This doesn’t exempt you from at least trying your high school French out. (Or your phrase book Hungarian.) But the fact is that pop culture, if nothing else, has put English on the tip of an awful lot of tongues out there.

I was not aware that Americans are known for complaining about portions. I’ve done an awful lot of eating out in an awful lot of places and recall nary a complaint about portions (especially when I accidentally ordered brain in Paris years ago; no complaining about a too small helping of brain). Grumble about food, maybe. But the portion?

I have occasionally complained – or at least remarked on – getting too much food in the USA. Too little? Hasn’t ever happened to me when dining “over there”, and I’m no picky minimalist eater, either.

Apparently “we” also do a lot of “demanding to know the price in dollars.” If Americans do this, well, shame on them. Converting foreign currency is what mental arithmetic (as taught in the Catholic schools of my childhood) and/or a spouse is for.

Maybe I lead a charmed traveling life, but I have never been witness to excessive patriotism, as manifest by:

…pointing out customs that you think are flawed or not as good as "how we do it here"

In fact, I wouldn’t associate pointing out those flaws with excessive patriotism but, rather, with rudeness. Unless the flaw you were pointing out was, say, British toilet paper from 40 years ago when it was made out of waxed paper… Pointing that out was, in fact, doing the Brits a favor.

We’re also not supposed to try to recreate America abroad. Which means we’re supposed to stay out of Starbucks and not have a hissy fit when we find out the the toilet is a hole in the floor. I agree that one of the reasons to travel is to see how they do things in different places. That said, one of the reasons that 99.99% of my overseas travel is to Europe is because you can generally expect pretty much the same level of creature comfort – maybe without the A/C – anywhere you go. The days when I’d be just as happy to relieve myself sitting on a stone wall, crapping in a pasture while a couple of donkeys looked on, are long over.

Back on the other end of the food chain, while I will take most of my meals out at local restaurants, I have been known to give in and grab a small fries at McD’s, a comfort I seldom allow myself at home.

The seventh deadly American sin is overpacking. I suspect that this is mostly done by American’s on tours that include runs around the countryside in motor coaches. The ones where, at 7 a.m. the next morning, you place your king-size roller-bag outside your door and someone comes by and stows it in the gaping maw of the motor coach. Anyone who has to schlepp their own bag – with the exception of my nieces Molly and Caroline – will pack only what they need. Which is a lot less than what you think you need.

I gave up a long time ago on worrying about what someone might think if I wore the same sweater three days running.

I’m pretty much a carry-on girl, and mix things up by packing a few extra scarves. They take up no room and it lets you vary things up a bit. Which is not to say that I don’t get sick of a steady diet of black pants after a while. But, hey, I spent 16 years wearing a uniform, and if I can live day in, day out, in a green jumper and white blouse, I can stand 10 days figuring out whether I’ll wear black pants or black pants of, say, how about black pants today?

Anyway, while – according to the checklist presented – I’m not a particularly Ugly American, I don’t really see how the rules are much different whether you’re here or there: don’t be a loud-mouthed persnickety a-hole, no? Beyond that, what’s the difference if you’re wearing white sneakers and a baseball cap or not?

No comments: