This is something that I really didn’t think about much when we left home at the end of April. I had some concern that traveling in Europe as an American, and therefore someone who was incriminated in the continuing disaster that is our President, would cause some problems for us, but it hasn’t at all. Obviously there has been mention—in Greece, one of our hosts continually referred to him as “the bush” (it sounded like lower case, although he never wrote it out); and in Portugal several people went on and on about how he was the most hated leader in the world right now and really an awful, awful man, only to pause far into their tirades to ask if we, in fact, liked Bush. Since we patently don’t, this was always an entertaining part of the conversation for us. I’m assuming that if we’d answered in the affirmative, they would simply have given us a pitying look and gone on with their bashing.
Current specific reasons to loathe Americans aside, there is the enduring impression of Americans as ugly, boorish, fat, loud, styleless, cultureless, and clueless. They trample over cobbled streets and millennia-old cultures in their khaki shorts and Hawaiian shirts and photographer’s vests, dripping ice cream on antiquities and speaking too loudly in museums. They complain about foods, and lines, and heat, and traffic, and noise, and assume that everyone in the world should speak English to them.
This, at least, is what “conscientious travelers,” such as ourselves, believe the world thinks about Americans. And it may . . . but to be honest, I have no first-hand experience with this belief. Admittedly, in part this is because I haven’t traveled to “beaten path” destinations in years. I have noticed Brits in Greece being by far the loudest people in the restaurant (talking about how uncouth Americans were no less, and complaining about Greek food, while Ian and I sat and quietly enjoyed our delicious meal); Australians using any excuse to get falling-down drunk in public; large groups of young German men, shouting drunk, staggering down streets in the evening, urinating against buildings in not-so-deserted alleyways. When we took a day trip to Bodrum, Turkey, several years ago, it was not overweight middle-aged Americans wandering around the bazaar in this Muslim country in t-shirts over swim suit bottoms, nor was it a chubby American 12-year-old wearing too-tight sweats with “tasty” across the ass; nor was it a tall, slender, blonde American eating lunch in local restaurant in a pair of turquoise lycra boy shorts and matching string bikini top. In other words, lots of people are ugly on vacation.
I tend to avoid the serious ugliness. For one, I rarely go to museums so I’m not likely to drip my ice cream on something priceless. I don’t get publicly falling-down drunk with big bands of boys (when I did get drunk once long ago with Australians, it was in the privacy of our guest house). You will not catch me dead anywhere in a photographer’s vest, and Hawaiian shirts definitely have their place and it’s
I try to learn at least some basics in the language of the country I’m in, and I fancy myself fairly good with pronunciation. I certainly don’t assume people will understand me better if I talk more loudly.
None of this really affected us in a serious way for the first three months of our trip, though. We started in Greece, and not only can we order food using Greek words, we can even read them in Greek script, so we’re way ahead of most tourists plying the Cyclades as we did. Not only that; the Greeks, along with most other Europeans, study English in school and happily speak it both with native English speakers and with all the rest of the Europeans who’ve learned English in school. Then we were in
And then we came to
I found myself shrinking on the streets of
After one long day of this, I got mad. After all, I’m me, and there’s nothing I can—or want to—do about it. I’m proud of who I am. I’m proud of my strengths, I accept and work on my weaknesses, and I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve had in my life. One of those opportunities has been the freedom to travel, and with that freedom, the chance to learn about the world in a way uncommon to most of the other 7 billion inhabitants of this planet. And so, cast away guilt! If a Swede considers me to be uncouth and boorish because I’ve studied French and Swahili and Portuguese but not Swedish, that’s not my problem. If a Latvian is frustrated that I don’t speak Latvian or Russian and therefore can’t make my needs speedily known, well, I’ve tried my best.
I have a Master’s degree in linguistics, and perhaps this is part of my problem. I know how important language is (even just accent) for the coherence of a society. I can mourn the fact that languages, like plants and animals and customs, are dying out all the time. I can recognize similarities between languages—this skill helps me fake my way through
Talking and language are very important to me; they always have been. My mother reminds me of a trip to
I realized something the other day, though. Yes, language ability is important, and it is one indicator of multicultural sensitivity or ugly boorishness. But it’s not the only thing. Observation, attire, awareness, openness—all are valuable as well. And so I’ll continue to do my best, as I always do, in all these categories as well as in language. And I will focus my grateful energy on appreciating the places I’m visiting to the fullness of my ability.
And I will no longer feel guilt for who I am.