Wednesday, January 29, 2014

How Not To Be An Ugly American In A Foreign Land

What Does It All Mean?

The term - Ugly American - what does it mean to you and have you ever acted like one? Be honest. We all have those moments when we are not at our best while traveling. And with the internet, the blogosphere, twitter, facebook, etc., etc. etc. you can see true red, white and blue Ugly Americans in America and elsewhere. It seems that we have become less civil. And advanced technology gives voyeurs of every ilk larger and larger windows open to the good, the bad and the ugly of people everywhere. Sometimes, we just don't do ourselves proud when something or someone interferes with our otherwise perfect day.

And of course, some parts of the travel experience have earned and are deserving of our complete and utter disdain. Flying immediately comes to mind. Let's face it, commercial airlines have become human cattle cars with wings. From the seats for vertically challenged anorexics to the lax rules allowing anyone to wear anything and bring any food item, no matter how disgusting, onto a plane, flying today is just an expensive exercise in human degradation. Or the car rental agent who, as Jerry Seinfeld noted in a classic episode, knows how to make the reservation, but just doesn't know how to hold the reservation. Bob at the rental counter in Portland comes to mind, but, after several minutes of typing on his computer, he saw the error of his ways and got us the car we had reserved.

From various sources - Ugly American is defined as follows:

An American in a foreign country whose behavior is offensive to the people of that country. And an interesting comment by an anonymous reader added this thought - The rest of the definition is the tendency of Americans abroad to believe, they should not have to conform to local laws and customs, as their own sense of laws and customs are superior.

I don't know about you - but me thinks that definition may have been developed by some anti-American Tories during the revolution when we kicked the redcoats' behinds and sent them packin' back to King George and Mother England. Actually, the term is derived from the best selling 1958 novel, The Ugly American,  an exposé of American arrogance, incompetence, and corruption in Southeast Asia. The book and, later, the movie, starring Marlon Brando, generated this most pejorative of terms that has since become part of our media driven reputation for boorishness, deserved or not. We have all witnessed the strange behaviors of people from other lands that visit America. However, since the United States is the most multicultural of all nations, welcoming virtually every ethnic, racial and cultural group to our shores, we are, in fact, probably the more accepting of customs and behaviors from other lands. It is not always smooth sailing, but, the ultimate cross cultural question - Can't we all just get along? - is uniquely American.

Parisians Really Don't Hate Us - Read On

I have heard it said of Europeans that they often loathe our politicians but like us as individuals. I think we, as Americans, can certainly understand that, since we loathe our own politicians. As of today, the latest polls show our president at 39% and our congress at 9% approval. Fortunately we have a system, whereby we can dispense with the current loathsome bunch and replace them with a new bunch that will become equally loathsome in no time.

The disdain of many Europeans probably has something to do with the normal resentment by our cultural ancestors of the perception that we think, no - we know, that we are the biggest dogs on the porch. I mean we have saved their bacon in two world wars and numerous other conflicts. Churchill said -You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they've tried everything else. And that , in turn, has probably lead to Americans having larger expectations of  our Italian, French, British or German brethren, which, in turn, deepens the resentment of the Ugly American syndrome. It's a vicious cycle I tell you!

The point of all this pontificating is the fervent desire to assist, in my own humble way, Americans tripping in foreign lands in the achievement of true enlightenment through travel.  Like the song says - Don't Worry Be Happy - and every thing, great and small, will change you for the better. For, if travel doesn't change you, then what's the point? That's why we spend hours hunting for that perfect place in the sun, by a cool clear stream where we can find some meaning in a world that has less real meaning than ever before. In other words, I want you to have a good time - OK?

Rules of The Road

So how does one ensure that one will not be viewed as just another boorish know it all, who really doesn't know anything at all? In light of my meanderings thus far, loathsome though they may be, I have compiled a simple short set of  suggestions to ensure that the sidewalk cafe waiter in Paris or the concierge in the little boutique on the Grand Canal in Venice will hate to see you leave.
Learn the history and culture of the country. Knowing the real history of pasta in Italy  will make the trip to the country that gave us spaghetti much more interesting. For instance, I recently discovered that pasta was actually first introduced into Italian culinary traditions in first century BC and has evolved into the international delight we enjoy today. This is in direct opposition to the myth that Marco Polo brought this food product from his travels to China - Ha!
Learn the language. It's probably a stretch to think you can become fluent in a foreign tongue by listening to CD's. Although, I am currently giving it a whirl - trying to learn the languages of Spain from Rosetta Stone. And we spent countless hours listening and learning French and Italian.  Even if you can't pass yourself off as a native, life will go so much better in any foreign land if you can at least converse on a basic level with the locals.
Learn to read the language. This is a little bit different than just learning the language. Since you spend large amounts of time in restaurants, cafes and reading road signs, the trip will go much better if you don't take the wrong turn or accidentally order something you have never seen. Once, in Chinque Terra, we observed an American woman proclaim, in an irritating loud command, that she could not eat the prawns she was served because they still had the heads attached. Ugly indeed!
Go with the flow. This is an absolute must. As Americans, we expect everything to be up to a certain standard. Europeans are masters at turning jails, monasteries, gas stations and hay barns into boutique hotels. With this innovative approach to repurposing may come some things you don't see in the good old USA. Really small bathrooms, odd room configurations and other design "flaws" that may not meet our exacting standards. So just relax and realize that you are not in Kansas anymore, but that Oz is so much more interesting if you just follow the yellow brick road.
Listen and Learn. That's right. Concierges, waiters and other hospitality people really want you to enjoy yourself. They know where all the best spots are and, if you ask, they are more than willing to share their knowledge with you. Otherwise, you may have to settle for something that is not authentic and what would be the fun in that? Also, if you just pay attention at train stations, restaurants and shops, you will learn more about the customs of a place than you will ever learn from Lonely Planet or Fodor's.
If You Don't Know - Ask. This is closely associated with language and communication. I have enjoyed some of the most interesting conversations, usually in my honest attempt to communicate with the person in the know, about a restaurant or some other place I want to go. Italians, in particular, love to talk to you and will offer loads of help when asked.
Smile. Even if your heart is breaking because you have no water pressure - smile. I am convinced that if you can laugh at your particular predicament, it will go better. If everything in travel comes off without a hitch, then you won't get to experience the joy of realizing that your world is small indeed. Think of how good you feel after a cold headache. It's always worth it.
Listen To Your Significant Other. My travel companion of forty plus years knows how I work and think. I have yet to completely figure her out. I am also blessed with a mate that people everywhere just automatically like, even before meeting her. It's a gift. So, when she says go there and not there, I try to listen. Although, the many u-turns and wrong turns we have endured on the road, unfortunately, show that I am not a particularly good listener. So, in this case - Do as I say do and not as I do!
So, as you get ready for your next sojourn, just keep these things in mind. Who knows, you may have an epiphany sitting on a plateau in Tuscany that will change your head and your heart.
And just as a reminder of how bad things can get, check out this classic scene from Five Easy Pieces. He just wanted some toast. 


When In Rome - I'm Just Sayin'

Travel Quote of the Week - There are only two emotions in a plane:  boredom and terror. - Orson Wells 

Video Artist of The Week - Kasey Musgraves, one of the few Grammy winners this week with actual talent - Best Country Album - in the spirit of other great Texas singers/songwriters, this young lady takes a new direction in the great American tradition of songs about the other side.


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