Foreign countries are strange
One of the big hangups about traveling, particularly traveling abroad is dealing with the strange customs of foreigners. It is as if just living somewhere foreign gives them permission to be strange. Go figure! Some of if is charming. Who doesn’t love the idea of gondolas and seranading gondoliers? And who can resist the romance when ordinary objects get translated into Italian.
Ordinary stuff becomes magical in another language. Still there are risks. you can order something uneatable, like tripe, without knowing. Europeans seem to value tripe much higher than Americans perhaps because it sounds so sexy. It is hard to remember sometimes that the people eating that tripe aren’t Americans. And tripe remains stomach no matter what language you speak.
Ah, there is the problem.
Back when I made my first trip to Europe, we were only 20 years away from Wold War II and at the beginning of the Age of America on the World scene. Europe didn’t take America seriously before the war. We were the big, brash kid that knew his place and deferred to adults otherwise know as Europeans. What the war revealed was that there weren’t any more adults on the world scene and if anybody was going to lead, it would have to be us. Those Europeans never quite adjusted.
What resulted was some awkwardness because we did things right and it ruffled the feathers of the countries that used to dominate. It also meant that the booming post WWII economy freed Americans to roam the world and what we found amazed us. People in those other countries, even the ones our grandparents came from were strange. They weren’t just like us no matter how we might like them to be.
The ugly American
Immediately, the stereotype of the “ugly American’ was created. The phrase was from a novel and referred to diplomats but us common-folk picked up the image of American tourists traveling the world demanding the same sanitized lifestyle wherever they might be as if they were home. It included the idea that Americans expected the world to adjust to them. No need to learn the native language or customs. American tourists were instantly recognized by their loud, tacky clothes, their loud demanding voices and their lack of respect and appreciation for the places they visit. It wasn’t true then but we naive Americans bought it big time.
40 years ago.
When I first visited Europe, I’d had six years of college indoctrination and was well versed in the failings of America and its culture. My goal was to ingratiate myself with the locals, try not to look like an (ugly) American and demonstrate to my betters that there was actually some culture on the other side of the pond. Naturally, I failed, but it was a good failure. Other than learning to hate the French, it was a good summer.
This trip, I’m afraid all the nuance and cultural sensitivity learned in college has worn thin. The respectful college boy is now an old fart. Europe has its charms and I intend to savor them all but on my terms. I don’t intend to apologize about being an American, ugly or otherwise and have no interest in appearing Italian. Italians are fine. I loved them 40 years ago and I fully expect to love them now. I hope to expand my meager command of Italian a bit and show my appreciation for all the great art, architecture and music, Italy has brought the world and my amazement that a city like Venice could ever be created and is still going strong.
In return, I expect to be respected as an American. Without America, Italy and Europe would be a Nazi wasteland. Maybe I don’t need to rub it in but the Italy that Italians love today is a gift of America. Italians may not like having to be bailed out of a disaster but there is no need to be resentful. I won’t rub it in. I don’t expect anything but a great experience in Italy. I’m just saying that when I travel, I am an unashamed American with the intention to embrace the best of everyone I meet. If that’s the ugly American then I’m guilty,