Americans Abroad: Not always seen in a positive light…
Rick Steves, my favorite Travel Guru, says it best: In spite of what we think, most of the civilized world doesn’t want to swap passports with Americans. They’re plenty happy with their lives. In fact, they scratch their heads over our insulated, self-centered view of the world. They don’t understand the American need to spend, accumulate, and work 80 hours a week, in exchange for little leisure or family time.
In short, they aren’t driven. Different priorities.
With this in mind, you can imagine how the “it’s-all-about-me” attitude that some Americans bring with them when traveling abroad rubs Europeans the wrong way. Notice that I said “some Americans”–certainly it’s not many of us, but enough to perpetuate the notion that we’re a crude and arrogant lot. Ouch!
Examples of poor travel etiquette
Here are several “Americans Abroad” incidents I’ve observed during my trips to Paris:
- It was a pleasant late afternoon lunch on Rue Cler. Around me, French folks were chatting and laughing quietly. One of the first things you notice about the French is that they love to talk, and do it intently. But they aren’t loud. In comes an American–the cotton t-shirt with stupid wording and baseball cap were dead giveaways–and orders iced tea. The server brings him a bottle of Lipton iced tea, because French people don’t really drink it and restaurants don’t keep gallons of it on hand. He refuses it, and loudly tells the server he wants real iced tea. She’s totally confused by this, and isn’t helped by his 1,000-decibel repeat demand. You know, more volume, as if she’s deaf. Finally she disappears into the kitchen and proudly returns with her best effort: weak brewed tea in a glass with some ice, and sets it down in front of him. He got up and left.
- Another afternoon, another cafe. Full of Parisians, enjoying a sunny, golden fall day. Zoom in on the American couple–again, faded t-shirt and a baseball cap on him, tight shorts on her–who are impatient to get going. Waiters don’t hover–besides, they are busy–and would never provide a bill until asked. It’s considered rude to seem to rush a customer. What a concept, huh? Grumbling to each other about the “terrible service,” they both stand. The female goes off in search of the waiter, and the male stands there, waving his credit card around. It was painful to watch.
- Here’s a funny one: Refusing to pay to use a WC. Restrooms don’t abound in Europe, and free ones are even more scarce. Even department stores sometimes charge a small fee, say 50 cents or so. People staff the restrooms, cleaning them, keeping the riff-raff out, and making sure all is well. It’s their job. So, I’m washing my hands, at a super-clean sink near Notre Dame Cathedral, when I hear unmistakable female American voices: “Are you kidding me? I’m not paying !” I smile to myself, as I imagine these women traipsing through the city, searching for a free toilet. Really, at some point they will be willing to pay just about anything to pee.
- Le Marché aux Puces is the largest flea market in the world. (“Les puces” literally means fleas, going back a few hundred years when second-hand goods came with a good chance of containing fleas.) With thousands of foreign visitors each year, the vendors have learned to speak in a variety of languages. While flipping through some lovely prints at an art dealer’s, the woman next to me began to speak to the dealer in a loud voice. He clearly pretended not to understand. So she upped the volume, with the same response. She stomped off, and I found myself apologizing to the man. Sure enough, he spoke in English: “Why these Americans need to be so loud? Very rude.”
Take time to learn…
I know what you’re going to say, that I’ve been to Europe and know these things. My response back to you: I did a little homework. We live in the age of Google, folks. Even a basic guidebook provides information on cultures and practices in different countries. It’s not rocket science. If you’re going to spend your hard-earned money on a special trip, why wouldn’t you want to learn how to make the most of it? Why wouldn’t you want to know what to expect? Why wouldn’t you want to know how to dress appropriately?
No, instead, many Americans want to travel, but they don’t want to be inconvenienced. They want American customs, everywhere they go. The bottomless cup of coffee. The right to dress as if going to a barbecue. As if everyone else is wrong, and should be doing things “our” way. When they discover that–surprise!–there are differences, the Americans are offended, not flexible. Makes for needlessly unpleasant situations, and perceptions, on both sides.
Paris, Las Vegas does NOT equal Paris, France.
Off my soapbox for now. Your comments are appreciated.