Friday, August 5, 2016

Dear Europeans: Yes I'm an American Tourist. Get Over It

I am fortunate enough to be taking a brief European vacation this summer.  (I don't want you to think I'm a dumb American who thinks Europe is a country, so I had better specify now I'm going to the Czech Republic.)  As I make sure my seat assignments are correct for the flight, check out guidebooks for sights I want to see and restaurants where I want to eat, and make packlists of the best clothes to wear, I also find myself falling into the abyss of travel etiquette websites.

I like to explore the websites that help me navigate the quirky customs of the country I'm visiting so I make no major faux pas.  Unfortunately it's also easy to find myself checking out the dozens of sites out there enumerating everything wrong with American tourists.  There are sites explaining how not to look like an American tourist (although it doesn't matter because other sites tell you Europeans can practically smell an American tourist no matter how hard she tries to blend in).  There are sites with long lists of everything residents of various European countries hate about American tourists.

After reading yet another online article titled, Why American Tourists Are All Crass Ignorant Pond Scum Who Really Should Just Stay Home and Eat McDonald's and Drink Starbucks, I realized it was time to wrap myself in a flag. I might just put those logo t-shirts, fanny packs, white sneakers, and jorts back in my suitcase only to spite these people.

Okay.  Maybe I'm kidding about the fanny pack (I haven't owned one since the brief time in the early 90s when they were fashionable), but I think someone needs to say something in Americans' defense.  It might as well be me.

So, my dear friends across The Pond, before you judge me and my fellow countrypeople, would you at least try to consider the points below?

For Most Americans, Travel Abroad is a Big Deal

The continent of North America is huge.  That space is occupied by three vast countries.  Count them.  It's just three.  This is quite different from Europe, which is a smaller land mass and contains many smaller countries.   For most of you living in Europe, a visit to a foreign country is a simple process of sitting on a train, or even driving your own car, for a few hours.  Foreign travel is a way of life for many of you.

The United States has only two foreign countries on its borders.  Where I live it would be about an 8 hour drive to reach one of them and a three-day drive to reach other other.  Foreign travel, even within my own continent, can become quite expensive if flying needs to be involved.  Many Americans can drive for hours on end and never leave their home state.  Consequently, there are US residents among us who have never left their home state, let alone leave the country.  In the US vacation time is not mandatory and can vary wildly from company to company, so many Americans don't have the time travel long distances.  Travel is a luxury too many Americans can't afford - even when kept within US borders.

For your average American, a visit to any European country means a long flight across the ocean, State Department paperwork, and the use of limited and precious vacation days.  It is expensive and time consuming.  Foreign travel is not easy or cheap.  An American who makes it to Europe likely did so with much careful planning, a large output of money, and a budgeting of  those rare vacation days.  Those rich kids you met who can afford not to have a job so they can backpack through European hostels for a year on their parents' dime, are a minority. 

When you meet an American tourist on the streets of Paris, London, or Munich, you may not realize you are speaking to someone who is fulfilling a lifelong dream, considers this vacation to be the one chance in a lifetime to travel abroad, and spent years saving his pennies to be able to afford this trip.  Please at least try to remember this before you treat that tourist like someone who just decided to hop over to your city on a whim to annoy you with his crass American attitude.

I'm sorry if the tourists didn't make it to your charming quirky town, or to the up-and-coming part of your city that contained your business.  It's true American tourists will most likely only visit the big cities and will flock to the largest tourist sites.  It's what we know.  It's what we have been told about our entire lives.  We want to see these tourists sites because we assume there is a reason tourists flock to them.  We see them as part of your country's history, culture, and beauty.  American tourists who have never visited your country (or any foreign country) will likely have a need to stay in their comfort zones and stay in the areas of town where the locals are accustomed to dealing with tourists and where they don't have to stray too far to see something beautiful or interesting.  If this is the only time in our lives that we plan to visit your country, we have to prioritize what we see, and the top tourist sites will often be the priority.

I'm Sorry We Don't Speak Your Language.  Please Don't Judge Us Too Harshly.

I know Europeans think Americans are poorly educated and never learn a foreign language. That's not true.  Most of us do study a foreign language at some point in our educations.  School systems tend to make it a graduation requirement.  Americans know a second language is a sign of being well-educated.  Between middle school, high school, and college I studied two foreign languages.  The importance of learning a second language was drilled into my head at an early age.

Here is the problem with foreign languages.  It's a "use it or lose it" skill.  Languages can be difficult to forget if one doesn't practice speaking them.  Now please refer to my point above about how foreign travel is a rare treat for most Americans.  How exactly are we supposed to practice our language skills?  If you live in Europe you can travel in multiple countries on your borders and encounter multiple languages.  Along the U.S. borders you have either Spanish or more English with a bit of French mixed in.

The Americans most likely to speak a second language either have immigrant parents or grandparents and speak a second language at home, or else they live in neighborhoods with a high immigrant population and can practice speaking other languages with their neighbors.  Under these conditions, most Americans who speak a second language are most likely to speak Spanish.  That's perfect in Spain, but doesn't do much good in Croatia.

"But Americans don't even try!" you exclaim.  You seem to think we expect the world to speak English.  The problem is we do try.  We pull our phrase books and try to ask a simple question and end up mocked for our accents and then answered in English anyway.  Why should we try?  If you're going to give us grief for how we speak your language, we should we bother?  Do we seem angry that you occasionally don't speak our language?  Maybe it's not so much anger as being scared and frustrated when we are in a strange land and need help and we can't communicate.

I Know I'm Loud.  Is That Really So Terrible?

If you look at any list of American attributes that seem to annoy Europeans almost unjustly, there is always some comments about how "loud" Americans are.  I can't speak for other Americans.  I can only say I know I'm loud.  That's just how I was made.  I have strong lungs and vocal chords.  I always have.  Ever since I was a child I have been told to keep my voice down.  Even as an adult I am often shushed by friends and family members in public.  I can't help it.  My voice is clear and robust by nature.  It's why I'm such a talented singer (or so I'm told).  I don't have an "indoor voice".

I don't get why this is such a problem.  If I'm not insulting you in my loud voice, why do you care?  I don't speak out loud in church or movies or theaters or concerts.  Believe it or not, we are taught this sort of etiquette in the U.S.  There are rude people who don't follow it even in their home country and there are many polite people who do follow it everywhere.

If I were the type of person to speak out loud in movies or church services or concerts, you would have every right to think me rude.  I would hope you would not immediately attribute that to my being American.  I just don't get why you have to judge me so harshly if I happen to be chatting with friends and family on the street or in a restaurant or any other public place if I am talking in my naturally strong clear voice.  How does my voice harm you?  Am I truly hurting you?  Even if I'm annoying you, the world is full of larger annoyances.  Would you rather have me at the table next to you in a restaurant, or have a few mosquitoes trapped in your bedroom?

I Don't Like Jingoism Either, But That Doesn't Give You The Right To Insult My Country

The first time I went to London in 2005, I remember being taken aback by the brusque attitudes that greeted me everywhere I went.  I'm from New York.  Rudeness shouldn't bother me.  I should be used to it.  London didn't just feel rude.  It felt downright hostile at times.  I remember thinking, "If I wore a t-shirt that proclaimed, 'I didn't vote for Bush," would I be treated better?

I am in total agreement with many of the criticisms foreigners have of Americans.  Our news media care more about money and entertainment than they do about keeping us informed about what's happening in the world.  Our educational system is lacking to the point where  too many students don't have a grasp of history, civics, economics, or geography.  Even though we have a secular government, people vote according to their religion.  We care too much about religious issues than economic ones.  It's all true.

It's also my problem, not yours.

Despite its flaws, I happen to like living here.  The United States is a beautiful place filled with many extraordinary people.  It has many flaws, and its share of obnoxious people, but these are problems I would like to help solve.  I love my country by helping it and not by simply screaming, "USA!" repeatedly at public functions.  You don't have to assume I buy into the jingoistic attitude of "my country right or wrong" just because I speak with an American accent.

I am not screaming "God bless America" in my best fundamentalist tone while waving a flag in one hand and a gun in the other.  Not only did I not vote for George W. Bush, I didn't vote for his father either.  (I was too young to vote prior to Bush Sr. but you can bet I would have loved to have voted against Satan Reagan.) I won't be voting for Trump even if someone held a big, fat, legally open carried, semi-automatic gun to my head. 

I don't feel it's my patriotic duty to own a gun and I believe as rights go, there are more important rights to fight for. In my opinion the American obsession with guns is dangerous and woefully misguided. 

I accept the overwhelming science proving climate change and I don't accept the unscientific views of Young Earth Creationism. 

I don't watch Fox News and I often look at foreign news services to get a bigger picture of what's going on in the world since I am aware American corporate news is woefully lacking. 

I believe we are all entitled to practice whatever religion we choose (or no religion at all) and no one should be made to live by another religion's rules as a form of law.

I know you, my dear European reader, may not be the kind of stereotyping, cold-hearted, America-hating foreigner I'm making you out to be.  I'm not so arrogant as to think you or most other Europeans think about Americans at all.  I just want to make sure if by any chance you do have any preconceived notions about Americans, or if a particular encounter with an American is less-than-positive, to please remember we are as human as you are. I am not every other American you ever met or will meet.  We are not monolithic.  There are cultural and attitude differences in different areas of the United States that seem odd even to other Americans.  How can you hang a label on such a large and diverse population?  Please don't make me a scapegoat for everything you think is wrong with Americans.

I'm a tourist.  That means I'm in your country because I want to be there.  Please remember that.

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