I’m here to get away from you. Go home.
In my younger years, I came across the term ‘brutti Americani,’ which means those horrible Americans who have such a terrible reputation in the rest of the world, for good reason. If you travel, you know who I’m talking about. They’re loud and they’re proud.
I encountered this dynamic repeatedly this past summer. Summer is the worst possible time to travel, because everyone, including people who don’t know how to travel, comes out of hiding from their boring suburban lives, equipped with Rick Steves’ guidebooks and sturdy walking shoes, ready to tackle the Unknown.
The Unknown includes basic etiquette you should have learned prior to leaving home, like: adapting to dress codes, learning how to modulate one’s voice, developing the ability to share seats that don’t belong to you in a crowded airport that is not your living room; not being shocked that other countries are possibly just as, if not more, advanced technologically, than we are, and my all-time favorite Ugly-American-While-Abroad Hobby, Giving Strangers Advice, aka: Telling Others How To Live Their Lives.
These skills are all apparently a huge challenge for those who have been insulated from the world since birth. Americans are uniquely good at remaining insulated, and when we leave our front porch, we want the rest of the world to provide us with only the challenges we’re ready for. This doesn’t leave the rest of the world a lot of wiggle room to be who they are, of course, but we don’t care. We’re here on the planet, like missionaries of old, to educate Foreigners in the error of their ways, and to reform them, so they’ll come around to our way of thinking about the supremacy of shopping malls and fast food.
American brutishness takes different forms, but it boils down to a pernicious inability to fit in to the culture you find yourself in. Now, this is an attitude I utterly deplore, as I have always lived by the tenet I was taught as a child growing up overseas: you are a guest in someone else’s country, behave yourself accordingly.
How do I deplore Americans when they’re abroad? Let me count the ways.
The woman in Paris at the corner of Des Invalides on Bastille Night during the fireworks who was dressed like she was about to roll craps in Vegas. I think she honestly believed she rivalled the simple elegance of Parisian women, who, when they are well dressed, don tailored clothes that adhere to their forms, but are never flashy or shiny. The overall impression I got in Paris is that if you’re wearing glitz, for god’s sake, keep it small and low to the body, and do not shine all over like a traffic light. Or a fireworks’ show, for that matter.
Another woman, this time at my lovely hotel in Paris, informing the staff, loudly, after the televised state funeral earlier that day for seven French soldiers who had given their lives for their country in Afghanistan and Iraq, how they had no business there, and should never have gone to war in the first place.
The woman in the airport in Dublin who, when I needed to sit down in a communal area, said, loudly to her husband, “Just look at that Steven! Would you just look at that!” I had pulled a seat toward me and sat in it, and when this woman started shrieking, I looked up from filling in my customs’ forms to see who was committing a federal crime in broad daylight, only to discover it was me.
Shocked at my own rudeness for needing to (briefly) use a communal seat in a communal area that was not in any way marked as “theirs,” since we were not actually in their living room at the time, I cried out, “Oh, is this seat yours? It was not in any way marked as ‘taken’, since we are not actually in your living room right now!” (Actually, I didn’t say that about the seat being taken; anyone with a brain could see the seat was not taken, except in their minds, which are small and narrow as the suburbs they come from in southwest Idaho or somewhere close to a pumpkin patch).
So the husband, as charming as the wife, mutters, with great forbearance and tolerance of my overweening rudeness, “No, no, don’t worry about it,” and pulls another seat into their magical circle, this time being smarter and wiser, marking it as “taken” with a suitcase. Good for him. He learned something new that day about how to comport yourself while traveling, something the rest of us learned in kindergarten.
Then the happy married couple muttered loudly about the third party they were waiting for, wondering, loudly, where she was. Within a few moments, I had filled out my customs’ form, and was on my way, as is typical in an airport, where nothing belongs to anyone and it’s no one’s front parlour and a chair is just a chair, it’s not part of the set of your personal drama.
Then there was the woman with a head scarf in the five star restaurant seated in the booth in front of me the night before I left Paris. I now know, from being forced to overhear her far-too-loud conversation with a quiet mouse of a dinner companion who kept her voice low and modulated, being from Europe and all, that the woman in question
a) lives in Paris, an expatriate who deplores loud Americans;
b) survived cancer, hence the headscarf;
c) survived a divorce, hence the cancer;
d) has no intention of ever returning to America due to deploring loud Americans but
e) has trouble making ends meet in Paris, so boy this five star restaurant is a wonderful treat, said with a large dollop of bitterness at the way her life has turned out.
I wanted to cry out, in umbrage: But you get to live in Paris, for god’s sake, shut up!
But I didn’t, because if I’m going to share my opinions with anyone, I prefer for it to be here, in private where only you can read my thoughts.
These are all things I didn’t need to know, but now I do, and I’m passing this knowledge on to you, because you know full well this blog is about umbrage, and traveling gives me plenty of it. Others get heartburn while rolling their suitcases over cobblestones; I get umbrage.
Then there was the woman traveling with her son in Gamla Stan who decided that their Italian waiter isn’t living the life she wants him to, and so he should move back to Italy. She told him this while he kept pouring glass after glass of some nice wine for her, allowing her to become ever more voluble.
I know all of this because, once again, I had the grave misfortune of being seated far too close to Americans abroad. I leave the States to get away from you people, and I wish you’d stay home, where you belong, since you bring far too much of yourselves with you when you travel. But I digress.
So the waiter is defending himself against this unwarranted attack and rude speculations on his life, his beliefs, his financial situation, his family history… he was very polite and countered all suggestions about how he really belongs back in Italy, and why wouldn’t he want to live there, it’s such a beautiful country… oh, except for those who actually are Italian and have to live in an economy that cannot support them.
As he said to this woman, in English, possibly his 3rd or 4th language, “I belong here in Sweden, where I can make a living. And all my family lives here.” You’d think that simple reality would shut her up, but no, the zeal of righteousness was fueled by copious amounts of alcohol, which he poured for her liberally. The irony was lost on her, but not on me, a casual observer. For her, Italy is only beautiful country, since she’s American and on vacation and all; his reality is of little importance to her. For him, she is yet another brutti Americani to take advantage of, since all that wine cost her a tidy sum, a fair amount of which went into his pocket in the form of the large tip she left him.
Then there was the overly zealous American on the train from Stockholm, who was shocked and amazed (“oh these guys!,” he expostulated, all shocked and amazed and condescending, but so fond of them and their cute little minds!) to find that Sweden a) has pull-down tray tables ON TRAINS! Who knew the Swedish could be so clever? and that b) the seats on trains can face toward the front OR the back of the train! Gosh these Swedish people are AMAZING in their ability to come up with innovations, aren’t they? Cause we all know that only Americans are innovative, right?
In fact, the plastic bag, those ubiquitous shopping sacks we are now trying to do away with here in the States, originated in Sweden back in the 60s. Just FYI. In other words, Sweden has been at the forefront of some innovative designs we in the States take completely for granted, and we should stop thinking we invented everything, cause we didn’t, and you have to stop having high-pitched epiphanies about how amazing and modern! other countries are, cause you’re making my brain tumor throb.
And here’s some history, written in Italian by an Italian person, who lets you know that the history of Italians in America has been no cake-walk. There’s a reason they leave their native land to live in places of economic prosperity, just like your forebears did in days of yore.
Here’s why overhearing other people’s conversations will drive you crazy. Now read all of this quietly, and if you’re reading this alone in some airport, for god’s sake, keep your opinions to yourself.
- Aberfeldy and Pitlochry, Scotland (nanhann.wordpress.com)
- European Travel Expert Rick Steves Offers Tips for Exploring Paris (prweb.com)
- Paying homage at Hemingway’s Paris shrines (collaborativewriter.wordpress.com)
- The First Time I Saw Paris (growingyoungereachday.wordpress.com)
- Paris is still the top city destination for the British (travelnews.britishairways.com)
- Paris hotels airport (ebookers.com)
- Paris Nightlife (ebookers.com)
- France soul-searches over treatment of homeless (telegraph.co.uk)
- Bon Jour Paris – Paris, France (travelpod.com)
- Fundamentalist Christians Protest at Paris Theater (foxnews.com)
- All about Paris – Paris, France (travelpod.com)
- Start Spreading the News… (weekendinparis.wordpress.com)
- We make our way to Paris… – Paris, France (travelpod.com)