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The American Tourist in Europe

Posted Nov 12 2012 3:52pm
I have a confession to make.

Often, when I am traveling in Europe, I find myself a bit embarrassed that I am an American.

When I am traveling in Turkey, it is obvious that I am an American. I don’t blend at all. So I don’t try.
But when I am traveling in Europe, I am automatically assumed to be German or Dutch. When you maneuver through the airport, flight attendants and security personnel will speak to you in English or the language of that home country. They most always assume I am German and begin with German.

I let them. And as long as I can fake it, I do.
The reason?

Americans are embarrassing!  They stick out so much and do not even attempt to blend in. So much so that I decided to write this post to try to help my fellow Americans. Please understand that in our country, we can act like Americans. But the rest of the world does not act like you. Europeans act very differently. And you can tell that they have strong opinions of these loud, obnoxious Americans who stand out so uncomfortably.
You know how we tell jokes about the French? Well, other cultures tell jokes about us! They make fun of us. A lot!

As famous American Tourist Guide writer Rick Steve’s wrote in his article UglyAmerican,  many Americans traveling abroad, “invade a country while making no effort to communicate with the "natives." Traveling in packs, he talks at and about Europeans in a condescending manner. He sees the world as a pyramid, with the United States on top and the ‘less developed’ world trying to get there.”* Another online article made me laugh when he recounted seeing what others thought of Americans. “I saw a play in Ireland in summer 1999 in which American tourists were satired – they were dressed in white sneakers, fanny packs, t-shirts with a sports team logo, and baseball caps. They complained about the cigarette smoke and asked for decaf coffee. Quite amusing since the actors resembled my parents a bit.”**

If people don’t like you and don’t respect you, you will not have as nice of a trip. Your travel experience (and that of Americans to follow you) will be effected. So how can you travel better?   Acting Appropriate

To be a good traveler in Europe, an American must understand that … It’s not about you. Americans believe the entire world is centered around us. It isn't. Even if you believe American ways are better, don’t compare. Enjoy doing things the European way. Europe sees two kinds of travelers: (a) Those who view Europe through air-conditioned bus windows, socializing with their noisy American friends, (b) and those who are taking a vacation from America, immersing themselves in different cultures, experiencing different people and lifestyles, and broadening their perspectives. Questions like: "how much is that in real money?" sound uneducated and rude.

You are not in America. An Ugly American demands to find America in Europe. He throws a fit if the air-conditioning breaks down in a hotel and insists on an English menu. He measures Europe with an American yardstick.* Research will help you. Take a few minutes to research the cultural norms of the country you are visiting. For instance, knowing that it is rude to blow my nose in Turkey was important. Understanding that Turks say no but throwing their head backwards was vital.

Your way is not the right way. In Turkey, I had to remind myself that the fact that the Turks did not respect lines did not make them rude. It can be difficult to remember but just because something is different does not make it wrong. Don’t criticize "strange" customs and cultural differences. You must remind yourself, continually that only a Hindu knows the value of India's sacred cows, and only a devout Spanish Catholic appreciates the true worth of his town's patron saint. Discipline yourself to focus on the good points of each country. Don't dwell on problems or compare things to "back home."* Being observant and sensitive to what is happening around you will go a long way. If 60 people are eating quietly with hushed conversation in a Belgian restaurant, you know it's not the place to yuk it up.* I often will try to observe the cultural appropriateness of what I am thinking of doing. Or if I am not sure, I will ask if it is okay. Can I bring my child into that restaurant? Is it okay if they are walking around or should they be sitting down? Is what I am wearing offensive?

You shouldn’t flash your “American-ness”. Maintain humility. Don't flash signs of affluence. You don't joke about the local money or over tip. Your bucks don't talk!* People smoke. Non-smoking sections at restaurants are not nearly as easy to come by outside the USA. When we were in Turkey we just had to suck it up. Literally. Again, your way is not the right way (even IF it is the healthier way.)

You are loud! Ssssssshhhhhh! Look, I am a loud person. A very loud person. But Europeans are quiet and soft-spoken. I cannot tell you how many times I hear some really loud voices and turn, always finding Americans! Quiet down. Large arm and hand movements and boisterous behavior should be avoided until you know how the locals act. You are the tourist. Go as a guest; act like one, and you'll be treated like one. In travel, too, you reap what you sow.* Don't be offended if they stare and point at you. You are the tourist. Just smile and move on. Apologize if you have done something that might be perceived as rude.

Children are given a lot of leeway. Even in cultures that do not celebrate children (England) as much as others (Turkey), people are often very flexible when it comes to children. Try to respect the fact that you are the one travelling with (three) small children. Choose a restaurant that is appropriate for your child. Try to sit where people may be less effected by noise. If you don’t know where to change a diaper or whether or not breastfeeding in public is okay, ask a local. You can learn something from others. Accept and try to understand differences. Paying for your Italian coffee at one counter, then picking it up at another may seem inefficient, until you realize it's more sanitary: The person handling the food handles no money. Try to be genuinely interested in the people and cultures you visit.*

The personal should stay personal. Europeans do not ask personal questions of strangers like Americans do. They never ask me what I do or how many children I have or if I am married. They will discuss travel plans or broad concepts, but the details are not of interest to them. Good manners are polite.  Avoid chewing with your mouth open, burping, chewing gum obnoxiously, passing gas, etc.

Slow down. Take things in. Europeans move at a slower pace and definitely take the time to sit down and drink their coffee. You have to try new things. Sometimes you might just have to open a menu and point to something, taking a chance. You’ll have to take your own pickles off your sandwich if you don’t like them. Do not eat at American restaurants in Europe. Obviously, if you are there for many weeks, you may crave a bit of home. But when in Rome . . . 

Go easy on the ketchup and skip the ice. Europeans use a lot less ketchup and a lot less ice than we do. I have managed to get used to Coke without ice and not drowning my fries in ketchup. When I ask for ketchup, I typically get one pack. When I ask for more, I get one more pack. (I can’t bring myself to ask a third time.) If you really don’t want to look like an American, do not ask for ice. Period. And settle for a lot less ketchup. (Or mix it with Mayo -- yuck!) In addition, in many countries, the ice is not from a safe water source like the water is. In Turkey, we were definitely encouraged to not accept ice even if offered. A little goes a long way. Try to learn a few words of the language. Please and thank you go a long way. Get a Lonely Planet book on language and practice just a few phrases. Most Europeans speak English but saying please and thank you in their language is just kind. Don't worry about making mistakes! Communicate!

Space is different everywhere. Spreading out at a food counter or taking up two seats is not seen as appropriate when a lot of people are present. Don’t worry if the person behind you in line is very close. Personal space has a lot of variety around the world. Participate in the culture. Go to church. Go to a pub. Cheer for the local soccer team. Play where the locals play, not where the Americans play. (While tourists outnumber locals five to one at the world-famous Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen's other amusement park, Bakken, is enjoyed purely by Danes. Disneyland Paris is great. But Paris' Asterix Park is more French.) Traveling through the wine country of France during harvest time, you can be a tourist taking photos — or you can pitch in and become a local grape picker.*

Consume Responsibly. Europeans are very into recycling and conservation. Turn the lights off. Don’t be wasteful. Patronize the mom and pop shop. You won’t find WalMarts on every corner in Europe. The little guys are what give Europe their charm. Spend your money there!

Join in. When you visit the town market in the morning, you're just another hungry local, picking up your daily produce. You can snap photos of the pilgrims at Lourdes — or volunteer to help wheel the chairs of those who've come in hope of a cure. Get more than a photo op. Get dirty. That night at the festival, it's just grape pickers dancing — and you're one of them. Looking Appropriate

So now you know how to act appropriately. How can you look appropriate? You can . . . Dress up. In general, Europeans dress much less casually then we do in the USA. It is very rare to see a European in any sort of sweat suit or workout attire. Generally speaking, long pants or skirts and buttoned shirts and blouses are the social norm. Blue jeans are seen as casual but are usually not seen as inappropriate, and as a tourist, you’ll be find in them. Pick some without holes in them. Lightweight pants are a great option.

Wear the right shoes. I must retract a previous statement I made to my friend Casey when chastised for my white tennis shoes. She was right as much as hate to say it. White tennis shoes, unless they are of the stylish Converse variety are just not something the Europeans wear. Opt for black tennis shoes if you want to wear them. I don’t think I realized how stereotypically American white tennis shoes were until I left America. White tennis shoes, crocs, open-toed sandals, and flip-flops just scream American and you will feel different.

Leave the ski coat at the lodge. Europeans don’t wear things like ski jackets and down jackets. They wear more formal coats. If you can afford it, you’ll fit in more.

Tone down your colors. Colors vary depending on the type of town and location but generally speaking, more neutral tones are always better received.

Not wear . . . baseball hats, backpacks (unless a stylish one), fanny pack, and water bottles at home. (And don’t wear your camera around your neck either.) Take the picture that you are given. Don’t ask the locals to pose.

I'd love to hear from you. Comments from seasoned travelers? Questions from novice travelers?

*Rick Steve's The Ugly American
** How to Avoid Ugly American Syndrome
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