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Embrace the American, Leave the Ugly at Home

Gringos Get the Full Show
A couple of friends recently traversed Russia, and upon their first encounter with a full Russian market, the locals could see the amazement and near-horror in my friends' eyes. These markets are much like what open markets might have been in the U.S. 70 years ago; wild free-for-alls of full-on retail and wholesale commerce. We're not talking about Super Fresh or even a roadside stand; we're talking screaming, yelling, carcasses hanging from hooks, open vats of caviar, brain-curdling vodka in home-made bottles, blood everywhere.

The locals sussed my friends out for Americans almost immediately, and the show began. The merchants took their hands and plopped a bloody liver in them; another took a full swing with an ax to the cut they had requested be cooked. One merchant after another gave them a VIP's display of their wares. Had they not been noticed for Americans, they might have been bystanders in the market; instead, they were full participants, even the stars of the show.

Leave the "Ugly" at Home
So there's an upside to being an American abroad, no question. Here are my tips to help you remain American without earning the "ugly" adjective.

1. Dress in an understated fashion, but be yourself.
You may want to leave the I'm with Stupid and South of the Border tees at home, but you don't necessarily have to dress in black in Paris, or in mariachi costume in Mexico.

2. Don't overplay your home town, but if asked, be forthcoming.
Everyone knows someone who won't relent when it comes to their home town, breaking into song at the mere mention of where they live (it's always seemed to me that Alabamans and others from parts South were most likely to launch into song). When asked, volunteer some information, but understand that not the entire world thinks your U.S. state is the center of the planet.

3. Use your eyes and ears before engaging your mouth.
Staying alert and attuned to everything going on around you is not only better style, but is much safer to boot. To paraphrase a very useful truism, better to be thought American than open your mouth and remove all doubt...

4. Walk, or rent a bike.
Seems simple enough, but much of the world doesn't have the addiction to the automobile that Americans do. If you think the big shiny rental car marks you as an out-of-towner in the U.S., wait until you try it in Florence. Walking, or renting a bike for more range and mobility, puts you in the midst of the motion and rhythms of a place.

5. You don't need a picture of everything in sight.
We all want photos from our trips, but a camera is the surest way to label yourself a "pure tourist." You're taking shots of this church and that statue, all the major monuments. You're in none of the photos. Then when you get home, you can't tell one church from another, you have a bunch of photos that look like cheap postcards and you realize you spent all your energy taking pictures of everything.

But if you take your camera and ask a waiter to take your picture with the owner of a small cafe where you had a great time, the memories will come flooding back.

6. Realize that just because something is different, doesn't mean it's wrong.
Eating habits, religious practices, even the word for "soccer" (I still don't call it football) will shift everywhere you go. On the other hand, you can play these for laughs or conversation given the chance, so no fear.

7. Learn the language.
It's getting there, but English is not yet spoken by all the planet. Learn a few words of the language wherever you are, and for goodness' sake, just because someone doesn't understand you doesn't mean they're deaf! If you're thinking "man, this guy doesn't even speak English!", remember, you're the illiterate in this case!

8. And another language tip...
You never know who knows a few words of your language. And you can bet the words they'll know best are the ones you don't want them to know.

I know this one first-hand; when I was a youngster, I was in Paris watching some videos with some girls my age, and they were commenting in French on the skimpy bathing suit of one of the male performers. A couple of days later, one of them said, "Ed speaks Spanish, but knows no French." I replied, "Well, I do know a little French. I know that you were talking about that guy's (insert unprintable French word here) on the video the other day."

The girls turned red, dead silence -- then everyone cracked up. You never, ever know.

9. Do your homework.
This one goes for everyone, but is worth mentioning: do your homework so you don't end up tipping in Japan, or wearing shorts into a mosque in Turkey, or leaving food on your plate in Russia, or cleaning your plate in certain parts of China.

Remember: Ugly is as ugly does, but a true American is a true person of the world.

Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
Features Editor
The Independent Traveler

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