25 chapters, 100,000 words, 120 illustrations
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On $25 a Day or Less
HOW TO SEE THE WORLD
Art of Travel - European and World Backpacking


The Ugly American Syndrome
Or,
Monsieur Monsieur Goes Postal


MANY THINGS ARE on Monsieur Monsieur's mind as he waits for the light to change. When the last car passes he strides onto the street, in a hurry to mail some documents at the post office. Lost in thought, he nearly collides with a couple halted in the middle of the crosswalk, and who appear to be looking for something. They are obviously tourists. Monsieur works his way around and enters the post, where about a dozen people are waiting.

A few moments later Al and Val get in line behind Monsieur. They speak in voices so loud that Monsieur and everyone else can not only hear, but cannot help but hear, their conversation.

Al: "I'll get in this line in case it moves faster."

Val: "Good idea. Are you sure you know how to get there. We really should be there when it opens, you know."

Al: "No problem. It's not far."

Val: "Like yesterday?"

Al: "Are you bringing that up again? We got there, didn't we?"

Val steps forward and touches the arm of Monsieur, who had been wishing for a shotgun to silence the grotesquely noisy couple.

"Pardon, Monsieur. Parlez vouz anglais? Can you tell me the fastest way to the Loover?"

Monsieur, turning slightly, replies "Non," and resumes his fantasy with renewed vigor.

Val: "He doesn't speak English."

Al: "Yeah, right."

Before Val can answer Monsieur faces her full on, looks her straight in the eye, and declares in perfect English: 

"You are a preposterous hippopotamus."

*

While I invented a few details of this story, the worst is true: I was writing a postcard in the corner, cringing.

I imagine Al and Val spent a week in Paris, and had a wonderful time seeing the sights and eating in restaurants. They may also have been much hornier than usual. But they were both perturbed at how reserved and rude the French were. They would gladly take their money, but getting them to answer a few simple questions was like pulling teeth. Back in their Dallas suburb they could ask anybody anything, and anybody would smile and appear genuinely happy to help.

Truly, though, the Dallas suburb and Paris are very different places, and it is absurd for Al and Val to expect Parisians to behave like them, or even to like them. Al and Val do not know to modify their behavior when visiting a different culture. Paris is a city of several million, but receives ten million foreign tourists every year, and has been such a mecca for centuries. Al and Val may be culminating a lifetime dream with their visit to the City of Light, but most Parisians wish they would go away, or at least maintain a low, "European" profile.

While most visitors to Paris do maintain a low profile, including most Americans, there are too many inconsiderate bad apples who give us a reputation for being loud and obnoxious.

In general, Americans are different from Europeans. We come from a massive country where we mostly encounter one basic culture from one end to the other. Europe has several dozen national languages, and many Europeans are multilingual. They are far more adapted to traveling in foreign lands, as there are many such foreign lands a few hours drive from their homes.

Europe is also five to ten times as densely populated as the States, with much more compact cities and towns. Europeans are more likely to have to queue for services and to push their way onto a bus or subway. Since European land prices are high due to great competition, their homes and apartments are usually smaller than American or Australian ones.

Consequently Europeans have less personal space than Americans. When together Europeans stand closely and talk quietly. Most would never shout across a crowded post office: they walk over and say hello to a friend. Living in a crowded continent, Europeans have developed a keen sense of respect for their neighbor's sensibilities. They instinctively understand it is rude to invade another's personal space with unnecessarily loud talk. That person may have his own thoughts or conversation to pursue. Europeans also put a high value on "minding their own business."

Most Americans stand further apart than Europeans when conversing, and our voices are often loud enough to resound and echo off small post office walls. Although we are a friendly and open people, our different sense of space is probably more responsible for the ugly American label than any other characteristic.

Americans, however, should not imitate the sometimes icy European reserve. Many people genuinely enjoy meeting and talking to Americans precisely because we are less reserved than some other cultures. And as an American traveler do not lament your lack of worldliness--it's perfectly okay to not know everything (sometimes anything), and to ask questions. Be considerate, but don't let yourself become one of those sorry travelers who separate themselves from people and the world with a "sophistication" that is actually arrogance.


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