As I prepared to leave for Europe a lot of people had questions about the trip. After “Have you seen the movie Hostel? Aren’t you scared!”…the second most common question had to do with how I felt and what I expected given the current political and social tensions between the US and Europe.
We have all heard the travel horror stories brought back by Americans traveling abroad. Recounting the abuse, horrible service and even occasional fight that they got into while traveling overseas because of cultural tension. For many people those stories have led to increased levels of anxiety when traveling and even, in some cases, discouraged people from taking the trip at all. It’s an issue often discussed, but despite that I still feel like I may have something to contribute.
For me, it has never really been an issue. It might be due to the extensive traveling I’ve already done or tied to my personality as a mediator – either way I’ve often found it to be a null issue. My experiences in 2004 when I participated in a study abroad trip to the British Isles were largely similar to my experiences during my most recent 3 month trip throughout Europe.
It’s an odd paradox, on one hand I noticed an enormous American cultural presence in Europe, especially countries like Croatia and Greece. On the other hand there is without a doubt a certain animosity and disgust which has infiltrated these cultures leaving their populations with mixed, sometimes hypocritical stances. Most of the Europeans I encountered made an important distinction between the politics of the current administration and the American people. Despite that however, there was also general disbelief and a sense of incredulity that the American people would/could allow the administration to continue without at least some level of endorsement. It’s a subject that people are eager to discuss with travelers, in part because it’s such a universal issue that it’s an easy conversation piece. For that reason, before undertaking a trip, the biggest piece of advice I can suggest is not to pretend you’re Canadian or dress differently, but rather spend some time and educate yourself about the current political situation.
For me, the political issue was actually more of a boon than a negative. It’s no secret that I have major issues with the current administration or that I’m extremely patriotic. I’ve opposed the Bush administration since the 2000 election. I spend a lot of time researching my position and keeping up with current events, especially those that CNN and FOX might otherwise skip over. To that end, when I encountered people who wanted to discuss politics or who were eager to make derogatory statements about the U.S., I was more than willing to engage with them. In most situations the discussion quickly turned into an educational lecture and even in the situations where we disagreed, by offering detailed explanations for my stance and acknowledging failings where they existed, just about every conversation ended on a positive note. I really want to take a moment to clarify as well that in these discussions I was not attacking the U.S. – quite to the contrary. However, I also wasn’t blindly defending everything we do.
Without getting too sidetracked – I’ll give you an example of a potentially touchy issue that still, when properly discussed, left my European companions nodding thoughtfully. On the issue of Imperialism I’m a firm believer that the U.S. is unique in a historical context. When one compares all of the previous world superpowers e.g. the Ottoman, Roman, British etc. empires to the U.S. there is a distinct difference in behavior. Where it’s predecessors expanded their empires by conquest and domination until over extended they collapsed, the U.S. has (after a brief period of expansion) been content to merely meddle in foreign governments, with no major attempts to bring new territory into the Union. As you can imagine, this stance wasn’t always incredibly well recieved, but when explained and presented in a detailed way it was accepted without animosity or ill will.
In the last few years it seems as though there has been a movement in the U.S. which has left many Americans ashamed to declare themselves as Americans while abroad. An image that has partially been reinforced by other english-speaking traveler’s efforts to declare themselves as non-Americans. Most of the Canadian backpackers and some of the Australian and New Zealanders I met were sporting the infamous Canadian/Aussie/Kiwi flag badge on their packs. For some it’s a simple declaration of country and their pride there in. For most, however, it was intended as a blaring “Don’t mistake me for an American”. To be honest, these really started to bug me after a while. In most of the culturally insensitive situations I witnessed it wasn’t Americans that were acting stupid – but rather those same Canadians/Aussies/Kiwis who when caught, questioned or even observed…suddenly claimed they were American or were automatically assumed to be.
Don’t get me wrong, Americans abroad can be culturally insensitive, arrogant travelers but even there we’re not nearly as bad as our reputation. Ironically enough, the group I observed to be the worst/most disliked were the Italians. I was shocked at the level of dislike some of the locals/tourist establishments/bars etc. held toward them. I also noticed a big difference between the three different types of American travelers I encountered. The first and most common was of course my fellow backpackers, the 2nd group were students studying abroad and traveling and the 3rd group consisted of elderly/retirees. The vast majority of the American backpackers I met were incredibly culturally sensitive, friendly and open. The students I encountered were usually slightly less adjusted but still far from the classic stereotypical American. The least adjusted were typically the retirees. These individuals usually stuck out like sore thumbs, could be heard in loud accented voices complaining about small cultural differences and fit the classic American stereotypes the best.
In fact, on multiple occasions I had fellow backpackers comment on the fact that the Americans they had met on the road were nothing like what they had expected. That they were often some of the most friendly, social travelers. At the same time though, it was also usually pretty obvious when there were a lot of Americans around. With our distinctive accents and loud behavior we are without a doubt pretty easily identified.
I mentioned earlier that I didn’t make any secret of the fact that I was American. That said, my standard dress however, was not distinctly American. In fact, towards the end in Greece I found it interesting that most of the restaurant street promoters and other sales people I encountered initially seemed to think I was German, french or Italian. Despite wearing faded bluejeans, a polo, my North Face vest and Marmot jacket…I think my old newsy-style hat and scarf are what confused them…especially toward the end when I grew a small goatee/mustache.
Though I usually corrected their misperception pretty quickly, I usually didn’t notice a significant change in their behavior or treatment. American or German they were equally eager to engage and talk to me.
Before I let my thoughts wander too much further I’ll leave you with several general tips:
- Do your research. Six hours spent researching US/Global politics will go a long way toward diffusing any political discussion you get into. Especially if you can ask them about their native political situation and issues.
- Don’t be afraid to be yourself, but consider the culture. Girls: if it’s a more conservative culture don’t wander the streets in a miniskirt and haltertop unless you want to be whistled at and treated like a whore. Guys: if you’re interested in blending in trade the baseball cap out for a different type of hat. Don’t be afraid to toss on a scarf and leave the Abercrombie and Hollister shirts at home.
- Ask people questions about their culture/what they would suggest and then be willing to try it. I regularly gave my waiter a price range and then asked him/her to pick a cultural plate for me and to surprise me with it.
- Remind yourself constantly that you’re not in the states and that part of the benefit is that things are different. Even if you prefer the way we do it, acknowledge the merits of how they do things.
- Keep in mind that most Europeans speak English. Be aware of your surroundings.
- Don’t shout or raise your voice while using baby talk with foreign speakers. If they don’t understand you immediately slow down your statement and try to use hand/facial motions to make your point. Remember 85% of conversation is non-verbal.
Other thoughts or tips? Post them here.