Is the term “Ugly American” still relevant? Are you one? Why do you travel anyway?
I often wonder why people travel to Europe, and expect to be greeted in English and never try to understand or assimilate into the local culture. If your goal is to simply see sites, visit museums, and take tons of pictures, maybe traveling the great old USA would be better. When I go to another country my main reason is to see how other folks live, eat, work, and play. Their culture is what interests me, and how it’s different from ours.
Over the years, sad to say, most of Europe has caved in and now caters to the American tourist. They now have fast food places (yikes), try to speak English, and tailored their food to foreign tastes. Is their real heritage disappearing? Did we force them to do this? And what gives us the right to expect them to make these changes? I have to admit I had a lot more fun traveling Europe when it was difficult and confusing. It was the challenge and the learning that made a great trip.
Today when I go there I see 2 types of traveler. Let’s call them the “independent traveler” and the “tour groupie”. I’m a totally independent traveler, and do all my own planning, reservations, and site research. Tour groupies just show up at designated times and places, do nothing to appreciate or understand local customs, and are typically “ugly American” tourists. Boy the Europeans hate them. And treat them like dirt. And enjoy taking all their money.
We have many close friends at our local church that are older (like us) and travel a lot. We have never even considered going on their group tours, which might be fun since we all get along. Why? Their idea of a great trip getting up at the crack of dawn to pack up all their stuff (usually tons of it) and have it ready for pickup at their hotel. Then onto the bus to get to then next town. Then late morning site-seeing, group lunch with no choices, afternoon site-seeing, hotel check-in, group dinner, and unpacking. Repeat for several days. But here’s the rub for me. I’ve heard that buses have been adorned with USA flags and banners…announcing the Americans are in town. Now that’s “ugly”.
So how are ugly Americans treated? Mostly tolerated, but never raised to the level of “local”. Here’s a great example of the different treatment and respect. In France, my wife and I stayed at a well known gourmet food place. OK rooms, but awesome food. And very French in style and attitude (not a bad thing). As an independent tourist interested in local language and customs, I always attempt to communicate in the local language. Not well, mind you, but passable and normally appreciated. I’ve been corrected at lot but, hey, I’m learning. Waiters in France are different than here. They do not intrude, ever. Instead they respond to your requests for attention and service, and that includes getting the bill. So how should you proceed?
I always greet the staff in their language and go from there. I also normally know what special food items are from the region, what water they prefer, and what wine is local. All this knowledge earns me points toward being treated very well. So in the gourmet restaurant my efforts at French dialog actually get us several menu options not listed or even anticipated. For example, a 5 course dinner (prix fixe) usually offers limited choices for appetizer, main course, and desert. Well this time none of the main courses thrilled me, but after hesitation I made a choice. The waiter understood my hesitation, but said nothing. But when he took the order to the kitchen, he soon returned. The chef permitted the waiter to offer me an off the board choice. I accepted and was surprised. The points earned paid off.
But here is the fun part of this story. Across the room was a table of “tour groupies”. I’m not sure how they got into this place, but maybe it was one of their “evenings at leisure” with no set dinner. Anyway, that group acted like this was the local Olive Garden. Lots of loud talking (yelling), plenty of action, and rude treatment of the entire staff. Nothing like high finger clicking to get a waiter’s attention. And obviously no French, only English. Well, not only did they not get any menu alternatives, after dinner the chef came out and thanked my wife and I for enjoying the restaurant. On his way back to the kitchen, only a glaring glance to the groupies. Same for most of the other staff. Once again, “ugly”.