When you travel to a European country do you learn a few words of their language? Why not? If someone from France comes to California (probably to visit wine country, not Disney) do they expect us to greet them in French? Or even expect us to understand what they are asking for unless they speak English? So then why do most American travelers view people in France as rude and unfriendly because they refuse to communicate with us?  Hence the term “ugly American”.

I do not understand why people travel to a foreign country expecting it to be “non-foreign”.   In my view the reason to go there is to see and understand another culture, not just old structures and museums.  And that means learning a bit about the language and the customs.  Only by doing that can you really have great travel adventures.  Plus you will be surprised how well accepted you become, and get amazing interaction with locals, business people, waiters, etc.

My wife and I have been to Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Belgium, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.  Since flights are long I have lots of time to learn a bare minimum of words and phrases for each place we go.  My pronunciation is never very good, but I always (repeat, always) begin a conversation in the local language…never in English.  Immediate respect!  Sure, then we most likely fall back to English but I always try to have English translated back into local language.  That shows I’m interested in them and their country…which I am.  That’s why I travel.

Many Americans see the French as hostile and rude.  Maybe that’s a result of the traveler’s attitude, and not French “custom”.  Let me site an example.  As I mentioned we’ve been to France quite a bit.  Arranging travel on our own saves us enough money to splurge a lot, and stay in high-end country chateaus and often enjoy gourmet dinners.  During a recent visit to the Burgundy region we stayed at a classic old, elegant chateau.  The room prices are not outrageous and the ambiance is awesome.  Most people, many of them French city dwellers, come here for the food.  We did also.  The morning after we arrived we could here lots of activity in the kitchen area, which was fairly close to our room.  Sounded like bread being pounded.  Too bad there were no aromas floating up to our window.  Anyway, after a fun day touring some vineyards, we arranged a nice quiet table for 2 in the restaurant.  We anticipated a gourmet extravaganza.

When you’re an American you look like an American.  But we always try to look as European as possible.  As the waiter approaches I greet him with “bonjour”, not “hello”.  He replies back in French as well.  We’re off to a good start.  I then attempt to order water and some wine, again in limited French.  He responds and asks us if we want “Perrier” water, to which I reply, “no, s’il vous plait, Badoit”.  I just made a lot of points.  Americans drink Perrier and  French people typically Badoit.  A subtle difference but important.

As the waiter hands us menus, we attempt to convey to him, in mixed French-English, the story of the morning bread sounds.  Is that what we really heard?  Yes he indicates, and we’ve made a few more points.

As we begin to enjoy a local wine, and I emphasize local (more points), the waiter starts explaining the menu options…in French.  I try my best to understand but a lot of back-and-forth ensues.  No problem, since both the waiter and I are doing our best to communicate.  He clearly gets the idea I am interested in learning some French, and believe me they appreciate that.  My wife and I settle on the “prix fixe” option, which gets us appetizers, main course, desert, etc.  It also means our dinner will last several hours.  In a normal prix fixe option you get some choices.  Typically 3 main course options.  My wife makes her choice, but I waffle a bit since none of them really inspire me.  I choose one anyway, and off goes the waiter.  Next comes the amazing part.

After a few minutes the waiter comes back.  Realizing I am trying to assimilate into his culture, he provides me with a main course option not part of the prix fixe option.  He didn’t have to do that but I guess I earned enough points to be treated as a local.  We settle back for a delightful evening of gourmet food, great wine, and a positive cultural experience.

As we eat and marvel at the wonderfully presented courses, we notice a group of about 8-10 people across the room.  Lots of loud conversation, annoying gestures, and a total lack of respect for the entire room…and the staff.  Recognizing the language used, they are clearly “ugly Americans”.  We could see many of the waiters talking together and glaring at the table with disgust.  We agree.  I wonder if any member of that group got a special menu choice?

And now comes the finishing touch.  After dinner it’s appropriate in France to sit a bit, maybe have a coffee or after dinner drink, and enjoy some chocolates.  The waiter will not disturb you (with the check) until you subtly signal him.  As we mellow out, the chef comes out of the kitchen and greets us.  Obviously in French he thanks us for enjoying his craft, and jokes about the bread story.  We are impressed.  He returns to the kitchen with only a fowl glance at the ugly American group!

Written on August 21st, 2009 , Anicdotes, Food&Drink, Travel Tips

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