Tuesday, June 06, 2006

a pause, a smirk, a quick roll of the eyes

In case it isn't patently obvious, I must state for the record that my thoughts on the topic of ugly Americans are not clear. I'm sorting through them outloud (more or less). I hope you don't mind.

Here are some of things I can't get my head around:

First, every American who travels abroad must hear the same admonition: "Don't be an ugly American." Right? I mean, right??? Am I naive to think that? Because I still find myself spotting ugly Americans and ducking them almost everywhere I go. So here are the real questions: Does each of us have our own idea of what "ugly American" means? Do we also have our unique thresholds for withholding our Americ-inanity? Or maybe we have individual capacities for absorbing another culture before we shake it off and chant "Beer! Beer! Beer!" in the middle of a Gothic cathedral.

Second, it is actually kind of hard to tell Americans from many Europeans. For example, I got lost in Venice once and wandered aimlessly for awhile before finally deciding that I needed to ask directions. I kept approaching men who looked like my dad - tall and fair, that is (actually, to be completely honest, they all looked almost exactly like my dad, including the glasses, beard, and severely receding hairline, which goes to show the sad state of my emotional affairs at the time ... Poppa? Poppa? I want my Poppa. ... but that's a story for another day) - and not a one of them spoke English.

We could generalize about appearances - Americans are often fair, overweight, casually dressed - and behavior - we're loud, disrespectful, demanding - but our accent is the only guaranteed way to distinguish us from the throngs. So when you hear a story about an ugly American, it often involves somebody noticing a familiar voice nearby and skeedaddling before any taint rubs off on them.

Kurt and I did this very thing at Sacre Coeur. This gleaming white collection of spires (upper right of photo) overlook the whole of Paris. They are packed every evening with tourists and Parisians alike enjoying the sunset and the view of the city. Children play frisbee and chase stray cats. Hippies play guitar and chase stray chicks. We passed a pair of girls dancing and it all seemed fine and dandy until we heard one of them say something like "No, I'm leading!" We bolted. Only when they were completely out of earshot did we allow ourselves the luxury of a pause, a smirk, and a quick roll of the eyes. Americans. Yeesh.


What did they do, really? Except speak with an American accent? It was almost instinctual to hightail it out of there but why? Are Americans zigzagging all over Europe in attempts to avoid guilt by association? Are we really so terrible?


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