As an academic trained in American studies, I've always dreaded the thought of being perceived as an Ugly American when traveling overseas. Eager to distance myself from images of the idiot abroad, I've learned French, dabbled in Spanish and Italian, and occasionally put in some serious effort, when preparing for a conference trip or a study-abroad excursion, to learn about other nations' artistic traditions, sports manias, and food fetishes.
My motives, alas, are not always a sincere interest in other peoples and places—I just want to be liked and not judged provincial. In most cases, however, I don't succeed in impressing my foreign hosts and acquaintances; instead, I just seem to irritate or amuse them. Some examples:
What's good for the goose. About eight years ago, on a conference trip to southern France, I got myself into an awkward situation while visiting Sarlat, a medieval village famous for its goose-liver paté. Looking for an excuse to display my language ability, and to prove to my American companions—as well as the French locals—that I was savvier than the typical American traveler, I approached a woman at the visitor's bureau with a question that I felt was simple enough: "Where could one purchase some fresh foie gras?"
In hindsight I can see how that sentence was both naïve and pretentious. (It implied that I was a sophisticated foodie who deserved access to the local, "authentic" stuff rather than the mass-produced tins on display in the tourist shops.)
The woman behind the desk pulled out a map and with withering sarcasm, which I was initially unable to detect, proceeded to give me elaborate directions: "Make your way down this road, arrive at this particular farmer's house, knock on his door, help him to slaughter a goose on the spot, and then proceed to watch his wife create the delicacy right there—just for you—in her front yard."
I obediently wrote down those directions until, near the end, I began to register the chuckling of several locals near her desk. Face burning, I realized that my use of French had actually made me even more laughable than the average American tourist. I quickly hustled my colleagues out of the building, assuring them that I'd gotten directions to the prime source—a supermarché just around the corner.
The story gets worse. About an hour later, when we were finally enjoying some paté on baguettes, I made the mistake of casually reading the label on one of the cans I had directed my colleagues to purchase. The main ingredient listed on the back? Le foie du porc (pig liver). I hadn't even succeeded in buying the right product. Carefully setting the tin back down on the table, I smiled encouragingly at my companions and kept that minor detail to myself.
Walk softly and carry a big kid. When directing a study-abroad program in London a couple years ago, I was worried about irritating the locals because our excursions would include more than 40 college students and two other faculty directors and their families. We prepped our students with lectures about social etiquette in Britain, but it soon became clear that the source of any embarrassment would probably be me and my family (four children, the youngest a 9-year-old daughter).
One excursion to the north of England became especially uncomfortable when my youngest child decided that she was too tired to walk anymore. At the start of a long day in York, she sat down on a curb and refused to take another step.
Needing to keep up with the students and not wanting to miss any of the sights, I first tried to carry her in my arms, like an invalid. My biceps soon wore out, however—she weighed close to 80 pounds—and I was forced to hoist her onto my shoulders.
The sight of a middle-aged man stooped under the weight of such a large child seemed to amuse, scandalize, and frighten passers-by. My embarrassment grew as my daughter began to revel in her elevated position, yelling loudly to siblings and students and quickly learning to direct me forcefully through narrow sidewalks by using her legs as a steering device.
By late afternoon, my back was killing me, and I could barely lift my head. With less than an hour before we had to catch our tour bus, the situation reached a crisis point: My kids were hungry, and I was a broken man in dire need of a public facility.
At a small fish-and-chips shop, my wife and kids ordered food, and I staggered to the small, unisex restroom, only to find that the light bulb above the toilet had burned out. I devised a simple plan: I would hold the door open for a several moments while visually memorizing the layout of the bathroom, and then I would proceed to lock the door and take care of things in the dark.
I somehow failed to take a visual snapshot of the large wooden diaper-changing table lurking directly in front of the toilet. And so moments later, as I leaned forward in the darkness while dropping my trousers, my right eye hit a blunt corner of the table. I gave out a high-pitched scream, staggered for several seconds in the dark with my pants around my ankles, and toppled to the floor.
It took several minutes to wrestle myself back together. My family, fellow diners, and the shopkeepers had heard the muffled noises of combat behind the door and were all staring at me when I finally emerged. Their eyes widened when they saw that one of my eye sockets had swollen shut and was turning a brilliant purple.
An injury like that should have earned me a reprieve from my passenger-carrying duties, but since we had to sprint to catch our bus, I was obliged once again to take up my burden. Perhaps the most vivid image that citizens of York saw that evening was a large child floating above the crowd, using her legs to guide the Quasimodo-like fellow beneath her, who was using just one good eye to keep track of his stumbling feet on the ancient, cobbled streets.
Lingonberry bash. A year after getting my current teaching job, I was invited by an old graduate-school friend to go to Denmark to present a paper at an international conference. I jumped at the chance, imagining that I was now a serious, world-traveling academic—the dashing protagonist in a David Lodge novel, perhaps.
To maximize my experience, I scheduled two extra days for a sightseeing trip that would take me to the island of Ærø, on the country's southern coast.
Unaccustomed to overseas flights, I arrived in Denmark exhausted and queasy. I badly needed food and sleep, but I was forced by my itinerary to board a crowded train immediately and travel for four hours to the city where I'd catch a ferry to my island. A few bungled attempts to speak Danish to strangers during this part of the voyage heightened my growing feelings of dejected anomie.
My spirits sank even lower when I found that I'd missed the midday ferry to the island by minutes, and would have to wait several hours at the dock for another. Saddled with too much luggage, I made the unfortunate decision to delay my first real meal in more than 36 hours until I arrived at my destination.
When I finally got to my tiny hotel on the island, the concierge warned me that if I wanted to see the local sites, it would have to be right away, since a big storm was coming in later that evening and would settle in for days. Already irrational by this point, I found myself immediately renting a bike and weakly setting off, still unfed, into the dusk-shrouded streets.
The island's windswept landscape was impressive, but the descending storm and my exhaustion eventually forced me off of the bike. Desperate for food, I discovered a self-serve produce stand by the side of the road that featured one item: large crates of lingonberries. After depositing my money in the box, I attached an entire crate to the back of my bike—mashing most of the fruit in the process—and set off back to the hotel against a driving rain. Famished, I started eating berries while riding, awkwardly reaching behind me and pulling off handfuls. This was a dangerous and messy business: I swerved erratically with each grab, and was usually able to get only half of the berries (and a good helping of stems) into my mouth each time.
When I finally reached the hotel, I quickly staggered to my tiny mirrorless and bathroom-free bedroom, took off my wet jacket, and headed straight for the restaurant downstairs. Once seated in the fancy dining room, I noticed that all of the other patrons were staring at me and whispering to each other. With my wrinkled and damp travel clothing, I imagined that I must have been quite a spectacle. As a conciliatory gesture, I tried to smile good-naturedly, make eye contact, and mouth an apologetic God aften ("Good evening" in Danish) in each table's direction.
Determined to come across as the respectful visitor, I loudly ordered the quintessential Danish dishes on the menu—reconstituted fish, boiled potatoes, and a salad of chopped broccoli, cabbage, and heavy mayonnaise. Despite the unpleasantness of those choices, I devoured the food when it arrived.
After ordering dessert, I made a quick trip to the establishment's tiny restroom. Turning toward the mirror, I realized in horror why I had attracted so much attention: My skin was a pale green from lack of sleep; I had dark, haunted circles under bloodshot eyes; and my hair stood straight up as if I had been electrocuted—savagely coiffed, apparently, by the wind and rain during my erratic bicycle ride. The most ridiculous detail? Lingonberry juice had stained an enormous crimson patch around my mouth and down onto my chin and neck. I looked like a maniac, or perhaps a deranged clown, who had just snacked on some local fauna.
Soap and water took off the worst of it, but I felt too self-conscious to remain in the restaurant. I quickly paid my bill and retreated to my room, ending the evening dejectedly munching on a mashed granola bar I'd discovered at the bottom of my backpack. Sitting on the edge of my bed, I realized that I was indeed like a character in a David Lodge novel, but a minor and cartoonish one: the oblivious American buffoon abroad.