When I was in Prague last month, what struck me about Prague wasn’t so much the pork ribs or the incredible architecture or the flooded river (and accompanying lack of riverside beer gardens, sadly) but the…Americans. Or, as Rick Steves puts it, The Ugly Americans.
My countrymen, I am calling you to the carpet.
I saw white sneakers. I saw a lot of talking on cell phones, LOUDLY, in public. Worst of all, I saw…fanny packs. I also saw some being rude to waiters, some grumbling about why people don’t all speak English, and just a lot of pushy American behavior. GUYS! Come on. Aren’t we better than that? Though perhaps it’s feeling better than things that got us into this mess to begin with. Hmm.
It’s one thing, I suppose, if you just don’t give a shit about how you’re coming across to people who are nice enough to host you in their country. Some people don’t. That must be freeing for you.
However, there are many people who don’t intend to behave this way. They just haven’t had the pleasure of traveling abroad and simply aren’t acquainted with the European way of going about your business.
If I may, I’d love to add a few tips to the list to help everyone – us and them – have a more pleasurable experience with the Americans:
1. Try to blend in. Instead of sparkling white New Balance sneakers, perhaps you might consider a cushy ballet flat or a well-made loafer or boat shoe? Or, when all else fails, a classic pair of Converse in fresh white or their Euro cousin, Bensimon sneaks. Dr. Scholls inserts are a wonder for tired feet. Investigate.
Nothing screams I AM AN AMERICAN like a windbreaker. Any and all mentions of breaking wind should be reserved for classy fart jokes. Invest in a classic trench coat for rainy days and a light cardigan with a scarf for less cold days when a lighter layer will do. And even if you don’t want to invest, per se (though we talked about that, remember?) you can get a perfectly fine trench coat at the Gap and some colorful pashminas at any open market from Galway to Versailles.
Finally, instead of a fanny pack (I can barely type those two words) have you considered an over the shoulder tote in classic leather? Or maybe a small cross body handbag that’s easy to tuck inside a larger, more unobtrusive bag like the Longchamp le Pliage? Look into it.
2. Learn before you leave. The coffee break podcasts from Radio Lingua are fabulous for learning the romance languages, plus a few others. The episodes are short and you can easily ramp up on greetings, directions, counting and introducing yourself with minimal effort. It’s not important that you have a flawless conversation, but it is important to try.
For those who want to take it to the next level, a small guide book with some words and phrases can be an awesome accompaniment to all that gum you have stashed in your purse.
3. Jump in! Get flowers at the local market to spruce up your rented flat or hotel room. Get coffee at the local cafe and chat with the barista as best you can. Shop the local markets, engage the neighbors, and jump into the daily doings of wherever you are. Not only will you make friends, but you’ll have a more authentic experience.
4. Manners trump all. When everything fails – and it will – and you are lost and feeling like an outsider, make like Kate and smile, smile, smile.
Approach a local, smile, and ask as politely as you can if they speak English and if they can help you. When someone approaches you here, you are often more than happy to help them, right? Same goes overseas, if you are polite. Barging up to someone and yelling about where’s the train station? and where’s the samiches? is not a great tack to take.
With a smile and some consideration, you will often get back on track in no time. Not to mention, serious global traveler brownie points. And possibly even brownies. If you are lucky enough to run into a baker. And then you call me right away.
And if you run into Kate Middleton, hold her down until I get there.
All images sourced via Pinterest