I’ve been feeling a little out of sorts lately. It is so easy to blame it on the pandemic, especially since we have been on restrictions since November*. But going back over the photos of cats and dogs we enjoyed seeing in 2020 made me think that there might be more to it. I need a pet fix. Badly.
As you may know, Steve and I spent 2020 in only two cities, Bansko, Bulgaria, and Budapest, Hungary. Neither place is teeming with stray cats and dogs, and that is a good thing. It is also reflected in how few photos I took of random animals during the year.
Nonetheless, I want to share those photos I have with you. Hopefully, they will bring a smile to your face as they do to mine. Here are the cats and dogs that touched our lives in 2020.
This dog steals the heart of everyone he meets at the Redenka Holiday Club in Razlog, Bulgaria. We stayed there for four weeks while Steve recovered from a broken pelvis. It was always a joy to see Bansko (named for the nearby town) whenever I left the main building.
This photo was taken one afternoon as Bansko and I played in the newly fallen snow.
These two cats were hanging out in Bansko. I sat on the bench, and they jumped up to sit next to me. It still amazes me how friendly stray cats in Europe can be.
We saw this cat and the next two at Cat Café Budapest. Our mistake was visiting mid-afternoon. As you can see, there wasn’t much kitty action.
There is a Japanese garden at the north end of Margaret Island. It is lovely to visit any time of year, but it was even more special with this sweet cat. Here he is getting some treats from a woman.
And here he is after he’s had his fill. Don’t you love the two pigeons in the background?
I met this sweet dog on an early morning solo walk. She had come to work at a café with her owner. While the owner went inside to work, the dog and I played catch. After she got the ball, she would run past me. She didn’t want to give it back, but she did eventually.
The manager of our first Budapest Airbnb had three affectionate Siamese cats. I was able to get a photo with one of them. He doesn’t look that affectionate in the photo, does he?
As I’ve written before, Steve and I are amazed at how well-behaved dogs in Europe and Latin America are. It is not uncommon to see them walking with their owners without leashes. Most do an outstanding job of ignoring other animals and people. For this reason, I don’t have many dog pictures.
This cutie is a great example of how well trained they are. He laid outside a store while he waited for his owner.
Cemeteries are a great place to see cats, although they do tend to shy away from people. We saw this one in the Farkasreti Cemetery in Budapest. I love how he looks like he’s grinning.
Hungary gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1989. As you might imagine, the city was full of statues honoring Soviet leaders and promoting the Soviet agenda. Once Hungary became independent, the statues were moved to a park to serve as a reminder of the past without glorifying it. The park is called Momento Park. I highly recommend a visit if you are in Budapest.
While we were there, this white cat came up to me. She was so loveable. As always, when a cat chooses you, you feel special.
She is obviously very comfortable living in Momento Park.
In October, we spent several days in Balatonfured, a charming town on Lake Balaton. This cat started to follow us as we were walking through town. She finally sat behind this fence, and we continued on without her.
We ran into this handsome cat in Bansko. He just loved Steve and You can see in the video.
Last but definitely not least is this cutie in Oberic, Croatia. I saw this on a post by one of my favorite bloggers, Adventurous Kate. She was gracious enough to let me share it with you.
Be sure to check out Kate’s website at adventurouskate.com. Her monthly recaps have become a must-read for me.
* Restrictions have been in place since Nov. 11, 2020. These include an 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, masks required in public places, high school and university classes online, and take-out only in restaurants. On March 8, 2020, the restrictions were tightened due to drastically rising Covid cases and deaths. These restrictions added the closing of all non-essential businesses and primary schools for two weeks. That is what we are in the middle of as I write this.
Barcelona sat right at the top of our bucket list. It was the first city in which Steve and I would spend a month as we began our new life as full-time travelers.
La Sagrada Familia and Park Guell awaited us. We couldn’t wait for the city to cast its spell on us as it had for several friends who spoke of it lovingly and longingly.
So why has this popular destination remained one of our least favorites after three years of travel?
Not the Fastest Start
Maybe it was the slow start. We were new at this whole world traveler thing. And we were on our own. No tour guide to fall back on. We were uncertain about the language, the metro, and the layout of the city. Every day for the first week we ventured a little further away from our apartment. First down the street. Then around the block. Then several blocks away. Weren’t we the great adventurers?
We finally worked up the courage to get on the Metro, not realizing what awaited us.
We knew that Barcelona is the pickpocket capital of the world. And Steve was well aware of the rule that you don’t keep your valuables in your back pocket. So he devised a foolproof plan to keep them safe. He put them in his front pocket. The pickpocket duo that relieved him of his cash, bank cards, and passport was able to circumvent his masterful security. You can read about that experience here.
Despite this setback, we did venture out to experience the magic for ourselves. As expected, La Sagrada Familia was incredible. We loved basking in the rainbow colors from the stained glass windows and marveling at the uniqueness of Antoni Gaudi’s creation. And we got to share it with thousands of other people.
La Sagrada Familia gets 4.6 million visitors every year (except maybe during a pandemic).That is over 12,000 people every day!
Gaudi’s failed planned community, Park Guell, was equally amazing and equally crowded. 95% of the park is free. Here you can wander along multiple walkways surrounded by greenery which is punctuated with unusual stone columns and porticos.
Unfortunately, you will also be fighting the crowds and trying to avoid trampling the wares of the vendors who take up a large part of the walkway.
The number of visitors to Park Guell is more than double that of La Sagrada Familia. 9 million people visit the park every year. That more than 24,000 visitors per day!
The remaining 5% of the park is the Monumental Zone. You have to pay to enter this area and the number of visitors is limited to 400 per half hour so you have a little breathing room.
Pretty much everywhere else we went was crowded except for two places: a little-visited but worthwhile park called Labyrinth de la Horta and Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau, an art nouveau complex that used to be a hospital.
You don’t stroll down La Ramblas, you move with the tide, all while trying not to be pickpocketed. Many people wear their backpacks in front to avoid this fate. And you can expect your metro rides to be up close and personal. If you don’t like crowds and noise, Barcelona is probably not for you.
Barcelona’s popularity has led to resentment and anger from the residents as they watch their city being overrun with tourists and the price of housing skyrocket as apartments are turned into vacation rentals. Perhaps this explains why this is the only city we have visited thus far in which the residents were unfriendly.
We had so looked forward to falling in love with Barcelona, only to be disappointed. Was this a harbinger of things to come?
After our first three months, which were spent in Spain and France, we needed to leave the Schengen area for at least 90 days. Since we wanted to return to the Schengen area after 90 days we wanted to stay close by. One option was to head north to the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. The other was to head east to countries like Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania.
Here is a link to information about the Schengen area and what it means to travelers. Don’t be like us. We didn’t learn about this until three months before we were due to land in Barcelona, followed by two months in Paris. Fortunately, we had only booked 89 nights.
Eastern Europe wasn’t even on our radar before this. Besides being able to name a few major cities there and knowing the myth of Dracula, my knowledge of this part of the world was embarrassingly small.
Despite this, we decided to give Eastern Europe a try, mainly because three months in the U.K and the Republic of Ireland would be quite expensive.
So what did we think of our choice?
We loved it. The three months we spent in Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria were brimming with memorable experiences.
Some Highlights of Eastern Europe
Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, is one of Steve’s favorite cities. It has several wonderful museums including the super unique Museum of Broken Relationships, a peaceful Botanical Garden in the middle of the city, and the exquisite Mirogoj Cemetery. It is also close enough to Plitvice Lakes National Park for a day trip.
In addition to the Museum of Broken Relationship we enjoyed several other museums in Zagreb:
The Croatian Museum of Naive Art – this museum showcases the work of naïve artists of the 20th century. Naive art is art created by a person who was not formally trained.
The Nikola Tesla Technical Museum – this museum has historic vehicles including airplanes, an underground mine tour, and of course exhibits related to electricity.
Tortureum – Museum of Torture – Steve chose to visit this museum while I was at the naive art museum. I think the name says it all. Steve enjoyed his visit.
The Croatian History Museum – Not very large, but interesting. One of the displays that left a lasting impression on me was this sign:
A t the time of our visit there were still 12,000 signs in Croatia warning of the dangers of 38,000 mines left from the Croatian War of Independence (1991-1995).
The Museum of Illusion – not a must-see, but a fun diversion.
Zagreb has many other museums so you are bound to find a few that pique your curiosity.
You may also enjoy a Croatian Homeland War tour. Ours was three hours long and gave us a fascinating look at the Croatian fight for independence from Yugoslavia from 1991-1995. It included a visit to a tunnel citizens used as a bomb shelter and a stop at the Memorial Centre of the Rocket Attacks on Zagreb 1991/1995.
We chose to spend a month in Bucharest, Romania’s capital. Here we discovered Herastrau Park (or King Michael I Park), a large park in the center of Budapest. It is half the size of New York’s Central Park and loaded with cool things to see.
Bucharest is also the home of the world’s second-largest building, The Parliamentary Palace. Only the Pentagon is larger.
A visit to the CeauşescuMansion brought the dark reign of Nicolae Ceauşescu to life. The mansion is filled with opulent touches the belied the communist beliefs Ceauşescu promoted.
Other things to see include Cărturești Carusel, an amazing beautiful bookstore
and two distinctly different cemeteries:
Bellu Cemetery – the largest and most famous cemetery in Bucharest covering 54 acres.
Heroes’ Cemetery – this small cemetery of 281 identical graves is not far from Bellu Cemetery. The graves are for demonstrators killed during the 1989 revolution that put an end to communist rule.
On a happier note, Bucharest is a great location from which to visit Transylvania and explore cool castles like Bran Castle and Pele’s Castle.
No visit to Bucharest would be complete without a visit to Therme. This wonderful water complex combines spa features with waterpark features for an affordable, fun-filled, relaxing day.
Here is a video by Grounded Life Travel that will show you all the Therme has to offer.
I am in love with this country. In 2018 we visited three cities here. Each place has its charm.
One of our favorites was Bulgaria’s second-largest city, Plovdiv. It is a city of seven hills (one now gone as its stones were used to build roads). There are also Roman ruins everywhere you turn and more being discovered all the time.
Byala is a tiny resort town on the Black Sea not far from the larger city of Varna. The peaceful two weeks we spent there after the tourist season had ended have left us with some of our memories.
There were walks on a nearly deserted beach (we did see a few fishermen and nudists), great meals at the Seagull, a restaurant with one of the most enviable settings I’ve ever seen, and the pleasure of falling asleep to the sound of the sea every night.
Byala is also close to the country’s third-largest city, Varna, to the north, and the resort town of Sunny Beach to the south.
Sofia is the capital, and frankly the only reason we ended up stopping there was to fly out of the airport. We only spent five days there, much of it on the pedestrian Vitosha Boulevard. We loved the architecture and fell in love with a chain restaurant called Happy. The metro stations were clean and modern. We also had a great walking tour that brought the history of the fall of communism to life. You can learn more about this period of history in the Soviet Art Museum.
The Pattern Repeats
These experiences have repeated themselves several times during the three years we’ve been traveling. We felt so fortunate to be able to spend four weeks in the Galápagos Islands, yet that was the only place we have been where we were counting the days until we moved on. You can read about those experiences here.
On the other hand, we visited Cartagena, Colombia in the spring of 2019. At that time we chose not to visit any other Colombian cities. Then we repeatedly heard from fellow travelers how wonderful Medellin was. Yes, that Medellin. The city that not so long ago was plagued by the violence of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel, paramilitary groups, and guerrilla groups. We visited it in the fall of 2019 and we loved it. You can read about our experiences in “10 Things to Love about Medellin, Colombia.”
The Lessons We Learned
Preconceived notions mean very little.
This world is huge. The more you see, the more there is to see.
We love exploring large cities, but many of our favorite places are places we had not heard of before we left the U.S. like Cuenca, Ecuador and Byala, Bulgaria.
Any place we visit will leave us richer, even if it is a place we would not return to, even if we are counting the days until we leave.
So bye, bye bucket list. You got us started on this amazing journey. For that we thank you. Now it’s time to discover awesome places we have not yet heard of.
Hello, fellow street art lover! Here are some of my favorite examples of street art from the ten months Steve and I spent in Latin America in 2019. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. Perhaps you have seen some of these and they will bring back happy memories.
We loved this city of eternal spring for many reasons including the street art. The best places to see a wide variety of great street art is District 13. This district has gone from the most dangerous area in the most dangerous city in the world to an area of hope and inspiration. The first five photos are from District 13.
The next two murals were found in other parts of the city.
The best place to see a lot of street art in Cartagena is in the Getsemani neighborhood (Barrio Getsemani). This once-gritty section of the city is now pulsing with artistic life.
As Steve and I were taking in the sights on a hot day we noticed that many people had their windows and front doors open. On one street we stopped to admire a cat and the next thing I knew Steve was in some man’s front room. He had invited Steve in to see his cat.
I love the sentiment on this one, don’t you?
Just a 15 or 20 minute walk from Getsemani is Old Town. You can see some cool art here too. These women hang around outside the Tabaco y Ron Cocktail Bar. Ron is Spanish for rum!
Also in Old Town, in a square in front of Iglesia de San Pedro Claver, you can see several whimsical metal sculptures that invoke simpler times.
Just like the two cities above, Lima has an area that is brimming with street art. Here it is the Barranco District. We didn’t spend nearly enough time in this area, even so, we found some outstanding specimens.
One of my favorites because I’m a sucker for vibrant colors:
Here are a few murals from other parts of the city:
Galapagos Island, Ecuador
Ok, no one goes to the Galapagos Islands to see street art. But we were happy to find these murals along with a few others in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island.
If you find yourself in Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz Island and you have some free time you can visit the unique Jardin Ceramica. A path from the road leads to a wall covered with colorful and whimsical mosaics. There are also several free-standing structures decorated with tile.
The garden runs along a tree-lined path. It was created by Cristina Nelson Gallardo. While we were enjoying it a man introduced himself to us. He said he was her brother and that she is now deceased. He told us of his efforts to keep the garden available for all who wish to enjoy it.
To enter the garden just walk under the huge ceramic dragon arch. There is no charge.
This thought-provoking mural was on a very busy street near the Museo Pumapungo and the Ruinas de Pumapungo. Interestingly this street was heavily traveled by buses that spewed out so much exhaust that Steve had to wear a mask to prevent throat irritation (this was pre-COVID-19).
Panama City, Panama
This fella was hanging around enjoying life near the edge of Casco Viejo.
San Jose, Costa Rica
This flower pot and many like it brightened a section of Calle 11 between Avenida 1 and Avenida 3 in downtown San Jose.
Several blocks away these three guys tried to make beautiful music. Unfortunately they were a little rusty.
Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica
We saw this cute and colorful welcome pole in the gritty but yet charming beach town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca (puerto viejo means old port) on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica.
Jaco, Costa Rica
More bright colors. This time in the Pacific Coast beach town of Jaco.
The End of the Journey
I hope you enjoyed these street art specimens. Which one is your favorite?
Do you love to turn a corner and see something unexpected? I sure do. That is why I love street art. It may be beautiful, weird, thought-provoking, or whimsical, but it always feels like a gift.
These are 24 of my favorite examples of European street art from our first year of full-time travel listed by city. I have also put the location where possible and the date. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
We didn’t discover the next three murals until the last day of our Paris stay on a walk in the 19th arrondissement.
This big cat is one of my favorites:
Can’t help loving this one too:
I’m not sure what it is this lizard is trying to catch, but I hope he got it:
And this girl was just hanging out in the 10th arrondissement:
When deciding where to visit in Bulgaria we read that Plovdiv, the second largest city, was preferred over the capital of Sofia.
Plovdiv is the oldest continually inhabited city in Europe (8,000 years, can you imagine?) The city is full of ancient ruins including a Roman amphitheater that is still in use.
The first two murals were found in the Kapana district, a revitalized arts and crafts section of Plovdiv.
Talk about side-eye. What did the gramophone do to her?
This regal guy was in an underground passageway. The lion is the national animal of Bulgaria. The colors behind him represent the Bulgarian flag.
The next three murals were found in the Central District (Centyra).
Apparently, she was studying way too hard:
And she definitely wasn’t:
Sometimes you need a little creepiness in your life:
Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria. We hadn’t planned to visit here but had to go there to fly to Portugal. While we didn’t enjoy it as much as Plovdiv, it was definitely worth a visit.
This colorful fella is protecting the Oberishte district of Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia.
I’m pretty sure he was helping the lion by keeping an eagle eye on the Oberishte district.
Wouldn’t you love to know the story behind this mural in the Sredets district of Sofia?
Another one of my favorites. It’s hard to believe this beautiful creature is made of trash. You can find him near the Belem Cultural Center.
Learn more about the artist, Bordalo II, and his Attero Exhibition here.
I love the bright colors of this mural in the Cais do Sodre district:
Another Cais do Sodre beauty:
We found the next mural at the LX Factory. This area was an industrial complex that has been repurposed as a trendy area full of restaurants, bars, and shops. If you head there be sure to visit the bookstore Ler Devagar.
This girl and her teddy bear hang out in the Alges Parish:
Barcelona was our first stop as newly-minted nomads. There was so much to take in and street art wasn’t high on the list. That just means we’ll have to go back.
Storefront shutters are often decorated. Here we see Betty Boop and her dog Bimbo.
While not officially street art, I couldn’t resist adding this sign we spotted strolling around the Gracia neighborhood.
As full-time travelers, my husband Steve and I can’t have any pets but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy meeting random cats and dogs during our travels.
Here are 24 delightful dog photos from around the world that showcase dogs we have enjoyed meeting over the last two years. I hope you enjoy meeting them too.
This fella lives in Zagreb, Croatia. He’s a little bit scruffy, a little bit dapper. I just hope that wasn’t his cigarette.
One of my favorite pictures. A man and his buddies in downtown San Jose, Costa Rica.
This happy fella was hanging around a restaurant in Bucharest, Romania. He decided that the spot right next to Steve’s chair was the best place to be.
I have no idea why this guy in Cuenca, Ecuador was holding an umbrella over the dog, but what a photo opportunity.
Don’t worry, he’s just sleeping. There were so many dogs on the streets in Paracas, Peru that you often had to walk around them. None of them were threatening and all seemed well cared for.
We met this scrappy little dog on a tour of District 13 in Medellin, Colombia. He was running into the street to chase every car and motorcycle that passed by. Then he would retreat to his doorway. His bark was definitely worse than his bite.
We saw many dogs in Peru that were wearing what looked like blankets turned into dog coats. Some were even wearing people clothes. This lucky one was labeled correctly.
I wasn’t joking about the people clothes. Apparently this guy from Cusco, Peru is quite the hoop star.
This is Bigote (Spanish for mustache). She, yes she, is an older dog we met at a restaurant in Huacachina, Peru.
This dog was hanging out at the train station in Cusco, Peru. He had it all figured out. He would approach a stranger with one front paw held up like he was hurt in hopes of getting some food and sympathy. What a little con man.
Just a man and his poodles in Buenos Aires.
Look at the happy face! He sat outside the gate to the Superpark amusement park in Cordoba, Argentina. I just know he wanted to ride the roller coaster.
Meet Negro, a celebrity in Cordoba, Argentina. Every afternoon he joins a tour group as it works its way through the city. His name means black in Spanish. Not very imaginative, but accurate.
After the tour he joined Steve and me for dinner before going home to his family for the night.
A common scene in Buenos Aires, especially in the Palermo neighborhood. The dog walkers have to tie the group to a fence or pole as they pick up and return their charges.
What a fantastic dog. He was walking down the sidewalk towards us. When he got to the street he sat down and waited for his master to catch up. And he was kind enough to pose for this photo.
We had so much fun playing fetch with this guy in La Cumbrecita, Argentina.
Another La Cumbrecita beauty.
A typical scene throughout Latin America. We were astonished by how well trained the dogs were.
Just chillin in Medellin, Colombia.
This is Betty. She was one of the resident dogs where we stayed in Bucharest. It was a gated property and when you approached from the road she and her cohort would bark warnings like crazy. But once you were inside, she was a sweetheart.
This photo doesn’t show how lively this dog was. He was visiting some ruins with his master and exploring everything and everyone.
I love the joy on this girl’s face as she runs with her dog and her dad on Taboga Island off Panama City, Panama.
These two really wanted to see what was going on in Huacachina, Peru.
This is Bansko, my playmate in Bansko, Bulgaria while Steve was recovering from his skiing injury. I thought Bansko was a girl, but a man came by and informed me that Bansko is a boy and he doesn’t understand English. I’m not sure how he determined that (the language part, not the boy part).
For those of you who don’t know us yet, my husband Steve and I are nomads. Since we don’t have a permanent home we can’t have pets and having a warm ball of fur nestled in my lap or curled against me as I sleep is one of the few things I miss. Fortunately, we have met many cats and dogs during our travels and got in some welcome cuddle time.
Here are twenty cats from around the world that we were fortunate to meet during our first two years of travel:
This cutie was enjoying a neck scratching. I asked the lady if it was her cat and she said it wasn’t. She was just another cat lover like me.
How cute and comfy is this kitten? She was one of the many feline residents at our hotel on San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos.
We spotted this sweetie on our way to the grocery store in Lisbon, Portugal. Not to worry, the window behind her was open.
Don’t you wish you could be this chill? This was another resident at our hotel on San Cristobal Island.
One of the many sweet cats at the Cat Caffe in Zagreb, Croatia.
We were intrigued by the pigeons. Apparently, this cat was too.
The unofficial welcome cat at Quinta da Regaleira, one of the coolest places to explore in Sintra, Portugal.
Curious (or hungry) cats in a small park in Lima, Peru.
Another resident of the Cat Caffe in Zagreb, Croatia.
One of my favorites. This cat lived in an apartment near ours in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. She would hang out on the roof next to our kitchen window all day and go home at night. As you can see, she couldn’t get enough lovin’.
Phoebe was the resident cat at the Pastrami Bar Restaurant in Cordoba, Argentina. I don’t know which was the bigger reason we visited there several times, the food or Phoebe.
When I saw the sign for a cat show in Buenos Aires I knew I had to go and get some kitty cuddles.
What a life. This cat resides at a pet store in Quito, Ecuador. Here he is saying hello to our travel buddy Hedgie.
Cemeteries are a great place to spot cats. This one was obviously very comfortable at Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires.
The first time we saw this cat she came trotting towards us from her yard. Since we had to pass her house quite often we got to be good friends, although we never did learn her name.
This is a very well-loved cat. While Steve and I were strolling through the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena, Colombia we stopped to admire some cats. A man in a nearby house heard us and invited us in to see his cat.
More cemetery cats, this time in Cemetery Prazeres in Lisbon, Portugal. It appears as if they aren’t speaking to each other.
An early morning stroll in Puerto Ayora in the Galapagos led me to this beautiful but not cuddly cat.
While exploring the Castelo dos Mouros in Sintra, Portugal this cat came up to me and sat down by my feet. Talk about feeling special.
Last, but definitely not least, this cat lived by our apartment building in Bucharest, Romania. We met her on our first day there and quickly became friends. Then she disappeared for a while. She reappeared right before we left to head to a new city. Apparently, she had been taken away to be spayed.
I hope you enjoyed meeting some of the cats that have brightened our travels over the last two years. You can read about how we quit the rat race to travel full-time in “How It All Began.”
We’ve all heard about ugly Americans. Tourists from the U.S. who talk too loud, wear garish clothes, compare things in other countries to how it is done in the U.S., and expect everyone to speak English.
A Case in Point
Many years ago I was sitting at my daughters’ soccer practice when a very loud man told a story of his experience in Paris. When he and his wife arrived at their hotel, their room wasn’t ready. They expressed displeasure about this and were upgraded to a suite. The hotel manager told them to help themselves to anything they wanted from the minibar.
He then bragged about how they consumed everything in the minibar. He was proud. I was appalled.
I Am What I Am
At this time the only foreign country I had visited was Canada. But I had heard about ugly Americans and how the rest of the world disliked us. I had also heard that some U.S. citizens who visit foreign countries imply that they are from Canada to avoid being painted with the ugly American brush. Again, I was appalled.
I vowed to never hide where I was from. People will have to take me as I am. If they have any preconceived notions, maybe I can help dispel them.
And as a side note: I don’t tell people I am American, I tell them I am from the U.S. Why? Because there are 35 countries in the Americas. All these people are “American” too.
Maybe We’re Not So Ugly After All
The good news is that after traveling full-time internationally for more than two years I believe the ugly American may be dead, or at least on life support.
During our ten months in Latin America and fifteen months (and counting) in Europe, there were only two times that Steve and I only felt we were being judged negatively for being from the U.S. (more on that below).
Most of the people we strike up conversations with have positive things to say when they find out we are from the U.S. Many have spent time in the U.S. and speak of it fondly. Others talk about how much they would love to visit it.
That doesn’t mean that some people didn’t have those feelings, but if they did, they either avoided us or were very good actors.
Many of our conversations have been with Uber and taxi drivers, who are often fluent in English and love to talk about the U.S. They know a lot about our politics and separated their feelings about our leaders from their opinions of us.
Not to be too mushy, but I often felt like we were welcomed with open arms.
It wasn’t until we were in Budapest, Hungary during the COVID-19 pandemic that we experienced any negativity for being from the U.S.
The first time was when Steve went to get a haircut after businesses were allowed to reopen after being shut down for several months. When the barber and a few men who were in the shop found out he was from the U.S., they were understandably cautious and quickly putting on their masks. Then they discussed how poorly the U.S. was handling the virus.
The second time was a few days later when we were taking a walk. A few street cleaners stared at us and one woman coughed in our direction.
Neither was a big deal, but I am including them here to show how quickly positive feelings can turn negative because of something outside of our control.
You Get What You Put Out
I was reading a blog in which the author complained that the people in Quito, Ecuador were very rude, and bashed the city he had spent only four days visiting. Someone responded that he did not have that experience as a tourist. The author then replied that because tourists bring money, the locals are nice to them, but are rude to each other.
I did not see this rudeness during the four weeks we spent in Quito. The locals were extremely polite to us, and to each other. They often went out of their way to be helpful and friendly.
I felt compelled to add a comment of my own stating that I totally disagreed with the author’s opinion and you get back what you put out.
Putting In Extra Effort
I do find myself going out of my way to be gracious and not make assumptions based on how we do it in the U.S. We were in one apartment where the neighbors were throwing loud parties every day beginning in the afternoon and lasting through the night. People were coming and going at all hours and had no consideration for those who were sleeping.
I could have gone to the guard complaining about the noise. Instead I asked what the rules about noise were in the building. Fortunately, he said any noise that bothers other tenants is not allowed. He knew exactly who was causing the problem.
He was our go-to guard as the partiers continued to disobey the rules until that wonderful day when they were evicted! We showed our appreciation for all that guard’s help with a bottle of scotch.
Except When We Don’t
I did have an ugly American moment of my own. We were in Panama City waiting for a prearranged Uber to take us to a ferry dock. Since we were staying in a gated community I had sent directions, in Spanish, on how to get to us.
We used the app to watch the Uber driver pull up to the guard gate, then we watched him turn around and drive away. Repeated messages to him to turn around and to come back, again in Spanish, went unanswered.
I became frustrated because we had a time constraint. As I called for a replacement Uber driver I exclaimed “and he probably won’t speak English either”.
As soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew how entitled they made me sound. Luckily Steve was the only person who heard them, and it has not become one of our inside travel jokes.
What a Wonderful World
We have found most people to be friendly and helpful. Perhaps it is because we are seldom rushed and therefore more patient, Uber tantrum aside. This makes us more pleasant to be around.
Perhaps it is because we try very hard to be gracious and courteous, and learn some basic phrases in the local language, that has resulted in many positive experiences.
Seeing famous sites, strolling through great museums, and enjoying the vibe of each city are some of the rewards of traveling. But some of my best memories are of the interactions with the people we have met along the way. I hope that we have left equally positive impressions.
Traveling to countries where English is not the primary language has made me rethink my attitude about multilingualism.
It would annoy me when businesses offered a Spanish option on their phone menu. I was even more annoyed when they asked me to press one for English. I felt like many Americans. Why should I have to press anything? English is our language. If people want to live here, they should speak English.
A Happy Surprise
Then Steve and I spent eight months in Europe, and much to our surprise English was everywhere. From large cities like Barcelona and Paris to the Bulgarian towns of Plovdiv and Byala, many people, particularly those in tourist and service industries, spoke English.
It was a good thing too, because being able to communicate in the language of each country we visited would have required us to learn six different languages.
Even though English was virtually everywhere, we made sure to learn and use basic words like hello, please, and thank you.
What surprised us the most was how well many Uber drivers spoke English. I’m not talking about basics here. Many were able to hold intelligent conversations about politics and travel in English. This made me wonder how many people in the U.S. can converse intelligently in a foreign language.
So I Googled it.
According to this article from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 25% of Americans can speak a foreign language compared to 66% of residents of the European Union.
Standard travel advice is to learn to say “hello” and “do you speak English?” in the language of the country you are visiting. If the person replies that he does, you can switch to English.
We found this quite unnecessary. Apparently, we look American. Quite often, clerks and waiters would begin speaking English to us before we even said hello. Almost every restaurant we visited either had English on the menu or a separate menu in English. These were often handed to us before we said a word.
One place where we really appreciated an English option was with SIM cards. These have been the bane of our existence, with sometimes sporadic coverage and confusion on our part on how to make outgoing calls. Although one company that claimed to offer English phone support, but chose to tell us this option in very quickly spoken Spanish, did nothing but add to our frustration. Even with the easy to work with companies, we still struggled a little, but is anything related to phone plans ever easy?
Other times we were grateful to see or hear English were in museums, grocery stores, and pharmacies. We were especially thankful for the strangers who stepped in to help us communicate, often without being asked.
The Tables Have Turned
Our second year of travel has taken us to Latin America, where English as a second language is far less common. Even in tourist areas, we have had to rely on Google Translate to communicate.
Since we plan to spend ten months in Latin America, I have started learning Spanish through Rosetta Stone. It’s slow going, but also great to be able to communicate on a very rudimentary level in the local language.
Food for Thought
The fact that English is so prevalent in European counties makes me wonder what those of us in the U.S. are afraid of. From what I can see, being multilingual and offering services and menus in multiple languages hasn’t hurt our European friends at all. The more people you can communicate with, the richer your life will be.
I do think if someone chooses to live in a foreign country he should make every effort to learn the local language. But a little help along the way benefits those learning English. And don’t forget, not everyone who is in the U.S. and doesn’t speak English is planning to stay. Some are tourists like us!
Featured photo – Steve and me with English language students in Strasbourg, France.
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