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 internationally for more than a year I believe the ugly American may be dead, or at least on life support.
In 2018 Steve and I visited seven European countries. I never felt we were being judged negatively for being from the U.S. 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 were with Uber drivers. The vast majority of them were fluent in English and loved to talk about the U.S. They knew a lot about our politics and separated their feelings about the acts and options of our president from their opinions of us.
Not to be too mushy, but I often felt like we were welcomed with open arms.
Pleasant Paris Peeps
We met a wonderful pharmacist in Paris. Like most of the Parisians we interacted with during our month there, I found him to be friendly and helpful.
I had lost my mouth guard, and he spent quite a lot of time trying to track down a replacement. He also patiently helped us with other medical issues.
On one visit he disappeared into the back room for quite a while. When he came out he was carrying a small travel bag and several perfume samples as gifts to us. What a wonderful feeling to know that two groups of people who are often stereotyped, ugly Americans and snooty Parisians, saw only the good in each other.
Making Friends is Fun
We also met wonderful people in Bucharest, Romania when we attended a series of group talks at a local hostel. Again we got only positive feedback from the Europeans we met, and are happy to have added several of them as Facebook friends.
We’ve also made friends with several people we met in restaurants and one young woman we met on the grounds of a church in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
The Trend Continues
Our 2019 travels took us to Latin America where we found more positive reactions. Although far fewer people in these countries speak English, we never felt ignored or unwelcome.
In Quito, Ecuador we stayed in a building that had 24-hour security. All the guards were friendly and helpful, but one stands out.
Daniel always had a smile on his face and insisted on taking heavy items up for us even though we had an elevator. He enjoyed answering my faltering question of “como estas?” with his equally awkward “very good”.
I will not soon forget the way he waved like a little boy one evening when he saw us coming back home. His openness and good vibes are characteristic of what we found in Quito.
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.
Featured image by Ayo Ogunseinde