Why I Wish Every American Could Travel the World

“A great way to learn about your country is to leave it.”

— Henry Rollins

Starting a post with a quote feels a little cheesy, but this quote by musician, writer, and actor Henry Rollins just fits too well.

If you were born and raised in the United States as I was, you likely grew up thinking you lived in the greatest country in the world. Maybe you do. And maybe you don’t. Since this is a subjective opinion, there is no right or wrong answer. 

When I reflect on my life, I realize how fortunate I have been. I grew up with love in a middle-class suburban family. I got a decent education, never went hungry, and had top-notch medical care. To be born as a member of the majority in a wealthy, powerful country is a blessing that I did nothing to deserve.

Like many of my fellow Americans, I believed that we had the most freedom, the most opportunities, the best education, and the best medical care.

Now, after more than four years of traveling and living in Europe and Latin America, I feel that I, and my fellow citizens, have been sold a bill of goods.

Is Our Belief In Our Superiority Blinding Us?

The belief that we are the best, always the best, has left many U.S. citizens embarrassingly blind to the shortcomings of our society and the strengths of other countries. And if we can’t see those things, we can never improve.

During my time outside of the U.S., I have developed a recurring wish: that every American could travel to other countries for an extended time. Of course, not everyone can do that, nor would everyone want to. So here are eight observations I would like to share with my fellow citizens. 

1. People in other countries know an impressive amount about the U.S.

As Steve and I travel, we continue to be astounded by the knowledge of people we meet. We have met many European and Latin American people who are well informed about the U.S. 

Because we don’t have a car, we meet many taxi and Uber drivers. We have had thoughtful conversations with many of them about events in the U.S.

We met a woman from Poland who not only knew where Jacksonville, Florida (our home for 30 years) was but also knew the name of Jacksonville’s football team and a man from England who knew the name of Florida’s governor.

Contrast this with comments our daughters’ received from fellow Americans before their trip to Hungary. One was told that Hungary isn’t a country. Some people were concerned with what our daughters would eat (they have restaurants and grocery stores in Hungary just like in the U.S., who knew?).

Just recently, one person my daughter spoke with was shocked when he heard we were in Turkey. He was under the belief there was a war going on here.

2. Many people around the world are multilingual.

There may be nothing as humbling as seeing how many people around the world are multilingual. Yes, there are people in the U.S. that speak more than English, but we lag way behind many countries.

Data on bilingualism and multilingualism by country is hard to come by, but this article from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences claims that 25% of U.S. residents can speak more than one language. In the European Union, 66% of residents can. This data is from 2017, but I have no reason to think that things have changed dramatically in the past five years.

Seriously, how impressive is it when the guy driving your taxi can discuss your nation’s current events in your language while you are struggling to learn the basics of his? 

We’ve been in more than one tour group in which young people from Europe were able to follow an English-speaking guide and ask intelligent questions.

And then there was a waiter we had in Budapest. He told us it was his first day on the job because he had just returned to Hungary. It turned out that he had been traveling in Europe for several years. Steve asked him how many languages he spoke. We stopped counting at seven.

3. Multilingual signs and phone menus won’t erase your culture.

There is no reason to get in a tizzy over them. If you speak English, read the English words, and pick the phone option for English. We need to get over the idea that presenting multiple languages hurts us. If they take away your language, then you have something to complain about.

Granted, Steve and I spend most of our time in cities that rely on tourism. It is to their benefit to offer the languages that most tourists speak. And I am sure that there are citizens in those countries who also resent foreign languages. I say the same to them: get over it.

Someday, you may find yourself in a place where your language isn’t the main one. If people are patient with you and options are made available, you will be as grateful as we are.

4. The U.S. isn’t the only country immigrants are flocking to. 

If your world view is limited to the U.S., you may think that every immigrant is invading your country. This is far from true. You might be surprised to learn that since 2013 Germany has taken in more immigrants than the U.S. while their population is less than one-third of the U.S.

Countries taking in the most immigrants include Spain, Japan, and the U.K. These countries all have considerably smaller populations than the U.S.

Here are statistics on the number of immigrants by country from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development.

5. Immigrants are not the enemy.

Even before we left the U.S., I was fortunate to meet many people of different races, nationalities, and religions as a member of two Toastmasters groups. Many of these people were immigrants to the U.S. These experiences made me more comfortable with people who are different than me (in some way) and appreciate their life experiences.

Now, as I travel, I am amazed at the number of people living in a country other than their native one. They are often well-educated, gainfully employed, and respectful of the country they are currently calling home.

Yes, nasty people can enter your country and cause harm. But from my experience, most people who go to other countries to live, temporarily or permanently, are not there to do harm and have the potential to make for a much richer nation.

While in Paris in 2018, Steve and I lived near a canal where there were a few hundred tents housing male migrants from Africa. The men kept to themselves while waiting for help from the French government. We even walked by the tents several times with no problem.

One day, we watched as the migrants listened patiently when a government representative spoke to them about their future. Another day, we watched with sadness when the tents and any remaining possessions were bulldozed after the migrants had been moved out.

6. We have more to fear from governments run amok than from individuals, including immigrants.

While running for president in 2015, Donald Trump portrayed Mexicans entering the U.S. as rapists, with the acknowledgment that some might be good people. He was exploiting the basic human trait of fearing what we do not know. 

While an individual can cause great harm, it seems to me that it is governments gone to extremes that cause the most damage.

As we’ve traveled to various cities, we repeatedly find one or more museums dedicated to the horrific actions of a previous government. Not only does this include memorials to victims of the Holocaust, but also events like Argentina’s Dirty War, which I knew nothing about before visiting Buenos Aires.

In 1976, Argentina’s government was overthrown by right-wing forces with U.S. support. It is estimated that 30,000 people disappeared during this time. You can learn more about that in this article from The Guardian or in this one from The Conversation.

One of the most powerful things we have seen is the surviving mothers of the people who disappeared during the Dirty War walking in the Plaza de Mayo as they have done every Thursday afternoon for over four decades. While the mothers and their supporters march, they call out the names of the missing, followed by a demand that the current government “presente” or tell them what happened to their loved ones. 

Medellin is the only city we have visited where the impact of one criminal, drug lord Pablo Escobar, was strong enough to make a lasting impression. The Inflexion Commemorative Park was developed on the site of one of Escobar’s former homes. It is a place to remember the more than 46,000 victims of narcoterrorism during Escobar’s reign.

7. There is less anger in other countries.

There seems to be less anger in other countries. I have never seen someone flip off another person or chase them down to exact revenge (as in road rage). It probably happens, but overall I have found a more peaceful, forgiving climate.

The few times Steve and I have seen an argument break out in public, we have said to each other, “If this were the U.S., someone would probably be shot by now.”

If you think that is extreme, consider that for the first seven months of 2022, the U.S has seen more than one mass shooting per day. This article on Wikipedia has done a great job of tracking the 2022 mass shootings.

8. A lot of places have good, affordable medical care.

It has been a relief to travel and not have to worry about the cost of medical care. We’ve had experiences with medical care in several places in Europe and South America. Except for Steve’s horrible hospital stay in Bulgaria, the care has been high-quality and affordable.

Since we both routinely take several prescriptions, it has been a godsend to be able to pay for our medicines out of pocket. That doesn’t mean they are dirt cheap, but even the most expensive ones are within reach.

As older people with savings, we could travel almost anywhere in the world and be able to pay for medical care out of pocket. There is no way we would take that chance in the U.S.

Statistics

The above observations are based on my admittedly limited experiences and are anecdotal. Here are some statistics that look at the ranking of countries for various benchmarks:

Citizens of many countries enjoy freedom of speech. Ranking of countries with the most freedom of speech by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance ranks the U.S. 13th along with Luxembourg and Peru.

The U.S. ranks even lower for freedom of the press based on data compiled by Reporters Without Borders in their World Press Freedom Index for 2022. Not only does the U.S. not make the top ten, but it ranks 42nd.

A 2021 analysis of health care systems in 11 high-income countries by The Commonwealth Fund ranks the U.S. last in every one of five categories except care process, where it ranked 2nd.

And finally, the Economist Intelligence Unit recently released a list of the most livable cities in the world. No U.S. city made the top ten. The first U.S. city on the list is San Francisco, at number 35. Our lovely neighbors to the north have three cities in the top ten. To see all 100 cities with beautiful photos, click here.

Areas Where The U.S. is Strong

The U.S. does lead the world in higher education. According to the QS World University Rankings the U.S. is home to five of the top ten universities in the world. Leading the pack is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The United Kingdom is second with four of the top ten.

Other rankings have slightly different outcomes, but in all of them, the U.S. dominates higher education.

Other areas where the U.S. remains strong include technological innovation, space exploration, and cultural influence.

The U.S. has also won the most Olympic medals. However, if you take population into account, it doesn’t even make the top ten. You can see the statistics here.

Why “Love It or Leave It” is Misguided

Some readers may be thinking, “If you don’t like it in the U.S., you can leave.” 

I know I can leave. I did leave to see the rest of the world, and frankly, I am in no hurry to return. But whether or not I live in the U.S. or am even a U.S. citizen, I have a right to my opinion. 

This sophomoric reaction, along with “love it or leave it,” may feel warm and fuzzy, but it also shuts down critical thinking and shows an unwillingness to acknowledge, let alone address, the issues the U.S. faces.

A Final Thought

If you have read this far and are saying, “I don’t care what you say, The United States is still the greatest country in the world,” I have one last observation to share with you.

One morning, I was walking down the street in Cuenca, Ecuador, as children were heading to school when a thought hit me: as a U.S. citizen, the country of Ecuador wasn’t even on my radar. Before visiting, I could only name one city in Ecuador, the capital of Quito, and I knew that the Galapagos Islands belong to Ecuador. Yet, as I watched those kids heading to school, I realized they could go to school without worrying about being shot. Their parents could rest much easier than the parents of U.S. students.

Can any country whose children are being murdered at school be called “The Greatest Country in the World?” 

Until Next Time

I hope you have found this article informative and thought-provoking. Steve and I would love to hear your opinions on these issues. For the American travelers out there, have you found these things to be true?

Safe and inspiring travels,
Linda

Featured photo by Gerd Altmann on pixabay.com

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Bye, Bye Bucket List

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.

pillars and ceiling detail in La Sagrada Familia
The amazing interior of La Sagrada Familia. Photo by Won Young Park on Unsplash.com.

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.

Looking over Barcelona from the theater in Park Guell
Part of the theater in the Monumental Zone in Park Guell. Photo by Denise Jones on Unsplash.com.

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?

You can find out more about the pleasures and problems of Barcelona in this post: “6 Things You Should Know Before Visiting Barcelona.

A Positive Turn of Events

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
Croatia

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.

Waterfall in Plitvice Lakes National Park
One example of the beauty to be found in Plitvice Lakes National Park

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 sign warning of danger from mines in Croatian
The sign reads: Do not approach, in this area is a great mine danger

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.

Romania

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 Ceauşescu Mansion brought the dark reign of Nicolae Ceauşescu to life. The mansion is filled with opulent touches the belied the communist beliefs Ceauşescu promoted.

A private theater with upholstered walls
The theater in the Ceauşescu Mansion

Other things to see include Cărturești Carusel, an amazing beautiful bookstore

Interior of the Carturesti Carusel bookstore in Bucharest
The stunning interior of the Carturesti Carusel 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.

Bulgaria

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.

Boats at dock on the Black Sea
Boats on the Black Sea

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.

Front of a Russian Orthodox church in Sofia, Bulgaria
The Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiiski Russian Orthodox Church in Sofia
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.

Stay safe,
Linda

Featured image by Ali Al-Mufti on Unsplash.com.

P.S. Here’s a short article about the limits of a bucket list by AFAR magazine.

Is The Ugly American Dead?

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 they do it 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 say they are from Canada to avoid being painted with the ugly American brush. Again, I was appalled.

I vowed never to 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.

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 felt we were being judged negatively for being from the U.S. (more on that below).

Most of the people we talk 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 separate 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.

Pandemic Unpleasantness

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 the other men in the shop found out he was from the U.S., they were understandably cautious and quickly put 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 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 our four weeks in Quito. The locals were polite to us and each other. They often went out of their way to be helpful and friendly.

I felt compelled to add a comment stating that I 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 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, which 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.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Featured image by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash.com

Originally published on July 10, 2019.

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Don’t Be Afraid of Multilingualism

Traveling to countries where English is not the primary language has made me rethink my attitude toward multilingualism.

Before Steve and I started traveling full-time, I would be annoyed 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 in 2018, 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 the tourist and service industries, spoke English.

It’s a good thing 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 in English about politics and travel. 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.

Unnecessary Advice

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 entirely unnecessary. Apparently, we look American. Quite often, clerks and waitpeople 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.

The Tables Have Turned

2019 was our second year of travel. We spent most of it in Latin America, where English as a second language is far less common. Even in tourist areas, we often relied on Google Translate to communicate.

During that time, I learned some Spanish through Rosetta Stone. It was slow going, but it was 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 countries 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. The more people you can communicate with, the richer your life will be.

I think if someone chooses to live in a foreign country, he should learn the 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 plans to stay. Some are tourists like us!

For more about our experiences with foreign languages, check out our post “Too Many Languages: Challenges of Nomad Life.”

Happy traveling,
Linda

Featured photo – Steve and me with English language students in Strasbourg, France.

Originally published on May 6, 2019.

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