Showing posts with label travel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label travel. Show all posts

Thursday, May 14, 2015

In defense of American tourists

I came perilously close to buying this T-shirt and making it a permanent part of my official international travel wardrobe:

The T-shirt is sold, appropriately enough, by the fine folks at struggling teen mall retailer and purveyor of amusing pizza-themed underwear American Eagle Outfitters, and the “All ‘Murican” refers only to the wearer of the shirt and not the shirt itself. (The shirt is “imported” per its product description, manufactured in what I’m sure are humane and not-at-all sweatshop-like conditions in a country whose workers are treated fairly and unexploitily1.)

And despite it appealing to the hipster-asshole side of me that likes things drenched in irony, I decided against it in part because wearing that shirt abroad is basically akin to wearing a shirt that says “I’M OBNOXIOUS, PLEASE MUG ME” emblazoned across the front.

But mostly I decided against it because I felt like I’d be reinforcing all manner of American tourist stereotypes: loud, inconsiderate, closed-minded, and zealously patriotic to the point of xenophobia.

Here’s the weird thing, though—the only people I’ve ever heard complain of obnoxious American tourists are other Americans, usually as a way of signaling that they’re among the few “good ones” and not the one of the plebs in Hawaiian shirts who boarded in Zone 3 and will make a beeline for the nearest McDonald’s as soon as they land. (I’ve also heard it from Canadians, but—I mean this with affection and respect because I have nothing but genuine love for our northern neighbours—we basically think of you guys as nice Americans with poutine.)

And while I don’t doubt that there are many non-Americans who find us annoying, the perpetuation of this stereotype feels a little bit like haughty yet insecure Americans trying to prove their worldly bona fides by shitting on their fellow countrymen—or, at least, their poorer, middle-American countrymen. This isn’t just elitist; it seems to be factually inaccurate.

Consider this: I’m sure there are plenty of Americans who are disrespectful and disdainful of other cultures, but those people generally don’t travel internationally. Hell, they don’t even get passports—only around 40 percent of us have one, despite the American passport being among the most powerfulif not the most powerful—in the world.

That’s not to say that, if you don’t have a passport, you’re uncultured ‘Murican swine; for instance, while the $135 application and execution fees for first-time passport applicants aren’t oppressive, they’re not nothing, and could very well represent a hardship for many families in a tight financial spot. But getting a passport is an affirmative step that at least suggests an interest in broadening one’s horizons and meeting people who aren’t like you.

Plus, consider how notoriously overworked the average American is and how few vacation days we get. (And consider a pervasive corporate culture that guilts employees who actually use their vacation days for anything other than sick days—and even then, are you sure you can’t wash down a couple of Advils with a bottle of Purell and come in for a few hours?) When an American—especially a working- and middle-class American—wants to travel abroad, it’s kind of a big deal: we’ve made the decision to cobble together several paychecks and our meager PTO not to do the easy thing (Las Vegas, Disney World, etc.) but to visit someplace new and unfamiliar that takes us out of our comfort zones. That’s kind of a weird thing for an asshole tourist to do.

What is fair, though, is saying that many of us are less sophisticated travelers. But to deride American tourists for that is like going to a Planet Fitness and laughing at fat people at the treadmill. Yes, I get it—we look hopelessly lame in Old Navy tees and cargo shorts2; our working knowledge of other countries is gleaned largely from Roadblocks and Detours on The Amazing Race; and we speak only one language because our high school only required two years of French, and even then, we squeaked by based on what we learned from Muzzy3.

But there’s a lot that’s great about American tourists. We’re friendly and warm and whatever your accent is, we’re instantly charmed by it. We’re excited and enthusiastic about everything, and we don’t bother pretending we’re not. We might not know your language, but we spent the plane ride over Googling how to say please and thank you and how are you doing? and, damn it, we’re going to do our best to make that work before moving onto pantomimes. And because of our country’s ridiculous labor laws, we tip absurdly well. We may be annoying sometimes, but I think there’s a lot to love about us.

My personal conspiracy theory is that this “obnoxious American tourist” stereotype is just a way for some Americans to keep the rest of us away from the world, sort of like how some folks don’t want their favorite band to become too popular. And the sad thing is, it works—at least some of those 60 percent of Americans who don’t have passports have to be people who’ve been told that the rest of the world will hate them so they don’t even bother. That’s bullshit.

So, my fellow Americans: stop with this stereotype. Stop repeating it—it’s not self-deprecating; it’s condescending, because you know you’re not talking about yourself when you say it. Stop fearing it—it’s not true, and there are plenty of places who will love to have you.

But most importantly, stop letting it flourish. There’s an easy way to stop it, and that’s by going abroad and being a counterexample. Plenty of American qualities make us natural travelers if only we’d just go. We’re curious, polite, adaptable, and a little brave—so let’s go. Worst comes to worst, there’ll probably be a McDonald’s when we get there.

* * *

I know this is a defense of American tourists, but can I take a moment to defend tourists in general? I never really understand why people complain about tourists visiting their town, or why so many bumper stickers and hacky cartoonists so frequently express a desire to murder visitors with guns.

Robert Ariail/Spartanburg Herald-Journal

When a tourist visits, what they’re basically saying is, “Hey, I think your city is so cool that I’m going to use what little spare time I have to check it out, and I’m going to pump all this sweet money into your local economy. Hope you don’t mind!”

And no, I don’t mind. I’m glad you’re here. Enjoy the beaches, y’all, and don’t forget there are PubSubs at Publix if you get hungry. I might be biased, though—people from out of state tend to be better drivers than Floridians, so, if nothing else, the roads feel safer when they’re here4.

1Not an actual word.

2This was an actual outfit I wore. A lot. In my defense, Italy’s pretty damn hot and everybody done scared me about muggers.

3Or Dora the Explorer, for these damn latter-millenials with their youth and their Instagram and their damn 21st century Nickelodeon.

4For the purpose of this moment of empathy, I’m not counting snowbirds as tourists. Those people will kill you.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Oh, Crest

Crest offers "58% more free" to make its 2.9-ounce travel-size toothpaste 4.6 ounces.

Hey, Crest, I know you had good intentions here, but I don't think you understand why we have to buy the travel size in the first place.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

If you're out there, Hannah, call me!

This is a box of Pépito cookies I bought at the airport in Nice before my flight to Oslo.

I don’t know why a brand of French cookies has a small Latino boy wearing a comically oversized sombrero as its mascot, but given this video of some French dude in brownface, I feel safe in assuming the answer contains the word “racism.” On a sidenote, they were delicious.

This is the note I passed to the woman sitting next to me on the flight to Oslo.

She had her earbuds on and was working on her laptop, so I didn’t want to bother her too much. But when she read the note, her smile when she said “Yes, please!” was one of the most genuine and therefore most adorable things ever. We talked for a little bit—she was visiting family in Nice, but she lives in Oslo—and when I asked her if she was a student, glancing at her laptop, she said that she was a journalist and was working a story on deadline. So I wrapped up the conversation.

Early in my trip, I made a decision that I wouldn’t actively try to meet anybody romantically; getting used to traveling alone was enough of a challenge without adding more complications. Plus, I wanted this to be a vacation free from fret, including fretting about being single. (I’d toss in something about wanting to get in touch with myself, but in this context, that sounds a little gross.)

Still, though, in retrospect, the universe was probably nudging me along here: As far as I could tell, we were pretty much the only people in our twenties on the flight, and we happened to be sitting next to each other. And there just happened to be no one sitting in the middle seat in our emergency exit row, despite the flight being pretty full (and, I presume, someone would’ve enjoyed the extra legroom). And she’s a writer, which I think is pretty cool. And apparently she’s the type who reacts with delight instead of bemusement when passed a note despite the fact that neither of us are in middle school. And she had a completely heart-melty smile, which, arrgh.

Is it too late to post a missed connection on Craigslist Oslo?


Yeah, that’s completely creepy. I guess I should’ve just done this in the moment. Ah, poop.

Hostel territory

When I was in Europe last month, I stayed almost exclusively in hostels, save for an occasional hotel room near the airport following a late flight. I figured hostels would be more interesting, and it’d give me a chance to talk with people in case solo traveling started to get lonely. Plus, hostels seemed like they’d be rife with shenanigans, and I love shenanigans. Almost as much as I love tomfoolery! And maybe most importantly, I thought staying at a hostel was the sort of thing that I wouldn’t do, and I wanted to challenge myself.

Alas, my hostel experience was mostly free of both shenanigans and tomfoolery, although it was still mostly enjoyable. I got to meet a bunch of different people, and hostels had the added bonus of making the nights in which I stayed at, say, a Best Western feel like the height of luxury (“Excuse me, this toilet paper has two whole plies? I feel like a king!”).

So, some notes on hostels.

* * *

In Copenhagen, I was having some drinks with a couple of my (female) hostel roommates visiting from Oslo at the hostel bar when some guy—an American—walked up and started talking to us. And by “talking to us,” I mean “doing that thing where he approaches a group of people but gradually focuses his attention on one of the women in the group.”
After a while, he started talking about how Americans are stupid, fat, and rude, presumably thinking that the best way to flirt with Norwegian women is to America-bash for some reason. One of my roommates smiled at me and says, “You know, he’s an American, too.” The guy got flustered and, after a few more feeble attempts to be playful, slunk away. Once he left, we laughed at him, but seriously: I’m not jingoistic in the slightest, but hating on your home country in a misguided attempt to impress pretty girls while abroad—that’s obviously treason, right?

* * *

In London, two of my roommates were a couple of French guys who were both 20 years old. They spoke reasonably good English, but, for whatever reason, they still felt the need to pantomime nearly everything when they spoke to me. They were friendly and invited me to hang out with them one night.

I declined, mostly because I had just eaten 30 chicken wings at a pub and my stomach was incredibly pissed off at me (the difference in price between ten wings and 30 wings was only £2; my hands were tied). But also, their pantomime for “woman” was always this awkward, anatomically-incorrect humping motion, even when they weren’t talking about sex, which led me to believe that, if I accepted their invitation, I was clearly going to get murdered in a brothel.

* * *

When you stay in hostels during the off-season, a lot of your roommates aren’t tourists. About a third of all my roommates with whom I spoke were staying at a hostel because they needed someplace cheap while they searched for a job and a permanent place to stay—which totally made me feel like an asshole with my whole “I’M HERE ON VACATION AND I’M STAYING IN HOSTELS BECAUSE I THOUGHT IT’D BE COOLER” deal.

It dawned on me that I’m essentially the vacation version of the girl about whom Pulp was singing in “Common People.”

* * *

In Amsterdam, one of my roommates was a British guy who was happily high. Our chat was light and insubstantial and clearly chemically-influenced, with my roommate actually dropping the phrase “do your own destiny, mate” at one point. In any case, your typical cheery stoner conversation.

That is, until I mentioned offhandedly that one of my former coworkers was daring me on Facebook to hire a sex worker, and I jokingly said, “I don’t think it’s my jam, but is that what everybody is supposed to do in Amsterdam?”—to which my roommate very seriously responded, “No, I don’t need to use a prostitute, okay?”

Whoa, dude. I wasn’t judging.

* * *

In Stockholm, I checked into my hostel at around midnight. The guy at the front desk asked me if I knew that I booked a four-person shared room and not a private room; I replied that I did. He gave me the key and said that I was welcome to check it out, but if I wanted a private room, he’d see what he could do about giving me a discount on an upgrade. I thanked him for the offer while mentally scoffing—I am a hardened traveler, damn it; I don’t need some fancy private room!

As I opened the door, I see three dudes, all of whom were clearly in their mid-forties. One of the guys was staring at me, his eyes so wide he looked like a poorly-drawn anime character. I said hi; the staring continued. As I turned around to set down my backpack, I noticed that one of my sleeping roommates appeared to be wearing some really strange pajamas. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness a bit more, I saw that they weren’t pajamas—he was completely naked and was just that hairy, and his furry buttcheeks were less than a foot away from my face.

I bolted out of the room and approached the front desk. My mouth said I was possibly interested in paying for the upgrade; my eyes said that I would pay anything to prevent an inadvertent hirsute ass-smooch.

The guy at the front desk threw in a free breakfast with the upgrade.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Eating McDonald’s in a foreign country

There’s a fried herring cart in Stockholm called (aptlyNystekt Strömming.

It’s apparently a favorite among locals for a quick snack, and with good reason: it was easily the most delicious 60 SEK I spent in the city. Continuing my strategy of making gastronomical decisions based in part on what I could pronounce, I had the “Special,” which was fried herring with potatoes and a bit of salad. It was amazing fast food, in the literal sense of “fast food”—no line, my food was served just a minute or so after I ordered it, and was devoured just a few more minutes after that.

Across the street, literally less than a minute’s walk away, is this McDonald’s.

You can’t tell from the picture, but (1) the line to the register stretched to nearly the door in what was a fairly large McDonald’s; and (2) this was after the lunch rush had died down.1 In my (admittedly limited) experience, this isn’t uncommon in big, European cities: tourists love McDonald’s, and around lunch or dinner time, it’ll probably be among the busiest places to eat.

You know what else isn’t uncommon? People—usually other tourists—looking down on tourists eating at McDonald’s. And I kind of hate that.

In fact, I kind of hate that because I used to say and think that. There’d be a line out the door at a McDonald’s in Rome, and I’d scoff to anyone who’d listen, “Ugh, don’t they know they’re in Italy? Why would you want a greasy Big Mac when you can get authentic Italian food?”

I, of course, wasn’t asking the question sincerely, so I didn’t take the minute or so to consider the multitude of completely legitimate scenarios in which travelers can simultaneously be aware of what country they are in and still want to eat at McDonald’s:

  • Maybe they’re on a budget, and they can’t really afford most of the local cuisine
  • Maybe they tried the local cuisine, and they didn’t like it
  • Maybe they tried the local cuisine, and the portions were smaller than they expected, so they’re still hungry
  • Maybe traveling is completely new to them and having to adjust to an unfamiliar city, language, culture, transit system, and monetary system is a little overwhelming, so having something uncomplicated to eat that they don’t have to think about is comforting
  • Maybe they’re feeling a little homesick, and they just want something that reminds them of home at the moment
  • Or maybe they just really like Big Macs, and I need to get off their dick about it, geez

What’s gross about McDonald’s condescension is that it presupposes that there’s a right and wrong way to travel, and it takes a lot of gall to tell someone that they’re doing something as personal and individual as travel incorrectly.

People, after all, travel for all manner of different reasons—to meet new people; to get away from people; to relax; to challenge themselves; and so on. And some travel without even having a reason, or travel in search of one.

And yes, it may be worth remembering that if you’re in a foreign country and all you want to do is lounge poolside at the hotel and order Pizza Hut that you may consider trying something that you couldn’t do at home (airfare’s kind of expensive, after all, and there are plenty of pools and Stuffed Crust Pizzas waiting for you once you get back). But I wouldn’t dare tell anyone that they’re traveling wrong or wasting their travel, especially when I don’t know anything about them besides what I’ve deemed as incorrect travel choices.

The reality is, no matter what you do, someone will think you’re doing it wrong: You’re taking too few pictures (“When are you ever going to be here again?!”) or too many pictures (“Put down the camera and just be in the moment!”). You’re missing all the big sites, or you’re going to too many touristy things. You’re not meeting enough people, or you’re not connecting with yourself. You’re trying to do too much, or you’re not doing enough.

The best decision any traveler can make is to just let all of that go. Ultimately, you can either stress over the idea that nothing you do is right, or you can take comfort in knowing that nothing you do is wrong. And as long as you’re kind and polite and respectful, you’re free to just do you—or, if that isn’t working out, do something else and try that.

People have their reasons for why they do things, including why they do what they do when they travel. And for the most part, we don’t know what those reasons are. That means our default posture shouldn’t be one of disdain or judgment but of encouragement and understanding—or, at least, cheerful indifference.

Or, more simply: no matter how delicious that herring is, maybe they just really like Big Macs. And that’s okay.

1In case you were wondering, I was in that McDonald’s to use the restroom. I try to be a good traveler and respect the mores of the places I visit, but there’s one place my Ugly Americanism rears its ugly American head—I really don’t like paying to use a public restroom2. The idea here was to use the restroom at McDonald’s by waiting by the restroom for someone to exit, then pretending to fall in line for a few moments, and finally leaving with an annoyed look as if I was planning on buying something but the line was just too long. In a karmatic twist, by the time I put my plan into action, I legitimately did want a 10 SEK McDonald’s ice cream cone, so after I used the restroom, I really did fall in line in earnest and really did leave annoyed once it became clear that getting an ice cream cone would take ten to fifteen minutes.
2Some of the small kindnesses I encountered in Europe that are most resonant to me involve people helping me not have to pay for using the restroom: a guy holding open the pay toilet gate for me so I can sneak in, a barista being all, “Oh no, go right in” when I asked if I had to make a purchase to use the restroom, and so on. People are pretty great sometimes.