Ugly American Sentiment Abroad

By Rick Steves

Many Americans' trips suffer because they are treated like Ugly Americans. Those who are treated like Ugly Americans are treated that way because they are Ugly Americans. They aren't bad people, just ethnocentric.

Even if you believe American ways are better, your trip will go better if you don't compare. Enjoy doing things the European way during your trip, and you'll experience a more welcoming Europe.

Europe sees two kinds of travelers: Those who view Europe through air-conditioned bus windows, socializing with their noisy American friends, and those who are taking a vacation from America, immersing themselves in different cultures, experiencing different people and lifestyles, and broadening their perspectives.

Europeans judge you as an individual, not by your government. A Greek fisherman once told me, "For me, Bush is big problem — but I like you." I have never been treated like the Ugly American. My Americanness in Europe, if anything, has been an asset.

You'll see plenty of Ugly Americans slogging through a sour Europe, mired in a swamp of complaints. Ugly Americanism is a disease, but fortunately there is a cure: A change in attitude. The best over-the-counter medicine is a mirror. Here are the symptoms.

The Ugly American:

  • criticizes "strange" customs and cultural differences. She doesn't try to understand that only a Hindu knows the value of India's sacred cows, and only a devout Spanish Catholic appreciates the true worth of his town's patron saint.
  • demands to find America in Europe. He throws a fit if the air-conditioning breaks down in a hotel. He insists on orange juice and eggs (sunny-side up) for breakfast, long beds, English menus, punctuality in Italy, and cold beer in England. He measures Europe with an American yardstick.
  • invades a country while making no effort to communicate with the "natives." Traveling in packs, he talks at and about Europeans in a condescending manner. He sees the world as a pyramid, with the United States on top and the "less developed" world trying to get there.
  • thinks the rest of the world is "ganging up on us" when our country (with Israel) is outvoted 172 to 2 in the United Nations.
  • the classic ugly American question overseas is "how much is that in real money?"

The Thoughtful American:

The Thoughtful American celebrates the similarities and differences in cultures. You:

  • seek out European styles of living. You are genuinely interested in the people and cultures you visit.
  • want to learn by trying things. You forget your discomfort if you're the only one in a group who feels it.
  • accept and try to understand differences. Paying for your Italian coffee at one counter, then picking it up at another may seem inefficient, until you realize it's more sanitary: The person handling the food handles no money.
  • are observant and sensitive. If 60 people are eating quietly with hushed conversation in a Belgian restaurant, you know it's not the place to yuk it up.
  • maintain humility and don't flash signs of affluence. You don't joke about the local money or overtip. Your bucks don't talk.
  • are positive and optimistic in the extreme. You discipline yourself to focus on the good points of each country. You don't dwell on problems or compare things to "back home."
  • make an effort to bridge that flimsy language barrier. Rudimentary communication in any language is fun and simple with a few basic words. On the train to Budapest, you might think that a debate with a Hungarian over the merits of a common European currency would be frustrating with a 20-word vocabulary, but you'll surprise yourself at how well you communicate by just breaking the ice and trying. Don't worry about making mistakes — communicate!

I've been accepted as an American friend throughout Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and North Africa. I've been hugged by Bulgarian workers on a Balkan mountaintop; discussed the Olympics over dinner in the home of a Greek family; explained to a young, frustrated Irishman that California girls take their pants off one leg at a time, just like the rest of us; and hiked through the Alps with a Swiss schoolteacher, learning German and teaching English.

Go as a guest; act like one, and you'll be treated like one. In travel, too, you reap what you sow.

Responsible Tourism

As we learn more about the problems that confront the earth and humankind, more and more people are recognizing the need for the world's industries, such as tourism, to function as tools for peace. Tourism is a $2 trillion industry that employs more than 60 million people. As travelers become more sophisticated and gain a global perspective, the demand for socially, environmentally, and economically responsible means of travel will grow. Peace is more than the absence of war, and if we are to enjoy the good things of life — such as travel — the serious issues that confront humankind must be addressed now.

Although the most obvious problems relate specifically to travel in the Third World, European travel also offers some exciting socially responsible opportunities. In this chapter are a few sources of information for the budding "green" traveler.

Consume responsibly in your travels — do your part to conserve energy. If your hotel overstocks your room with towels, use just one. Carry your own bar of soap and bottle of shampoo rather than rip open all those little soaps and shampoo packets. Bring a lightweight plastic cup instead of using and tossing a plastic glass at every hotel. Turn the light off when you leave your room. Limit showers to five minutes. Return unused travel information (booklets, brochures) to the tourist information office or pass it on to another traveler rather than toss it into a European landfill. In little ways, we can make a difference.

Understand your power to shape the marketplace by what you decide to buy, whether in the grocery store or in your choice of hotels. In my travels (and in my writing), whenever possible, I patronize and support small, family-run, locally owned businesses (hotels, restaurants, shops, tour guides). I choose people who invest their creativity and resources in giving me simple, friendly, sustainable, and honest travel experiences — people with ideals. Back Door places don't rely on slick advertising and marketing gimmicks, and they don't target the created needs of people whose values are shaped by capitalism gone wild. Consuming responsibly means buying as if your choice is a vote for the kind of world we could have.

Becoming a Temporary European

Most travelers tramp through Europe like they're visiting the cultural zoo. "Ooo, that guy in lederhosen yodeled! Excuse me, could you do that again in the sunshine with my wife next to you so I can take a snapshot?" This is fun. It's a part of travel. But a camera bouncing on your belly tells locals you're hunting cultural peacocks. When I'm in Europe, I'm the best German or Spaniard or Italian I can be. While I never drink tea at home, after a long day of sightseeing in England, "a spot of tea" really does feel right. I drink wine in France and beer in Germany. In Italy I eat small breakfasts. Find ways to really be there. Consider these:

Go to church. Many regular churchgoers never even consider a European worship service. Any church would welcome a traveling American. And an hour in a small-town church provides an unbeatable peek into the local community, especially if you join them for coffee and cookies afterwards. I'll never forget going to a small church on the south coast of Portugal one Easter. A tourist stood at the door videotaping the "colorful natives" (including me) shaking hands with the priest after the service. You can experience St. Peter's by taking photographs...or taking a seat at Mass (daily at 5 p.m.).

Root for your team. For many Europeans, the top religion is soccer. Getting caught up in a sporting event is going local. Whether enjoying soccer in small-town Italy, greyhound racing in Scotland, or hurling in Ireland, you'll be surrounded by a stadium crammed with devout locals.

Play where the locals play. A city's popular fairgrounds and parks are filled with local families, lovers, and old-timers enjoying a cheap afternoon or evening out. European communities provide their heavily taxed citizens with wonderful athletic facilities. Check out a swimming center, called a "leisure center" in Britain. While tourists outnumber locals five to one at the world-famous Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen's other amusement park, Bakken, is enjoyed purely by Danes. Disneyland Paris is great. But Paris' Asterix Park is more French.

Experiment. Some cafés in the Netherlands (those with plants in the windows or Rastafarian colors on the wall) have menus that look like a drug bust. Marijuana is less controversial in Holland than tobacco is these days in the United States. For a casual toke of local life without the risk that comes with smoking in the United States, drop into one of these cafés and roll a joint. If you have no political aspirations, inhale.

Take a stroll. Across southern Europe, communities paseo, or stroll, in the early evening. Stroll along. Join a Volksmarch in Bavaria to spend a day on the trails with people singing "I love to go a-wandering" in its original language. Remember, hostels are the American target, while mountain huts and "nature's friends huts" across Europe are filled mostly with local hikers. Most hiking centers have alpine clubs that welcome foreigners and offer organized hikes.

Get off the tourist track. Choose destinations busy with local holiday-goers but not on the international tourist map. Campgrounds are filled with Europeans in the mood to toss a Frisbee with a new American friend (bring a nylon "whoosh" Frisbee). Be accessible. Accept invitations. Assume you're interesting and do Europeans a favor by finding ways to connect.

Challenge a local to the national pastime. In Greece or Turkey drop into a local teahouse or taverna and challenge a local to a game of backgammon. You're instantly a part (even a star) of the local café or bar scene. Normally the gang will gather around, and what starts out as a simple game becomes a fun duel of international significance.

Contact the local version of your club. If you're a member of a service club, bridge club, professional association, or international organization, make a point to connect with your foreign mates.

Search out residential neighborhoods. Ride a city bus or subway into the suburbs. Wander through a neighborhood to see how the locals live when they're not wearing lederhosen and yodeling. Visit a supermarket. Make friends at the Laundromat.

Drop by a school or university. Mill around a university and check out the announcement boards. Eat at the school cafeteria. Ask at the English language department if there's a student learning English whom you could hire to be your private guide. Be alert and even a little bit snoopy. You may stumble onto a grade-school talent show.

Join in. When you visit the town market in the morning, you're just another hungry local, picking up your daily produce. You can snap photos of the pilgrims at Lourdes — or volunteer to help wheel the chairs of those who've come in hope of a cure. Traveling through the wine country of France during harvest time, you can be a tourist taking photos — or you can pitch in and become a local grape picker. Get more than a photo op. Get dirty. That night at the festival, it's just grape pickers dancing — and you're one of them.

If you're hunting cultural peacocks, remember they spread their tails best for people...not cameras. When you take Europe out of your viewfinder, you're more likely to find it in your lap.