Thursday, January 13, 2011

Americans in Florence: Obnoxious vs. Incognito

No logos or flags here!
Like many travelers, I do my best to blend in on the road. I don't actively hide the fact that I'm American and if anyone asks where I'm from, I'll tell them (although I'll probably make them guess first), but neither do I advertise my nationality. I don't wear shorts or hoodies in Europe, I don't wear American flags or baseball caps emblazoned with the logo of a U.S. sports team, political organization or school and I certainly don't wave my passport around. I speak as much of the local language or dialect as I can and try to learn the customs out of respect for the people who live by them, not to mention in hopes of leaving a positive impression behind for the foreign visitors, including my fellow Americans, who arrive after me. So when I see Americans doing exactly the opposite, flaunting their nationality, completely ignoring local customs and speaking - loudly - in American-accented English, it never fails to make me grit my teeth in frustration.

I ran into one such group of Americans in the middle of fall break during my year abroad. Four of us had traveled together to Florence for several days and we were splitting up - two of us heading to London and the other two further south in Italy - the next morning. We'd had a wonderful time in Florence and wanted to celebrate our last night en vacances together with a nice dinner, so we found a place in the heart of the city and sat down, rubbing our hands together in greedy anticipation of more delicious Italian cuisine.

I went to Florence to see things like Il Duomo, not to hear
tourists arguing with each other at the top of their lungs.
Since the four of us were all enrolled in the same study abroad program, one that required its students to speak French 100% of the time, we had decided at the beginning of our trip not to fall out of practice on vacation. ("Practice" aside, we'd learned during recent parental visits that our various regional accents in English made it nearly impossible for any of us to complete a sentence without at least one of the other three bursting into a fit of laughter. With friendships formed in French, we just sounded too strange to one another in English to make it practical.) I felt far less visible as a French tourist than I ever had as an American, and I was enjoying it.

The table of girls seated behind us at the restaurant, however, clearly had no such reservations. They chattered away in English, much more loudly than was necessary, and my friends and I rolled our eyes at each other and wondered why Americans so often seemed unaware of the volume of their voices in comparison to the people around them. Did we do that when we spoke English, we wondered? What was it in American DNA that demanded our conversations be loud enough for everyone around us to hear?

Street art, Firenze-style! (And no one can knock this one
against the wall...)
As we talked, the painting that hung over our table began to rock against the wall at random intervals. We looked up in confusion and realized that it stretched the length of the wall our table was against, meaning it also hung above the table of the girls behind us. One of them had the back of her shoulder leaned against the bottom edge of the frame and every time she moved, so did the entire ten-foot-long painting, to which she and her friends were apparently oblivious. We tsked under our breath and went on with our conversation, but finally one of my friends seated against the wall couldn't take the constant nudging of the painting anymore. After a quick consultation, during which we decided the girl seemed the type to tell another American student to mind her own business, my friend turned around and said, in a heavily French-accented voice, "Excuse me, ze painting? It moves."

The girl gave her such a disgusted look that I nearly burst out laughing, but my friend returned her glare levelly and the girl finally shifted her shoulder away from the wall, then turned and started muttering - not quietly - with her friends about what a pain the French people behind them were. We snickered under our breath and dug into our dinner.

Just for the humor quotient, those few moments in Florence remain one of my favorite memories of that trip, but the memory of the dichotomy between two tables of American girls keeps me mindful of my actions and my attitude whenever I'm traveling. Whether I'm speaking another language and not obviously American to anyone but customs agents or revealing my nationality with the pronunciation of every word out of my mouth, I'm conscious of doing whatever I can to blend in and respect the local culture.

Certainly not all, or even most, Americans are as oblivious to their surroundings or as rude to the people around them as those girls were, but the reputation Americans have as obnoxious tourists in much of the world is due to those like them. The poor attitudes and lack of respect of that minority have painted the rest of us with the same brush and overcoming the negative impressions they've left behind can be challenging. That's why, whenever anyone asks my advice about traveling, manners, following local customs and paying attention to your surroundings are at the top of my list. As an "obnoxious American," I'd never get anything like a real look at what life is like around the world - and that's too much a part of the reason I travel to miss.


Unknown said...

My sentiments exactly!

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Thanks Nancy!

Nic said...

is this the same trip that you were on a train for over 13 hours or somesuch ridiculousness?

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

This trip involved lots of train ridiculousness. Getting to Florence involved five trains, I think, which took somewhere around 15 hours. Then there was a 14-hour overnight train ride to Paris (I think that's how long it was - might've been 12), because the faster train for the following day was full and we didn't have anywhere to stay that night since we were heading to London and couldn't change our Chunnel reservation. Then there was that train ride, then back to Aix via Paris at the end of the trip. Whew! :-)

Spencer said...

I think you get considerate and inconsiderate travellers in every country. Certainly America isn't alone on having inconsiderate travellers. Aussies and my fellow Brits are just as bad!

zablon said...

i applaud you for embracing the french culture

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Thanks Spencer, that makes me feel a bit better! I think we're more likely to notice the poor behavior of people from our own country more than anyone else, just because they're often easier for us to pick out of a crowd.

Thanks, Zablon - with as many great traditions as the French have, not to mention such a beautiful language, it was certainly not a hardship. :-)