Americano- not the coffee.

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Can’t we all just get along??

Buona sera signore e signori…

Welcome back to Italia. As many of you can attest to, traveling abroad conjures up all sorts of new perspectives and realizations. I’ve had my share thus far, and some newbies occurred to me last night.

After spending a day on the coast near Genoa, I had dinner at a small ristorante hoping for a relaxing dinner after many hours of driving. On the walk there, I was approached by a couple who looked lost.

“Scusi– …uhh, is there a restaurant on this road?”

English! I told them where I thought it was and we walked together towards it. She was from Texas, he from Ireland. We briefly chatted about travel, where we’ve been, where were heading, and so on. When we arrived at the restaurant, he asked if I wanted to join their table, but I politely declined, explaining how I was beat from the day, and just wanted to make a pig of myself not wasting any breath on words.

After we were seated on different sides of the small room, the other patrons conversations became audible: more English, Spanish, Italian, and what I thought was either Dutch or Danish. “Well, how cool is this?” I thought. Dinner at the U.N!

As the night progressed, the English became louder and louder. One of the other American couples there began to comment– loudly– on the frustrations of not being able to communicate with many of the people in stores, restaurants, etc. “You’d think with all the tourism here”, the woman declared, “English would be more common.” Another single woman, who I thought might be a local at first glance but turned out to be another American, sat down in the middle of the room and, I swear to you, just started firing off questions and comments to all the other diners after she heard English.

At this point, the other non-English speaking people began to look critically at these loud, demanding people and muttered to themselves and each other at their tables. All I wanted was a plate of pasta with whatever the local ragu was, and maybe a glass or three of dolcetto. Leave me out of this scene, per favore.

Being a guest in a foreign country is hard for people to do– and not just Americanos. You lose all your comfort zones, and turn a very critical eye to all that seems odd, inconvenient, or just unfamiliar. Many Americans I’ve encountered overseas fit the stereotype of the self-centered, loud, and ungracious conqueror tourist. Many are not at all like this (pick me, pick me!).

The other morning I walked out of my B&B and caught glimpses of my routine greetings from the geckos. One of them held his ground and froze as I walked by. I stopped and wondered if he would let me take a picture of him, shining and dressed to kill in the morning sun. He obliged, hardly moving and eyeballing me carefully as I shot away. I’d like to think he realized I was simply a visitor wanting to capture some of the natural beauty, and meant no disrespect.

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Mi nuovo amico

People are people, and there are poor and inspiring examples everywhere. But Americans would do well to remember– and be grateful– that so much of the world centers around us. Our language. Our shows. Our selling market (ask any of the wine producers here who they’re biggest market is), our music, styles, and money. O.K., maybe not the money right now. But we are seriously catered to! It’s kind of embarrassing; how many of us know more than our own language? I mean fluently. It blows me away that so many younger people here speak two, three, even four languages. Me? I can say Sono spiacente with the best of them…

Toward the end of the evening, the two gentlemen who turned out to be from Holland, here on a biking holiday, joined some of the conversations revolving around the room. They obliged the solo American woman who seemed intent on telling EVERYBODY exactly how many different countries she’d visited, and how many people there adored her.

“Which place is your favorite?” one of the men asked (in English of course).

“Oh, many of them, but America is still the best, I think.”

Ohhh crap. This is gonna be bad…

“Really! But America has no history” he responded.

I half-choked on my ravioli. Hold. The. Door. I know we can be short-sighted, spoiled, loud-mouths. I know we don’t have monuments, castles, traditions, generations that span back hundreds upon hundreds, even thousands of years. But please don’t say that we don’t have any history. My American pride, hidden away and collecting dust thanks in large part to the letter W, suddenly swelled and called me to action. I kicked back my chair, wheeled on this guy, and asked “…You talkin’ to me?”

All right, that last part was fantasy. But it definitely hit a nerve in me, and it was an enlightening evening to say the least. Generalizations are ugly whichever direction they come from. I’m convinced that language creates a fairly large culture barrier for English speakers. It’s the universal language, after all, and there’s really little practical reason to learn another language. But when I’ve attempted, lame as they may have been, to speak in Italian or Spanish when traveling, I swear the interactions are always warmer, more authentic, and a common thread is created.

I’m not saying we turistas need to be apologetic or timid about our presence abroad. But a bit more of a gentle touch, hard to do for many Americans, might make a world of difference.

Enjoy this video: my heroes, the Monty Python gang, goof on language and the difference between Italiano and Inglese. Be well my friends and I’ll do my best to represent the US of A the best I can.

Cheers!

Jared

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~ by Jared on June 18, 2009.

10 Responses to “Americano- not the coffee.”

  1. your best post yet. At least it’s my favorite, so far.

  2. …Grazie mille, signora!

    I’m always a bit hesitant to write too much personal stuff like this, but I felt it was relative.

    Glad you liked it. I miss the trolls and demons, though…

  3. Jared! So good to see you are doing, and drinking and eating, well! We miss you tons here, and are jealous daily of your incredible entries. It’s truly inspiring, really makes me feel like I’m just sitting on my arse here in Portland πŸ™‚ Jessica

    • Thanks Jess…

      I’m trying to honor this trip as much as I can with this blog. And it’s me who’ll be sitting on my arse when this trip concludes- w/ no job!!

      Cheers,
      Jared

  4. “I politely declined, explaining how I was beat from the day, and just wanted to make a pig of myself not wasting any breath on words.”

    …Priceless… I’ve seen this in action, there’s usually a little snorting and grunting involved too…… what?

    • LOL

      …CHICKEN BURRITO!!

      I’m tellin’ you, this is what I crave more than anything.

  5. Couldn’t agree more little bro. When in Rome do as the Romans. Half the joy in traveling abroad comes from learning about other cultures outside the US. The majority of us have ancestors from these cultures. As far as he bimbo, Where do you think “ugly American” comes from? What happened to Barbie in the end? Miss you guys. Love the E.. sorry about the dent.

    • Hi Evababy!

      Barbie just kept stuffing her face with bread sticks and dribbling wine onto her sunburnt legs. Marone…

      Hope you and big D are well- miss all you guys.

      Love,
      Jabby

      ……..”dent”? 😦

  6. Jared: This post reminds me of my first trip abroad, (I’m afraid to confess it was Colombia 1972.) At the hotel a fellow countryman said in a loud and rude voice: “Doesn’t anyone speak American around here? All they speak is Mexican!” I was totally embarrased. We must learn to travel lightly, but it appears some folks never will. I enjoy all your posts, even if I don’t respond oftne. Keep up the good work

    • Thanks Jim.
      It’s an odd thing being an American abroad- you often get a mix of awe and resentment directed at you. I’m doing my best to not have either of those come my way…

      So… Columbia. ’72. Hmmm… sounds like a good story!

      Hope you’re well and stay in touch,
      Jared

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