For those unfamiliar with Constantino Arias’ “Ugly American”—the infamous 1948 photograph of a cigar champing, sombrero donning, bottle wielding American tourist in Havana, Cuba—should make it a point to know it well, especially before traveling abroad. Of course not every American perpetuates this stereotype when traveling overseas. In fact, the many Americans that I’ve encountered on my travels are a far cry from this gross misconception. But that is not to say that I haven’t met quite a few that can certainly be labeled as “ugly”. It appears our reputation precedes us, unflattering as it may be.
Here are some helpful tips every person should know when traveling to another country.
1. Dress the part
For the most part, American attire is a lot more casual compared to the rest of the world, especially in Europe. Wearing sneakers and a baseball cap is a good way to get noticed, well, as a tourist that is. Avoid sewing an American flag on your backpack too. It may seem patriotic but you’re probably just going to attract unwanted attention, in particular from thieves. Some Americans also like to pretend they’re Canadian in order to avoid problems in a country that may not have the best international relations with the U.S. There’s really no need to hide your nationality in shame, just be respectful around others and mindful of local customs and you’ll be fine.
A bonus tip: naming which city or state you are from tends to pique more interest from locals. For some reason, saying I was from California perked a lot more ears than simply introducing myself as an American.
2. Expect the unexpected
Whether it’s the lack of air conditioning in your room or train cabin, the unusually small meal portions of many European restaurants, or a lack of ice cubes in your drink, there’s no need to be upset about it, just accept it and move on.
3. Indulge in local cuisine
What’s the point of going to Budapest if you’re only going to eat at KFC? Try some local goulash instead. Avoid restaurants with English only menus and instead go where the locals eat and hang out at. I’ve found that tourists who are willing to embrace the local culture are always welcomed by locals. Try wandering into a random café, bar or restaurant. Ask your hotel or hostel where they recommend to go for an authentic local experience.
I remember when I was in Budapest, an Australian challenged me to try some vegemite. And, having no idea what vegemite was, I ate a spoonful of it, to the utter dismay of my taste buds. Let’s just say that fermented vegetables, in the form of a dark paste concentrate, is not exactly the most appetizing way to start the day. But I did manage to earn some admiration, as most of my hostel mates thought an American would be unwilling to try something new. But if you do eat vegemite make sure to mix it with some jam and then eat it with your morning toast; that part, they conveniently forgot to tell me.
4. Behavior and Attitude
Make an effort to observe local customs. If most people are sitting, eating quietly at a Milan café, then it’s probably a good idea to do the same. I will never forget eating at an outdoor restaurant with a Canadian friend of mine, when a fellow American from our hostel saw us and decided to stop by to chat. Well, it was less of a chat and more of him venting about an argument he had with a local man, trying to defending the merits of American exceptionalism and the geopolitical consequences of Nazism. It’s certainly an uncomfortable conversation to have when the patrons of this Berlin restaurant can hear your brazenly loud voice from each and every corner.
5. Learn the Language
When I was in the Gare du Nord train station in Paris, I went up to the information desk to ask for a map and directions. The woman seemed confused and inattentive to my inquiries, perhaps because I asked in English, so I stepped aside to find my hostel reservation thinking that could help. The Spanish couple behind me came up, asked for similar directions and the receptionist, in a warm and welcoming tone, helped the pair find their way to their hotel. I decided to do the same. I went back in line and asked in Spanish this time, and our conversation went much smoother unlike our previous one.
Now it would be unrealistic to expect everyone to be fluent in the language of whatever country they may be visiting. What you can do is learn some key words or phrases, and knowing only a few words can be extremely helpful. I recommend getting a small phrase book, like those from Lonely Planet. If you can’t find the right words, then keep a small notepad and pen with you, that way you can write or draw what you want to say. And if that fails, then use your hands to “talk”. If you’re hungry pretend you’re eating from an imaginary plate or if you’re looking for a phone, maybe stick your thumb and pinkie out and place it to your ear as if you’re making a call. Don’t worry about how you look, no one is going to judge you. The fact that you’re making an effort goes a long way with locals and is always appreciated.