WE ARE A fun country. On our national day what do we do, pass a bunch of resolutions? Of course not. We lock up the house and take off. In fact, for a nation of patriotic boosters, we do seem to spend a lot of time and money getting clean out of the country. The farther away we can get, the better. And when we get there, we discover to our amazement that suddenly we have become foreigners.
Eleven ways of thinking about (some) Americans abroad:
Coca-colonization is no gag. Everywhere in the world, anything that is plastic, chrome, electronic or all three--and American--is universally sought after and imitated. Is America the home of the Bill of Rights? The Empire State Building? The Rockies? Abraham Lincoln? Forget it. We're the Paris of Pop Chic.
People will buy a T-shirt right off your back. In the remotest corners of Europe, everyone under 40 wears Adidas. Greek TV ads feature astronauts, speeding jets and American reflex words like "Jogging!" (the name of a sneaker) and "Get the spirit!"
In a Santorini schoolyard at lunch hour every single kid wears a jogging sweatsuit. And plays basketball.
Passed out in an East London alley: a grizzled old derelict, the grime of a hundred sidewalks engraved into his skin, wearing a tattered T-shirt that says . . . "Columbia University."
In Copenhagen, Madrid, Tokyo, Bangkok, Lima and points between, if you prowl the local strip, you can get a sort of Coke and something that calls itself a hamburger.
We won't even mention gum.
A Cook's Tour group was driving through the desert to visit the Valley of the Kings at Luxor. The car was a 1939 Chevy with one front door wired shut, no headlights, and an engine with emphysema. The group chattered happily with the driver, a dusty fellah in a djellaba who rearranged his 12 words of English so skillfully that we thought he knew the language.
"Say, it must be hard to run a car in this heat," said the jovial Californian in the front seat. The driver grinned toothlessly. It was quite apparent that all he knew about the internal combustion machine was that you turned this little round thing and put your foot on that flat thing and pushed the stick. The process doubtless had been taught him as an incantation.
The Californian jounced along awhile, watching steam billow steadily from under the rumpled hood.
"Say," he said conversationally. "Do you use Prestone?"
This was the same guy who was taking down the address of an antique shop he had asked about: "Yeah, okay, Street of the Twelve Goats, Atbara, Sudan. Say, uh, what's the Zip on that?"
Americans talk loud. You knew that. It has to do with the huge distances in this country and the large size of our living rooms.
So why do we talk loud (and especially laugh loud) in Europe too? In Liechtenstein?
Maybe it's because we have just discovered that the world is bigger even than America, and it makes us nervous. We carry on like small boys in the woods defending themselves against awe. Our insecurity abroad also leads us to complain constantly. If the complaint line at the front desk is too long, we complain to each other.
Young woman passing in the corridor as new guests are being shown to their hotel room in downtown Athens: "That's a noisy room. I had it for one night. They're all noisy."
Well it's a big city. Where did she think she was, Bethesda?
German tourists (known in some quarters as The New Americans) are also loud. This may be because they love to visit countries that their armies once conquered and occupied, and sometimes the Yugoslavs and Greeks and others refuse to understand German. So they talk to each other.
American loudness, on the other hand, seems to proceed from a sudden sense of inadequacy because of a lack of another language or generally much knowledge of the countries they tour. Sometimes when you hear their remarks as they wander about the great ancient monuments of the world, you wonder if they know why they're there.
The Ugly American has been around a long time. Mark Twain, in "Innocents Abroad," found one before he even got off the boat.
"Young Mr. Blucher, who is from the Far West and is on his first voyage, was a good deal worried by the constantly changing 'ship time.' He was proud of his new watch at first and used to drag it out promptly when eight bells struck at noon, but he came to look after awhile as if he were losing confidence in it. Seven days out from New York he came on deck and said with great decision:
"'This thing's a swindle!'
"'What's a swindle?'
"'Why, this watch. I bought her in Illinois--gave $150 for her--and I thought she was good. And by George, she is good on shore, but somehow she don't keep up her licks here on the water . . .....'"
And before the American, there was the Englishman. Thackeray lets himself get quite carried away in "The Book of Snobs":
"That brutal, ignorant, peevish bully of an Englishman is showing himself in every city of Europe. One of the dullest creatures under heaven, he goes trampling Europe under foot, shouldering his way into galleries and cathedrals and bustling into palaces with his buckram uniform. At church or theater, gala or picture-gallery, his face never varies. A thousand delightful sights pass before his bloodshot eyes and don't affect him. Countless brilliant scenes of life and manners are shown him but never move him . . ."
Some Americans don't speak foreign languages, but they do talk money. They talk money more than anybody.
One rich American brought rolls of newly issued Kennedy half-dollars to England and used them for tips. Imagine his surprise when London cabbies resented being paid in souvenirs instead of real money.
In banks all over the world, Americans dominate the lines at the exchange windows. They seem to spend half their time there. You would think anyone so fascinated by money would know how to make change. Is there any sight so mortifying as seeing a compatriot childishly holding out his hand with coins on it for a merchant to pick out the change from?
The badge and curse of tourism is the tour group, with or without name tags. Tour groups are an extension of the American self-image as spectator. You see them being transported from one famous place to another, taken out of the bus, shown the great sight for a few seconds and put back in the bus. On Santorini, cruise ship passengers are hauled up the mountain on donkeys like sacks of meal under the contemptuous eyes of cruise directors, villagers and even the drovers.
This is not good for anyone, including the donkeys.
Maybe it's the lack of a language that makes these people so timid they won't venture two blocks without bus and guide, instead spending their days milling around the hotel lobby. Japanese tourists tend to stay in large groups too, perhaps for the same reason. It's hard to understand.
Not knowing the language is actually only a symptom of the real problem, which is this: When you travel, you leave behind not only your home but your whole public identity, your prestige, your position in the community, your comfortable mastery of the familiar.
And if that's all the identity you have, you're in trouble, because suddenly you are exposed to whole nations of strangers to whom you are just a face attached to a wallet. You are confronted with telephones that don't ring right, mysterious bathroom arrangements and peculiar breakfasts. In Crete if you wave at someone with the palm out, you find you have insulted him. In Sweden nobody blinks if you carry a sex magazine cover-side out, but walk the streets with a bottle, even wrapped, and they're shocked. The French get furious at your accent, no matter how good; the Mexicans grin with delight (or are they just laughing at you); the Yugoslavs are delighted but still scowl; the Greeks correct your verb endings; the Italians get impatient because they can communicate faster with their hands and eyebrows.
In "Cat's Cradle," Kurt Vonnegut says: "Peculiar travel instructions are dancing lessons from God."
In the last few decades, young Americans have adopted the classic European formula for romantic travel: with backpack, tin plate and the occasional check from home (plus a Eurailpass). You get a little dirty, but it's a way of life. One thing you must deal with right away is fear: We met a lone Aussie girl hiking around the world, a year from home, and discovered someone who could take care of herself very well indeed.
The unobservant call these travelers hippies, but they are all kinds of people, mostly college students, some graduate nurses, a few who follow a specific dream, like walking from the tip of South America to Alaska.
The curious thing is that, after a month or two on the road, they all look exactly alike. Germans, Brits, Italians, Canadians: They all look like Americans.
In the Vietnam era, some of the young Americans who took to the road partly as an anti-war gesture used to wear Canadian flags on their packs. It avoided a lot of arguments. But you don't see that anymore.
There's no one more wistful than a two-week tourist meeting a fellow American who actually lives in the place. And no one more smug than the expatriate discovered. But longterm visitors have a special problem of their own. It is called culture shock, which means you get homesick. It may hit in the first week, it may creep up just when you thought you were thoroughly acclimated. All of a sudden, after 10 months in London, the American flag looks so marvelous your eyes glisten, and you find yourself getting choked up when you hear a British band playing a Sousa march. And you hate band music.
But then some English friends improvise a Thanksgiving dinner for you even though you knew perfectly well England doesn't have Thanksgiving. You think you might just stay there forever.