This is the first essay in a series titled "The Five People You Meet While Traveling"
I've traveled a lot in my life, Harper even more so than I, and between the two of us we've met thousands of different people in hundreds of different places across the globe. From Cuba to Canada and Poland to Peru we've seen the highs and lows of humanity, and patterns quickly emerge.
You might be strolling the streets of Zagreb or you might be touring Red Square in Moscow, but somehow you always manage to bump into the same kinds of people. They aren't always pleasant, in fact they can be downright infuriating, but there is a lesson to be learned in each encounter.
Here is the first in a series I'm going to write about the five people you meet while traveling, and how you can turn an unpleasant experience into a teachable moment.
The Obnoxious American
Let's just deal with him (or her) right off the bat. We've all seen this person. The guy in the Yankee's t-shirt loudly complaining about slow service at a restaurant in Europe. The woman wearing booty shorts and a tank top in a cathedral who's yelling at her kids to behave, oblivious of the other people quietly trying to enjoy the moment.
We Americans have a reputation as being noisy, impatient, and oft-times rude travelers, and sadly I must say that in my many experiences the stereotype is not undeserved.
Recently I was at a highway rest-stop outside of Zagreb when two Americans came bursting through the door, one of them very loudly complaining that they weren't going to beat "their record" if they kept stopping, asking every employee in sight if they had a Coke machine, and then exclaiming for all to hear, "They don't even have a f*cking ATM! Everywhere back home has an ATM!"
Years ago I was on a small guided tour in Cuba, all Americans, and one couple complained incessantly from the moment we landed in Havana. Nothing was appropriately air-conditioned (or air-conditioned at all), the bus was running late, the bus was too early and they weren't ready, the lady at the front desk of the hotel was difficult to understand (no matter how much louder they spoke, in English, never mind bothering to use Spanish). They were embarrassing, obnoxious, and by the end of the trip I wanted to plant Imperialist American propaganda on them and get them hauled off to a Cuban prison.
Harper and I were hiking through the gorgeous Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia last month and a younger American guy hiking on the trail behind us was very loudly going through every intimate detail of his messy divorce with his hiking partner. There were dozens of people on the trail that morning, and we all heard everything. Not only was it a wildly inappropriate discussion for any public setting, it also made it incredibly difficult to enjoy the spectacular views when you had to listen about how "she was just so vindictive" over and over again.
Americans seem to not realize that other people in the world understand English and what is being said, that most parts of the world don't run on a neurotic, to-the-second American schedule, and that an American standard of behavior and dress, while fine for back home, may not be culturally appropriate for other locales.
I know I've just generalized about the terrible behavior of American travelers, so let me take a moment to say that I have also met some amazing fellow Americans while abroad. I've met students, retirees, families, and single travelers, all of whom seem to revel in going outside their comfort zones, show a deep respect for local cultures, and generally just have a curiosity about the world.
In the past I've been unable to stop myself from engaging with the Rude American, whether through an angry glare or by actually making a comment about his or her behavior. Invariably that just escalates the situation.
Now when I encounter a loud, obnoxious American I take a deep breath, take a step back, and remember that while I am not responsible for the behavior of my fellow citizens, I can break the stereotype and put my best face forward.
I can smile and thank people, I can make an effort to learn and use basic phrases in the local language, and I can do my homework before my trip so that I can conform to local customs as much as possible. If I see a fellow American being rude to a local waiter, I can go out of my way to thank that waiter for their service and show them that we're not all "like that."
Think of traveling as being a guest in someone's home - you wouldn't throw your dirty clothes on the floor, rummage through their cabinets, and leave the toilet seat up after you pee, right? You would thank them for having you, you would take the time to enjoy their hospitality (served up their way, not yours), and you would treat their home and possessions with respect.
So the next time you encounter Joe P. American with his fanny pack and "Make America Great Again" t-shirt loudly complaining that the toilets don't flush the same way they do in Ohio or Suzy Q. Freedom snidely remarking for all to hear that she just doesn't understand why it would take thirty minutes to get her burger and fries and that this would NEVER happen back at the TGI Friday's in Peoria, just think, "Hey, I'm not them! I can be different! I can set the true example!"
If you go out into this world with an open heart and an open mind, if you embrace difference and difficulty, if you push yourself to leave your comfort zone and to graciously surrender yourself to new experiences, you will enrich your life in ways you never imagined.
You also just might help put one more crack in that Obnoxious American stereotype.
Have you encountered an Obnoxious American? How did you handle the experience? Did you meet someone who broke the stereotype? Leave us a comment!
(Up next - The Five People You Meet While Traveling - No-Personal-Space-Nancy)