I’m Not an Ugly American


So I Married a Tour Guide…and I am Not an Ugly American (I hope).

We are nearing the end of our 10 day whirlwind European vacation. With backpacks and train tickets we have made stops in Paris, Venice, Barcelona and finally, Madrid. We have been treated to culinary delights, artistic masterpieces, architectural wonders, welcoming locals, and inspiring adventure. All in all it was a wonderful trip for me, a novice traveler, and my wife, Tour Director extraordinaire (she planned it after all).

Now, at the airport in Madrid, we are in line for the security screening, standing behind a deeply contented family that had just completed a tour. We are happily discussing the merits of flamenco music, tapas and Gaudi, when what should appear? Is it a mannered local handing out samples of the delicious jamon with some sangria to wash it down? Is it a lovely lady in a swirling dress clapping a rhythm on castanets? Nope, it’s an oblivious American traveler, cart loaded with approximately ten suitcases, loudly shouting “I’m with them, we were on a tour together” while bodily pushing her way to stand beside the bewildered family, and in front of us. Enter the “Ugly American”.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

“Ugly American” is a pejorative term used to refer to perceptions of loud, arrogant, demeaning, houghtless, ignorant, and ethnocentric behavior of American citizens mainly abroad, but also at home. Although the term is usually associated with or applied to travelers and tourists.

Imagine sitting down at a Formica table festooned with burger wrappers emblazoned with a crown and a (rather creepy looking) monarch, rather than the crusty banquette that is offered across the street, beside the steaming taurine of soup and the plate of charcuterie. While opting for the ordinary, one may miss the extraordinary. Imagine the communication, spoken loudly and slowly in English, in the hopes that the local waiter will understand. The adventure of trying to speak the language, and even letting the waiter help (all while laughing together) has been missed. This is an unfortunate mistake that can be made by people (of all nationalities) while traveling abroad; thinking and acting as though in all things they have the right of way; and thus being inconsiderate to other people, and oblivious to their surroundings. I will admit that I used to fear traveling because I preferred the comfort of the familiar. I could easily have made the same mistakes and inadvertently embarked on the path to uglydom. My saving grace was a savvy, adventurous and joyous traveling partner. The lessons I learned from her cannot be understated. 

1. Planning is important, but spontaneity can be fun. She’s a Tour Director after all, so it’s no surprise that all tickets and itineraries were in hand far in advance. What was surprising was the ease with which we (she) handled the inevitable curveballs. A sub-par room in Paris led to a walk down the block, the discovery of a great restaurant, and ultimately a different, wonderful, hotel.

A late flight resulted in an abbreviated stay in Barcelona. Far from being rushed, we had a delicious breakfast; we strolled on the Ramblas and visited the Sagrada Familia basilica (it’s astonishing!). What was supposed to be a two day visit became a gloriously frenetic one day escapade.

2. Lots of little bites can make a great meal and some good friends. We lived on Tapas in Madrid. In doing so we moved from shop to shop, learned the lay of the land, and formed friendships with some of the local people who worked in a restaurant that became a favorite. We returned, were treated to items we wouldn’t have known to try, and we kept in touch after our return home.

3. Time off the beaten path is time well spent. In Paris we traveled between neighborhoods via public transportation, we ate family style at an unfamiliar restaurant (my wife translating the French conversation for me), and did some wine tasting. Again friends were made.

4. It’s more fun to speak with the locals rather than at them. I can (barely) get by in Spanish, so I ran point in Spain. My wife speaks French, so she lead the way in Paris, neither of us speak Italian so we worked together, tag teaming, in Venice (much to the amusement of the people we met). I learned that, even when the language wasn’t spoken perfectly (or even particularly well) the people we spoke to were patient, kind, and appreciative that we put in the effort.

Much of the joy of travel comes from exploring the unknown, from being out of one’s element and encountering the unexpected. When a traveler embraces that joy, the experience can be life changing. Otherwise, what’s the point of leaving one’s couch?

So I married a Tour Guide, and while I may be bald, middle aged, and American…please don’t call me Ugly!


Author: Dean Jackson

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