When my husband and I travel out of the country, we try to be inconspicuous, try to blend in.
“You can always tell Americans by their white shoes,” a Kiwi friend once announced. So we immediately stopped wearing white shoes, even though I’m pretty sure neither of us had worn them since we were in the high school marching band.
We don’t want to be obviously American and it would kill both of us if anybody thought we were loudmouthed, obnoxious tourists who lumber around screeching in English. A friend who owns a place in Rome once told me about hosting a group of friends from Texas. One of the men, every half hour or so, would pull up his sleeve and squint at his wristwatch, then announce what time it was in Dallas. (Seven a.m.! Imagine!) When I heard that, I threw out any home-time comments along with the white shoes.
So, we’re in dark shoes, we’re on local time, we try the local language — however atrocious our efforts — and for the next several days, we’ll occasionally tell each other how we’d like to live a more “European” life. You know, longer, more abundant meals. Fresh ingredients. Scintillating conversation in a language we don’t understand. Candles. Wine.
Every time we return from a trip to Europe, we try it. It usually lasts about a week. Then we start slipping back to our native ways, eating dinners that last minutes, instead of hours. Bolting from the table, since we have things to do.
The truth is, the more I travel these days, the more American I feel. Or maybe it’s the older I get, the more American I realize I am? Maybe the possibility of change, at some point, becomes more remote and unattainable. Maybe, at some point, you don’t even want to change.
And, by the way, as long as we’re talking about change — after eight years of apologizing for an incompetent, warmongering American administration that led me to learn to constantly say I was sorry in a number of languages, I’m no longer sorry. I voted for Obama. If I hear him criticized, I may be forced to bring up Silvio Berluscone.
Anyway, we’re wandering the streets of Trieste now. I originally felt like an ignoramus because I hadn’t realized Trieste was even in Italy — but a recent poll showed most Italians didn’t know it either. It’s a beautiful, charming city, with glittering blue waters and looming hillsides. And it must be in Italy, since the motorcyclists will run you over if you don’t watch it. But it feels geographically and culturally apart from the rest of the country, tentatively grafted on.
Kind of like my husband and me. We walk through the city, marveling at the beauty, savoring the food, trying to understand a different way of life. But we’re just passing through. We may try to travel incognito, to blend in, but we still know where we’re from.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)