Tales From A City by the Sea

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)

4 comments… add one
  • Cindy A Link

    The only way you can be incognito in Italy is to avoid talking at all.  My friend and I went in October of 2001. Yes, we did consider cancelling the long-planned girl trip that suddenly ended up six weeks after 9-11 when Americans were being advised not to travel. However, we decided instead to pretend that we weren’t Americans.

    We took the no-white-shoes deal a step farther and wore all black, including our shoes (strange that in such a fashion mecca that so many people just dress in simple dark clothes).  And we didn’t speak to the natives unless absolutely necessary. We quietly spoke to each other so that no one could hear us, but when communicating with the natives, we pointed at menu items and pretended to be stricken mute.

    It worked. The flight attendant on Air France spoke to us in French and we just shook our heads (whatever it was, we didn’t want it). Waiters carried on entire conversations with us in Italian and we just smiled and nodded.

    Whatever we missed, we didn’t really miss it, because we were totally thrilled about being mistaken for natives.

    you’re right about that. keep your mouth closed at all cost. Wonder why it’s such a thrill to fool people?

  • I wish I could be your nonwhite shoes right now. I’ve got a boy who won’t go to bed and the wine just isn’t floating me to Trieste…

    I’ve been there. Remember, it doesn’t last forever; just seems like it

  • Yes, I have to agree all Americans wear white shoes when they travel in Europe.  I always think it must be part of the vacation planning, tickets, passport, suitcase, new shoes. 

    Trench coats too are a must for all Americans.  So you are quite easy to spot.

    I love your description of being ‘grafted on’ – a wonderful description.

    Are you kidding, Lorna? i always thought trench coats made us look European. Damn.

  • p2 Link

    I get what yall are saying, but it saddens me that yall are ashamed of Americans… but then I’ve never worn white sneaks OR a trenchcoat (and not all Texans are rubes btw;)  I lived in Italy twice (north & south) and was heartily embraced by those warm and gracious people , especially after learning the language (they were very patient with my early attempts!)  I also took a trip back 2 weeks after 9/11 and the Italians were molto simpatico…reading this blog makes me want to book a flight right now!  Thanks so much for writing it…

    I’m not at all ashamed to be American. I just don’t like calling attention to myself as a tourist. Book that flight!

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