I never traveled outside the country till the early 1970s.
By then, I was in my early 20s and it was embarrassing to be an American. After all, the Vietnam War was still raging and the U.S. had been deeply shamed by the racism exposed by the civil rights movement (this was before an influx of workers from Africa and the Middle Europe had migrated to Europe, and Europeans had been forced to acknowledge their own intolerance and racism; individually and collectively, we all pay for our culture’s sins, I’m inclined to think).
Usually, my boyfriend and I tried to pass as Canadians back then. That involved looking as inoffensive and pale as possible. More than anything, we didn’t want to call attention to ourselves; the last thing on earth we wanted was to be seen as loud, obnoxious, Ugly Americans.
The years and decades pass and some things change and others don’t. The Vietnam War is long past and we’re longer in the tooth, but by God, we’d still rather croak than go the Ugly American route. If we have any complaints when we’re out of the country, we voice them politely and very quietly.
Which is what I was trying to do last week in Rome. The hotel we’d booked had been — to put it mildly — a disappointment. The lobby was a fifth-floor desk with a couple of brochures, the room small and loud, the molds so overwhelming I had a blinding headache.
So there I was, asking the young woman behind the counter to waive my upcoming night’s fee so I could stay somewhere else. Not that I knew the Italian words for “mold” or “headache” or “somewhere else.”
As we were talking, the deathtrap elevator suddenly jolted to our floor and its doors banged open. A man and woman of about my age stumbled out, strewing luggage on the floor. The woman screeched to a halt and threw her hands into the air.
“My God, Maury,” she announced. “You call this a hotel?”
Ignoring the hotel clerk and me, she shuttled past us. Her head preceded her body like a submarine periscope, crowned by short hair that was the deepest black I’d ever seen. Her voice was an intriguing cross between a gym teacher’s bellow and a broken foghorn, with a little seagull squawk thrown in for punctuation.
“This isn’t a hotel,” she announced. “This is a joke!”
“Madam — ” the hotel clerk began.
The woman flung open the door of a nearby room. She promptly went all-foghorn all the time.
“MAURY! LOOK AT THIS ROOM, MAURY! I CAN’T STAY HERE!”
“Madam, please. The room hasn’t been cleaned yet — ”
Maury, large and disheveled, stayed by the elevator, flanked by suitcases and staring intently at the wallpaper.
“MY GOD, MAURY! GET BETSY ON THE PHONE! WE’RE FIRING HER ASS! I CAN’T BELIEVE SHE BOOKED US IN THIS DUMP!”
“Madam, please — ”
“OUR TRIP IS RUINED, MAURY!”
The woman continued thrashing through all 50 feet of the hotel’s only hall, screeching dismay and issuing increasingly dire threats about Betsy. Meanwhile, Maury kept a close watch on the wallpaper.
“WHEN I SAY A FOUR-STAR HOTEL, THAT’S WHAT I WANT! THIS IS A JOKE, MAURY! YOU HEAR ME? A JOKE!”
I sneaked a glance at the hotel clerk — whom I’d seen earlier vacuuming and stripping a bed in one of the rooms. Her cheeks had paled and her voice had gone hoarse. She looked on, open-mouthed and resigned, as Maury’s wife stormed through the hall, like it was Normandy on D-Day.
I stood there silently, with my mold-y, sinus-y headache beating a tympani in my skull and a growing certainty in my gut: I wasn’t going to be continuing my own protests, however polite and reasonable. I just didn’t have it in me.
Individually or collectively, I was going to be paying for my own culture’s sins that night. It seemed like the least I could do.
I nodded at the hotel clerk as I left. Maury and The Foghorn were too busy to say arrivederci.
(Copyright 2013 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read this post about The Woman Who Learned to Dream in French