Travel and Enlightenment, Part Two

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.


“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.


“Madam, please — ”


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.


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


24 comments… add one
  • I have experienced similar incidents when traveling. Although Americans are not the only Ugly Tourists, they seem to far outnumber boorish travelers from other countries. I also slink away when witnessing my countrymen’s worst behavior.

  • I am a magnet for other Americans in Europe. “Are you American?” they ask in a desperate/relieved voice. And then proceed to ask me for directions/restaurant recommendations/advice. As if I have a clue. I am pretty sure it is my sneakers that give me away, but God help me, I can’t walk on cobblestones for miles in 90 degree heat in flats, or God forbid, heels. So sneakers it is. I guess I’m just owning being American. Maury’s wife would spot me in an instant and glom on.

  • Dr. Stephen G. Yanoff Link

    My poor, poor, Ruth…

    So you and your live-in boyfriend were “embarrassed to be an American” back in the day? Huh. Maybe you elitist hippies were smoking too much pot (and are still too blinded by fear and self-loathing) to realize that if not for Americans there would be no Europe.
    Since you mentioned that “Maury’s wife stormed through the hall, like it was Normandy on D-Day,” you might want to educate yourself on the sacrifice that THOUSANDS of Americans made on the beaches of Normandy. It might give you a slightly different perspective on all of those “ugly Americans” you love to complain about….. as you quietly suffer because you lack the brains and back bone to speak up! You seem to detest those folks because they were not as weak and indecisive as you are. Very strange concept… actually insisting on getting what you pay for. Hmm. Ruth, my dear, you must trust me on this… there is nothing more “culturally sinful” or “obnoxious and ugly” as an American citizen who is “embarrassed” to be an American. Please let me know when you are moving to Canada, and I will help you pack. (And I promise not to complain about the working conditions!)
    Arrivederci…. Stephano Yanoff

  • Mike Schillhahn Link

    I was paid the highest compliment my last morning on a visit to Poland when the young breakfast attendant informed me “You know, you are not bad for an American.”

  • Dr. Stephen G. Yanoff Link


    Let’s see, was this the same Poland where 3,000,000 Jews were slaughtered during the Holocaust? I wouldn’t be too flattered if I were you…

  • Oh dear….so Dr Stephen won the war – about 80 years back so he feels he must be superior. I’ve met lots of really nice Americans but unfortunately, the ones we get round here tend to be obnoxious tourists. Having had photos taken as ‘natives’ by patronizing people and being looked on as inferior tends to give a rather dim view of the American abroad.

    And then they wonder why said ‘natives’ try to rip them off. Oh and they tend to be cheapskates too.

    viv in nz

  • Ruth–I would have done the same. And I’ve also observed when traveling abroad that sometimes Americans seem to expect the country they’re visiting to be wholly like their own instead of embracing some of the differences.

  • On a more mundane level, four-star hotels in Europe can be very disappointing to Americans. I ran into a very similar experience on my last trip to France.
    Best, Irene

  • Years ago, while on a topless beach in Greece, a group of college girls had just gotten up the nerve to take off their tops when two Americans–stereotypical down to the white tube socks–walked up to them with camcorders in hand and began asking them questions. The girls all screamed and put back on their tops. I believe all the men on the beach that day–of European AND American decent–hated those tube sock wearing Americans that day.

  • So sorry to hear about the moldy hotel room. When I went overseas for the first time, a friend who had lived abroad coached me on how to dress so that I didn’t look like an American tourist (yes, sneakers … white ones … are a big tip-off). It worked because I had British people, all over the UK, asking me for directions and help. My clothes and demeanor worked well, but obviously as soon as I spoke people knew I was from the U.S. I’m told Americans also smile too much, and that’s another dead giveaway.

  • I can identify with you, Ruth. Unfortunately there are some people who do give us Americans a bad name by acting like jerks. I think there are jerks wherever you travel. And I also think that Dr. Yanoff needs to back off somewhat and not take every word you say so literally.

  • Your comment about pretending to be Canadian made me laugh: “That involved looking as inoffensive and pale as possible.” As you know, I LIVED in France back in 1970. I don’t think American tourists realize how loud they seem to the natives and obnoxious. My Swedish second husband, a historian, pointed out that Germans tend to be loud, too, when sightseeing in Paris. Since my first husband was French, I can assure Dr. Yanoff that while the French did appreciate having the Allied Forces come to their rescue, he is wrong to pontificate. Americans really do stand out like sore thumbs in a crowd of tourists. You can always recognize them, even at a distance. I also would cringe whenever I encountered “ugly Americans” and was pleased to have the opportunity to show my French friends and in-laws that not all Americans are like that.

  • Linda Link

    Dr. Yanoff has a point but I fail to see how that excuses bad manners by any individual or nationality. Maybe some of us (Americans) just aren’t willing to take a bullet for the rude and stupid among us.

  • In 10 years of living abroad, I’ve seen some shocking behaviour from American tourists. Fortunately, most American tourists who make it here to New Zealand are usually polite, even if a bit noisily exuberant.

  • I used to pretend to be Canadian too. I can’t stand how some Americans behave abroad. It’s so embarrassing…

  • Cindy Link

    When my son was a toddler, he was quite serious about everything and we told him he needed a sense of humor. His reply: “But I don’t need a sense of humor. I wouldn’t ever use it.” I think the same goes for Dr. Yanoff.

    Ruth, I think I stayed in that old hotel in 2001. It was walking distance to the Vatican and had a creaky, halting, metal lattice elevator straight out of a horror movie. So glad Maury’s wife wasn’t there!

  • Rachel Link

    We do a lot of travelling, and the two things I’ve learned are:
    (1) we will always look like tourists. I even look like a tourist when I go to New York or Chicago. and
    (2) American tourists have a much better reputation than we used to. In Turkey a few years ago, it was explained to me by a guide that American tourists ask questions and seem to want to know about the culture, not just about where the beaches are and where to shop. In Cambodia, where you would think that there might be some lingering resentment from the Viet Nam days, we were told that only Americans seem to say “thank you” on a regular basis.

  • Kathy Checkley Link

    Wow, this blog generated a lot of response! I must say, you are very brave to admit to being “embarrassed” to be an American given that you life in the Lone Star State.

    I, too, will always look like a tourist — even when visiting American cities. I remember wearing what I thought was appropriate vacation clothing when I visited New York. White shorts? Athletic shoes? I did not “blend.”

    The best way to counteract any bias one might have against you, as tourist, however, is to convey your deep interest in the place and culture. Genuine curiosity beats perception every time.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    I was embarrassed to be an American when I was younger, but that no longer holds. All countries and regions have their shortcomings, I finally figured out. So I’m perfectly proud to be both an American and a Texan even if I don’t agree with (or am mortified by) some of my country’s and state’s actions.

  • travel as an American, and wear white sports shoes (or sometimes black, which doesn’t really disguise them), I continue to smile, I sometimes forget to say “Bonjour Madame” when I enter a store in Paris, I reach out to touch the fruit in Italian markets, I carry a camera where I can get at it, and I consult a map from time to time. But that doesn’t make me turn into a harridan who complains about things that are DIFFERENT as though that proves they are WORSE than what I’m used to. On the other hand, faced with mold in a hotel room in Rome, I asked to be moved to another room. Just as I would in the U.S.
    Unfortunately, because it takes a bit of money to travel, tourists include a higher than normal percentage of those who feel entitled–anywhere you go.

  • Ruth – So sorry about the hotel. I don’t travel much, but it always seems like a big crapshoot.

    Also sorry about the rudeness in some of the comments here. Those kinds of comments make me embarrassed to be a human.

  • The only time I’ve been “ashamed” to be an American was the day that AMERICAN customs agents at the U.S. – Canadian border hassled my Canadian husband, who had a broken back and was returning with a humanitarian visa to continue his medical treatment which had begun here. An American driver hit our automobile and I figured that American insurance might as well pay for the ensuing medical care. Even though the border crossing was authorized by a commanding officer, some of his underlings actually did things like…press on my husband’s spine at the broken spot, saying: “You don’t look like you have a broken back.” His retort: “You don’t look like you’re a doctor.” That retort then landed hubby in an in-house _jail cell_, the one and only time he’s ever seen the inside of a jail cell. He was hastily released once the supervisor realized what was going on. Crossing the border into Canada – always a pleasure. Getting back into the U.S. – not so much.

  • When we visited Germany in 2007, we were with our daughter most of the time, but did encounter a couple of anti-American people. One of her friends asked me at a party, “WTH is your president thinking?” I told her I didn’t know since I did not vote for him either time. LOL

  • Yes, those people are just embarrassments. Recently I heard a similar woman berating the employee at a nearby gun range. She didn’t want to fill out the proper paperwork to shoot there. I didn’t want her to have a gun at all.

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