Wednesday, August 01, 2012

My Ode to the American Tourist

My father likes to remind me that, despite my best efforts to eradicate it, there is a vein of misanthropy running deep within me. Over the years of Jesuit formation, I'm tempted to believe that I have eradicated this: surely, happily teaching in a high school cultivates a sense of loving people even when they are most unlovable. Indeed, there have been times when I feel on the verge of an experience akin to one described by Thomas Merton who famously writes:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnute, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. 
Such longing may be present in quiet moments, in the sweet promise of the new-dawned day or while reflecting at the day's end. I really want to love everyone, to feel a cosmic oneness with my sisters and brothers.

That is, of course, until I come across tourists.

Yes, I get it. You've worked all year long - maybe even for several years - to make this trip a reality. You've done everything to ensure the trip of a lifetime: you've made a detailed itinerary of must-see sites, a list of great restaurants, purchased a traveling hat, and you've accessorized with a snazzy passport-and-wallet necklace which you will insist on wearing outside of your clothes. Before you went to the airport, you exchanged your money for the "funny" looking Euro which you will now mock loudly as you sort through pocketfuls of change, laughingly explaining to those behind you in line, "I just can't figure this crazy money out!" You've razed a small forest in printing out reams of information which you have stored on clipboards and binders.

You are now an American tourist.

You are now the greatest impediment to my loving all of humanity.

Starting at 8:00 am, you're in tourist mode. You pose in front of signs, you find signs or words that have some personal meeting and have your pictures taken with them, you look at the racks of trinkets and baubles available for sale on the already too-narrow streets. So overcome with beauty, you walk, two or three members abreast, slowly down the street. When you are in a restaurant, you have the idea that people who do not speak your language will magically understand your bizarre requests if you repeat them louder in your mother tongue.

Have no fear, I'm not anxiously trying to get home for the mid-day meal when you stop abruptly and turn to talk to the herd of people following, really, I secretly like being stuck in a sudden sea of humanity, forced to smell the hair of the small Japanese woman I'm now pressing against because you've suddenly decided to tell the group that, "This is where Mozart's father bought kuchen" or some other inane detail. Furthermore, in case you are confused, that really is a look of horror on my face when I see you at 10:00 am ambling down the narrow Innsbruck lane, clad in your rhinestoned Kenny Chesney t-shirt, licking a slowly-melting, triple-scooped cone of gelato. In the evening, when I'm in the Jesuitenkirche praying at night, feel free to begin to read loudly from your clipboard. Don't worry, it's just another building and not a house of worship -- you should try to get up to the Tabernacle and pose for pictures. No, seriously, it's not gauche at all.

Really, my tourist friend, how could I mind it if, while I'm enjoying my first Absinthe on the street, you need to stick your butt in my face so that you can get the "perfect shot" of some nondescript building? Why would I roll my eyes when your daughter proclaims that she will not eat "Pizza Funghi" even though, as you keep telling her, she loves mushrooms at home? Why would I put my headphones on in the cafe when you start pontificating how in America we play the sport "football" and that the rest of world simply plays the game of "soccer" and that they should get it straight?

Don't worry, I get my revenge. When you buy the the exorbitantly priced "Mozart" chocolates  (Mozartkugeln)-- like 3 of them for 5 Euro - I'm secretly thrilled that you're contributing to the local economy. I buy mine at the Spar market - where real people shop - and for 5 Euro I get two dozen. That gelato stand that you stand at, counting out your "funny" money and whining that it doesn't taste like the ice cream at home? Note that the line is populated with tourists like yourself -- the natives are going to a place not on the tourist drag. It's less expensive and more delicious there.

Make no mistake: other groups capture my attention as well. It's just that I know you because, deep down, perhaps I am one of you. Perhaps my negative reaction to you is a sort of spiritual acid reflux, a reaction to a frightening realization that although we are "total strangers" we cannot be "alien" to one another. As irritating as you are, as embarrassing as you can be, somehow you are still mine. This realization may be as close to a mystical awareness as I have concerning you...or it may just be the spur to send me back to the street for my second Absinthe.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely hilarious! And so very true - but you gotta love us!

Robyn said...

Yes! Yes! Yes! I have lived in the UK for nearly 5 years now. Fortunately I am not often in touristy places, but when I am I most emphatically avoid these tourists. It says so much about the USA's general lack of world perspective and respect.

Anonymous said...

I travel in the United States a lot, which gives me a chance to see lots and lots of European and Asian tourists. Here's what I've noticed about foreign tourists in places from New York City to Yellowstone.

They point at odd things, take lots of pictures, and find our money confusing. They carry guidebooks and snacks. They often wear clothing that doesn't look like anything you would find in an American store. They speak out loud in their foreign languages, and sometimes break into hearty laughter for no apparent reason. They don't know the things that Americans know about where to find the best deals, and so some of them probably wind up spending a lot more money than they need to. Many of them understand little or no spoken English, and what English they have may be incomprehensible.

I'm glad they came. I can stand at the Grand Canyon in my home state of Arizona and think "This place, so near to where I grew up, is so beautiful and so awe-inspiring that people come from around the world to see it. They probably save and plan and dream for years. How amazing is that! What a trip this must be for them!"

Anonymous said...

While it's almost impossible not to be at least a little out-of-place as a tourist in another country, some things are almost uniquely American. I was in Singapore recently along with tourists from all over the world, and Americans were the only ones who frequently shouted at people who didn't understand them, failed to respect people in authority, showed up to things horribly underdressed, and acted like everything that went wrong was somebody else's fault.

naturgesetz said...

I agree with the anonymous commenters above.

As for the second absinthe, you've probably heard that absinthe makes the heart grow fonder.

Barbara said...

Very funny and it seems you have touched a raw nerve. When I lived in Hamburg decades ago and travelled elsewhere in Europe, I wore my German clothes and even spoke German at tourist offices. I presumed, rightly or wrongly, that I would get a lowkey and more civilized "European treatment". They were shocked when I had to show I.D. and presented my American passport. I just felt this pretense would allow me a less visible profile and I figured any rude locals who knew a few insulting words in English to throw at tourists would not bother me.