Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Travel Tip Tuesdays: How to Avoid Looking Like an American

“How did you blend in when you were in Europe?”

As I’ve said many times, when it comes to European travel, I’m very much an amateur. I was only there six weeks, and most of that time was spent picking beans and berries in Middle of Nowhere, France and Germany. I can’t tell you how to get a good rate on a hotel, the train system still mostly befuddles me, and I never did figure out how to quickly convert euros to dollars in my head. Still, I did pick up a few travel skills along the way, and one of them that made me proud was this: not appearing to be an American.

Some people don’t see the point of this. My best friend, for instance, said that standing out as a foreigner was one of her favorite things about studying abroad and traveling in England. And of course, showing that you’re a traveler is a great conversation starter or way to find help. However, blending in has a lot of advantages. You’re less of a target for pickpockets, you can experience the culture in a more authentic way, and— best of all— when people discover you’re from the USA, you help dismantle the stereotype that all Americans are loud, rude, and self-centered.

I’ve mentioned this topic briefly before, but here are five practical tips to help you blend in, at least in western Europe:

Amsterdam, the Netherlands
1. Don’t dress like a tourist. If you wear a loud shirt and sunglasses, have a huge camera slung around your neck and a cheap souvenir ball cap with “Paris” written on it, you might as well have a sign on your head that says “Rip me off.” Avoid expressly American dress styles, most notably shorts: most Europeans consider shorts to be beachwear. And don’t chew gum.

2. Wear neutral colors. With army-green cargo pants or jeans, a plain shirt, a plain gray jacket, and a fedora or bucket hat, I blended in well enough that people thought I was German, despite my tennis shoes and huge backpack. 

3. Keep your voice low and quiet. On the train from Amberg to Nürnberg, I shared a car with six stereotypical “loud Americans,” who shouted their conversation to each other, laughed riotously, and whined about how stupid and slow the train was. With deep frowns, the Europeans in the car buried their heads in their newspapers. I felt embarrassed on behalf of my entire country. Europeans are generally much more quiet and reserved than Americans, especially in public. It’s only reasonable to respect that.

4. Perfect your accent on, “Hello,” “Thank you” and “Good-bye.” My hosts in the Netherlands thought it was hilarious when a cashier, upon hearing my initial “Hallo,” spoke to me in Dutch. It was one of my favorite things to do in any of the locations. Even though my tourist status was often quickly given away, I enjoyed making a different first impression.

5. Watch the people around you. If no one is smiling, eating with their fingers, speaking loudly, rocking from foot to foot, or looking people in the eye, it might be a cultural norm that you’re unaware of. If you’re observant of the people around you, you can take your cue from their actions and blend in better than you could otherwise. 


When I was in Salzburg, I was strolling down the street with my full backpack in tow. A young man with a clipboard hailed me and spouted out some sort of obviously-prepared pitch in German. With an apologetic smile, I replied, “Ich spreche kein Deutsch.” 

The petition-seeker was floored, and asked in an unbelieving voice, “You are American?”

“Ja,” I replied. “Sorry.”

His mouth widened into a smile, and he chuckled. “Okay, have a good day!”

“Danke schön!” I said, and moseyed off into the city, blending in once again with the people of the continent I had come to love.


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