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The Not So Ugly American

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Ah, the Ugly American. You know the one. The American you see on the streets of Europe who lets us down—wearing running shoes for comfort, they are hell-bent on checking off as many sights as possible in the shortest amount of time. The stereotype of the “Ugly American” was always that of a person in jean shorts (or similar American-looking shorts), a t-shirt, baseball cap, and white sneakers, snapping pictures and asking questions in a thunderous American voice.


I had my first experience living abroad when I studied Art History and Renaissance Architecture in Florence, Italy on a summer program in college. I vividly remember tourists walking around the piazza in front of the Duomo committing huge fashion sins in one of the world’s most fashionable cities. One gentleman was wearing shorts, running shoes, a baseball cap, three cameras around his neck, and a “Take Me Drunk, I’m Home” t-shirt.


I actually gasped when I saw this poor man. What was he thinking? Actually, I know what he was thinking: “it’s hot in Italy, so shorts are my best option; I’ll be doing a lot of walking, so I should wear my comfy tennis shoes even if that means wearing brilliant white socks up to my calves; I’ll need a cap to keep the sun off of my face, good thing I brought along my baseball cap; I don’t want to miss a second of this trip, so I’ll record it on all the cameras I own.”


I made a solemn vow, there and then, that I would never be that person.


Only, I already was, in a way. I totally over packed for that first trip—my motto being “if I can pack it, then I can carry it!” Seriously, you should have seen my duffel bag. A small woman (and her four children) could have fit inside easily. Even though I didn’t bring any shorts—opting instead for sun dresses and walking sandals—I had enough clothes for an entire summer, without doing laundry once. Ah, yes I was a symbol perhaps of American excess.


It sounds a little bitchy to talk about this poor man, because he was probably having a good time. And it has to be said that it takes a lot of guts—or naïveté—to simply transplant that back yard BBQ outfit to the historic cobblestone streets of Europe without caring about what others think. Is it our pioneering spirit that allows us to disregard other cultures and just wear those stark white tennis shoes? Or is it that we are just so into comfort—and, let’s face it, traveling in Europe can be uncomfortable at times—that we want to ensure a certain level of comfort with our clothing? Is it that we’re just not stylish? Or that we just don’t care?


I’d actually love to think that we just don’t care, because really why should we all conform to what one continent considers stylish? I don’t think we don’t care though, because no one wants to be labeled “Ugly.” Most Americans booking trips to Europe are actually nervous about what to pack and what Europeans wear. I know my mom always runs her packing list by me, swearing that if she brings running shoes it will be for a power walk in the morning. Poor woman—I know I have scared her with tales of “that” tourist, even though she could never be “that” person. She’s far too stylish, and she’s my mom!


I was recently discussing vacationing countrymen with friends, and had just confessed that my fellow Americans can be a style embarrassment on vacation, citing my Florence encounter. My British colleague countered with anecdotes of Brits getting pissed and completely unruly on holiday. And my German colleague trumped us with stories of Germans placing beach towels on loungers at the crack of dawn around the pool to mark their turf. Ugliness exists in all cultures, especially on vacation.


Counting my summer excursion, I am living abroad for the third time and I do believe that the “Ugly American” sticker is fading. I have to say that I used to notice “ugliness” more often … or at least with more flamboyance. I’m not sure if this phenomenon is as a result of where we live now, which is not a touristy local, or if Americans are becoming (gasp!) more fashion savvy.


Maybe I’ve mellowed and I don’t actually care what others think about my guests. I love them and they always look great to me. Or maybe the world has mellowed. Everyday fashion is more relaxed now and dressy jeans and walking shoes are perfectly acceptable attire for a day out.


Actually, I like to believe that the lid has been blown off of the “Ugly American” sticker. I envision American travelers banding together and trading in their white Reeboks for cute Rocket Dogs, leaving the shorts at home and packing cute summer skirts, and referring to phrase books before attempting to converse with the natives. This united front and change in attitude is altering the stereotype of the American traveler for the better.


And please note: I have seen my share of baseball caps on European heads—mostly trendy Von Dutch trucker caps—but hey that still counts as a cap!

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