I have been to about 20 foreign countries over the years. When I first started visiting those countries I was actually living in Italy at the time. I made a decision to abandon my U.S. dollars for Italian Lira. Yes, this was well before the Euro. My first stop was Greece. I had a hotel room in Athens and set out to see the sights. The people of Athens were horrible. They reminded me of those arrogant entitled Americans! They had no time for anyone, and were only too willing to ignore me. I rented a car and headed out for Thessalonica in the north. I was not very far outside Athens when I picked up a couple of hitchhikers who just happened to be Americans. It was getting close to lunchtime so we stopped at a very small roadside cafe we came to.
We had an immediate problem. Americans expect everyone who serves them should naturally speak English and have real problems when that is not the case. I was fortunate enough to have lived in Italy for some time at that point, had learned Italian, and knew that these small, out of the way places were not where English was spoken. The cafe was just an extension of a typical European farmhouse. A man and a woman ran the place and of course spoke only Greek. We three Americans accepted that and quickly set about breeching the language gap. We had acquired some ears of corn along the way and we wanted to have it cooked for us. At the time, most Europeans did not eat corn on the cob, and many considered it to be only good as cattle food. Through hand gestures, and other means, we were able to convey our desire to have the corn boiled. Our hosts were aghast but were more than willing to comply. I do not remember what else we had with the corn, but I can assure you it was really good.
As we sat in the cafe, we being the only ones there, we were able to have a conversation, of sorts, with our hosts. They conveyed to us how things were for them during World War 2 and why they truly loved Americans. These people were extremely nice. It was at that point I discovered that speaking a common language was totally unnecessary to gain an understanding of the people you find yourself with. This set the tone for the rest of my trip. Even though my feelings for Athens remain unchanged, my feeling for the Greek people in general is extremely positive. I truly saw these people as just like me in many ways and that was comforting.
At another point on this trip I found myself in the Lebanese capital of Beirut. I exchanged some of my Italian lira for Lebanese pounds, found a cab and headed for my hotel, the Alcazar. The man at the reception desk spoke perfect English and was extremely helpful. I later asked him about his knowledge of foreign languages. He told me that to be employed in a hotel in Lebanon you were required to know at least four languages, Arabic, French, German, and English, so you could deal with the greatest number of the guests. He knew several more languages on top of these. It was really impressive.
Across from my hotel there was a sign about a casino to the north of the city. I asked the man at the desk about it and he told me to rent a cab and go because it would be a wonderful experience. I had met up with a couple of Canadian women in Beirut and they agreed that it would be a really nice way to spend the evening. I noted that the cab fare to this place was only about ten American dollars. We rented the cab and went to the casino. Upon arriving I tried to pay the cabbie but he said no, that I could pay him after we got back to the hotel. I was really surprised by this statement and said we would be inside for hours and the cabbie assured me that he expected that. Then I asked him how long it would take him to get there when we came out. He assured me he would be one minute away. It was unbelievable, to the American mind, but we decided to accept what he said.
When we finally decided to return to our hotels the cabbie was there just as he said he would be. When we arrived back at out hotel he said the fare was 30 Lebanese pounds, ten American dollars. We were shocked, to say the least. We decided between us to give him 60 pounds feeling it was more than worth it. The cabbie had been everything he offered and more. He was polite, friendly, and offered us some useful tips. He suggested we go on a tour to Damascus, that we would really enjoy ourselves.
Well, the next day the three of us boarded a tour bus going to Damascus. The trip to Damascus was uneventful although upon arrival at the border we were held for over an hour while our passports were inspected. Upon our arrival in Damascus we were asked to change buses for our tour. We did not think much of that at the time and went on our tour of the city. I loved Damascus. When our tour bus returned us to the bus that had brought us to Damascus we were quick to find skeins of fabric pushed underneath all of the seats. We had become a part of a smuggling scheme from Syria to Lebanon. I joking said to my companion that maybe we should say something about this at the border. She assured me she would kill me if I even breathed wrong.
Shortly after our return to Beirut we were walking through the city bazaar when I spotted a heroin deal going down right out in the open. Not 20 feet away was a policeman who could not have missed such a transaction. I noted what was going on to one of my friends and we agreed that had any of us been involved, the policeman would have been quick to notice.
My entire stay in Lebanon showed me one very important thing. The Arabic people, the common man, were extremely friendly and took me as I was. I have nothing but good things to say about these people and take offense at anyone who says anything to the contrary.
The thing is, when I am in these foreign countries I never present myself as an American, as if that is supposed to count for something. I am always aware that I am a guest in the country and that good manners is what I need to display. By acting this way, I cannot tell you how many times the people of these countries have been surprised upon discovering I am an American. I was fortunately aware of the concept of the “Ugly American” and it was the last thing I wanted to be. I cannot say I have always been treated really well but in general, I have been treated really well. Because of that I have enjoyed my travels abroad immensely.
Americans, when you travel abroad, leave at home your American ideas of the way things should be, of how people should treat you, and especially, leave at home all feelings of entitlement because you are an American. The phrase “I am an American” abroad means something between nothing and utter contempt to anyone you would say this to.