When I am around at bedtime, I sing my nieces and nephews a song about an English sparrow who gets caught in a storm and blown all the way to Paris. He meets a beautiful French sparrow who (in a very impressive French accent, if I do say so myself) gives him a tour of her city. The kids don’t understand half the words but they have made me promise that one day I will take them to see the Bios de Boulogne, Montmartre and the Champs-Élysées. My brother thinks it is a great idea because he might actually get to go on vacation alone with his wife. I envision keeping track of three teenagers in Paris and become a little nauseated.
I love to travel and I believe experiencing other cultures is the key to becoming balanced and well-rounded. I recently enjoyed a wonderful vacation in Venice, Italy. On my last night I decided to treat myself to a $30 plate of spaghetti at a café on the water. I found a table surrounded by flowers and lights with a magnificent view of the gondolas cruising up and down the Grand Canal. I had been there for a week but I was still pinching myself over the fact that I was in Venice. As the sun went down and the pasta arrived, I absorbed my last moments in Italy with so much happiness. Suddenly my tranquility was interrupted by an obese woman in an unfortunate sparkly red and blue blouse who arrived and announced, “I don’t speak Eye-talian. I want a glass of white wine and I want to use the bathroom.” The waiter placed a glass of wine on a table and waited for her to return from the bathroom. She came back and sat at a different table on the other side of the room. The waiter had already removed the second place setting so he said, “Madam, your table” and indicated where her wine was waiting. She bellowed across the restaurant, “I’ll sit here or forget about it.” The appalled waiter glanced over at the owner as he graciously moved the wine to the place she had chosen to plop herself down. I too do not speak Eye-talian so I don’t know what was said between the waiters but the woman started yelling that she did speak Italian after all and she did not appreciate the waiters being rude about her. She did not pay to be treated like that.
Venetians appear to have very little need to relieve themselves on a regular basis. There is one public restroom at the train station that you have to pay to use and after that, you have to order a meal to use a restaurant’s facilities. Even then they will charge you 2 euros for the privilege of taking up a table. So it was immediately apparent to everyone in the restaurant that this vision of loveliness had ordered the wine only to gain use of the bathroom, and was trying to get away without paying for the drink on top of that. Wine is fabulously cheap in Italy and she was fussing about a $3 beverage. She got on her phone and started loudly complaining about the Eye-talians. The owner was not amused and asked her to leave. She didn’t pay for using the restroom or her half-consumed glass of wine. Mission accomplished. However, she was not satisfied with the outcome and proceeded to take photos of all of the waiters while yelling, “TripAdvisor! TripAdvisor!” The staff shooed her away but she stood across the courtyard furiously typing into her phone, apparently reporting her unforgivable treatment to the TripAdvisor Website right there on the spot. She yelled that she would never be treated like this in America. I almost cheered when the owner chased her down the street.
I was still sitting there with my mouth open, shocked at the entire scene, when all of the waiters and the owner turned around and looked at me. I raised both hands in surrender and said, “I’m Australian,” in a desperate attempt to save my life. The entire restaurant chuckled and clapped. “OK, you’re OK, you can stay” the owner reassured me. Peace returned to the café. I felt guilty for betraying the country that I have called home for most of my life, but there was no way I was going to be associated with that woman. And my unfinished spaghetti was really good. I then had to put on my best Aussie accent, which after all these years is starting to elude me. I didn’t care that I sounded like a Bostonian on Ambien, as long as I distanced myself from that horrible person. I had a great night talking to the waiters and the owner brought me tiramisu and a limoncello on the house. When I asked about opera in the area, he drew a map and directed me to a church that only locals know about. As I was leaving, all the waiters called “ciao” and waved. It was an amazing evening, and one that the awful woman could also have enjoyed if she had shown an ounce of decorum.
I have been an American citizen for a long time. I sound American and am proud to be from a country that accepts who I am and gives me the freedom to live the way I choose. America is an amazing place to live. But many of us apparently do not know how to behave in other people’s countries. I am often astounded by our sense of entitlement.
Here’s the thing; when you leave America, you are entitled to diddly-squat. I don’t care if you are paying $800 a night for the best room on the Grand Canal, you are still a guest. Wikipedia has a page for the term Ugly American and defines it as “a pejorative term used to refer to perceptions of loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless and ethnocentric behavior of American citizens mainly abroad.” When they are older, I would like to take my nieces and nephews on an overseas trip and show them how we got this reputation. I have rarely been abroad without experiencing something similar to my Venice story. I am going to make it clear that something very terrible will happen to my kids if I catch them behaving that way. Thankfully they have cultured parents who would never behave like that and they are already exposed to so much outside their Los Angeles lifestyle. As Americans, we have to teach our children to embrace other cultures and show respect and humility when we are fortunate enough to travel. We have to show them how to learn about what is considered offensive there that we might not know about, such as tipping the taxi driver. Show by example how to pick up on social graces we aren’t used to, like addressing an attendant when you enter and leave their shop. Learn enough of their language to say “please” and “thank you” and “I’ll have another glass of red wine please.” It is not that difficult to show that we are trying to be gracious guests when we are in other countries.
Later that night, while flipping through the Italian TV channels in my hotel room, I came across a show that was called Ridiculousness: Very American Idiots. It was the title they gave America’s Funniest Home Videos. ”Well, that’s perfect,” I thought. “That just makes this night complete.” I turned the TV off in disgust at the perception of my adopted country, curled up in bed and wished I had someone to sing my sparrow song to. I adore Italy but I was very glad to be going home to my family.