Immediately we were hooked. We had front-row (bed) seats to openly conduct our own anthropological study as outsiders looking in at something for the first time. For five hours our brows furrowed, our fists shook, “Why do Eastern European countries vote for Russia?! Don’t they remember the Cold War!?” and our giggles tried to drown out the raucousness of the busiest street in Edinburgh hosting endless hen and stag night do’s.
In truth, much of our recent two-week venture to the U.K. and many of my four others over the last decade, have had a similar air of anthropological study. It’s a natural propensity when you plop a wallflower observer into a foreign land for her to spend her time acutely studying the world she sees around her. But unlike Eurovision, my attention was rarely on the Europeans.
By now I’ve spent enough time in the U.K. through both my studies and travels to feel fairly at home there. I’ve got the awkwardness fairly down, I know better than to present a swipe card instead of a chip and pin in most establishments, drop “sorry” instead of “excuse me” for everything, and always keep change for the pay and display parking. I do not linger long in the right lane, I know everything outside of London closes by 5 p.m., you must eat ice cream always, and you can have a 45-minute conversation with someone about their dog and still not know their name. I’m comfortable enough there to no longer be gawking at British children doing parkour through the streets, asking the Scotsman to please repeat what he just said, nor be surprised that roads that resemble something a drunken toddler designed with a crayon are actually main thoroughfares.
Instead, these days, my eyes turn to my fellow Americans abroad, and let me tell you, watching your brethren from the outside strikes an altogether different approach to how you perceive your nation. Tourism, from the perspective of both the local and the tourist, is what the lower levels of hell are relegated to. In an effort to see and do and experience something new, you’re generally forced to turn into the worst variation of yourself. You’re packing for unknowns (weather, events, activities) in a limited space for perhaps a substantial length of time and you have to choose between functional and fun, and never the twain shall meet. So there you are, in a foreign country, wearing shoes that make you stick out because they are either trying way too hard to be fashionable (stilettos to tour a castle, really?) or they look like your grandmother bought them for her bunions. You’re waiting in line for everything, your back and shoulders are aching from all the shit you’ve been carrying through various airports, train stations, and up 10 flights of hotel stairs with no lifts, and your resting bitch face is permanently set to “scare small children.” You’re grumpy, yet over-eager, your FOMO has you on a blitz-like mission to see ALL THE THINGS to the point that even your loved ones are ready to cut you.
American tourist you is not the best version of you by any stretch of the imagination. Sitting in an international city and people watching is a priceless lesson in learning that some stereotypes are true. Each nationality seems to have its own quirks for traveling and my eye for guessing your origin based on your outfit grows ever keener by the day. (Seriously, Germans, how are you permanently dressed for every possible weather event in stylish but functional clothes?)
And my fellow Americans, we can be spotted a mile away, and not just because of those really unfortunate man-sandal/sock combos. It’s the dazed gleam in our eye of, “How charming and twee provincial Europe is! It’s not how we would do it, but it’s a cute effort.” It’s in how we can’t fathom that a shower could actually be that small or that there isn’t a Starbucks on every corner. We exude it every time we scoff at the lack of ice cubes or air conditioners, the fact that a large drink is actually large and not the size of a small child, or when we despair that something has the audacity to not be written first in English. There’s a look to Americans, barely hidden by our over-the-top charm, loud voices, and need for instantaneous satisfaction.
It’s our superiority complex and you can spot it a hundred yards out.
In a restaurant in Northern Wales, my sister and I were seated in front of a table of angry shouting Welshman (in Welsh), beside a group of grumpy Ukrainian boys, and six tables of mid-life German bros were inhaling large pints and shouting “Proust” behind us. And yet it was the table of two older Texan couples immediately behind us that drew our attention. It was the usual American fodder, us reminding everyone that once 100+ years ago someone in our family hailed from these lands, and then in a louder voice, remarking on 1.) how important and prestigious they were (everyone you’ve ever met is somehow related to a British royal) and 2.) how they had the good sense to get out. It’s all so delightfully quaint to have distant European ancestors, to stand in a tartan shop on the Royal Mile in Scotland and ask an exhausted shopkeeper to name whose clan the pink, teal, and purple tartan belongs to (spoiler: none), because you’re sure it belongs to a laird (because it’s always someone important) on your father’s side. The elderly Texans told the waiter (who was Eastern European, not Welsh and definitely not Irish, wrong island), “My great-great-great-great-great grandfather had some red in his hair and was named Conor Murphy—doesn’t get much more Irish than that. Our Irish heritage is so important to our family. We saw ‘Riverdance’ on Broadway twice.”
If your eyes could actually fall out of your head from being rolled too hard, ours would’ve been in their plate of fish and chips. Our shameless eavesdropping continued, listening to the poor waiter be regaled with stories of their noble heritage that more closely resembled a “Western Civilization for Dummies” account than any real understanding of the nations and histories they allegedly descended from.
But what stood out the most was that it didn’t stand out at all. This is who we are when we’re abroad, we discern ourselves from the rest of the international tourists because we are uniquely special—we are the returning prodigal sons and daughters back to spend our (failing) dollars; condescending to visit and lord over how much better we have it now. While most tourists often go somewhere they know little to nothing about beforehand, most Americans I’ve met on my travels are equally ignorant to the culture and history and simultaneously claiming it as their own.
Through this ignorance, we exude our right to be superior. We don’t need to know that there is more to Ireland than wee leprechauns or that Britain managed to survive a thousand years of invasions long before America ever “rescued” them from the Germans. We wield our superiority like a battle axe abroad. I’ve stood in a chapel with the names of all British fallen soldiers from both world wars, wars that America arrived to after millions upon millions were already killed and at the last possible moment, and heard Americans loudly remark, “If it weren’t for us, they’d all be speaking German. You’d think they’d be a bit more grateful.” At the same memorial I heard an Austrian whisper to his friend, “Hard to be proud of your country here.”
I too have British Isle ancestry (more peasant than royalty). I’ve stood on Cornwall’s craggy coast and felt like I belonged, like some part of me long ago walked these hills and called it home. When I studied in England I lamented that groceries closed at 4 p.m. on a Sunday and that everything was slightly harder to do when I got home. As my plane touched down back into U.S. soil for the first time in five months in 2006, my roommates and I shared an “America, Fuck Yeah” high five and got some Five Guys. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong in loving your country or acknowledging the differences between it, and even preferring your own, but rather it’s the act of routinely denigrating those nuanced differences—of intrinsically assuming superiority, often via sheer ignorance—that makes it unbearable.
Each summer I return to the U.K. and try a little harder to learn, to experience, to fit in. I set down my camera more and listen to the locals, I watch the BBC and read The Guardian. I follow the politics and the pop culture and fill my shelves with its history books. I have an obsession with the U.K., an underlying desire to know and absorb as much about it as I can. With every visit and new lesson, I learn more about not only myself but learn to think critically and analytically about my own country. I see our braggadocio that we wear in flashing neon upon our sleeves to blind others to our warts. It teaches me how to look at one-sided history and that the world did not begin in 1776 nor will it end when we, as the Roman and British Empires did, fall. The world does not tilt upon an American axis, no matter how loudly we insist it does.
We need to learn to be better guests in other nations’ home; to be more open-minded, to question instead of judge. Maybe we wouldn’t stand out quite as much, maybe we’d learn something, maybe we’d see that we’re not the first victors to write the history books. Maybe the rest of the world would stop looking at us as that obnoxiously successful cousin (who always rubs your nose in it) that no one wants to sit next to at the family reunions.
Hell, maybe they’d even invite us to Eurovision.