Americans abroad

A person decides to go for a week-long trip to Paris with her teenage daughter. Neither of them have travelled much before, especially to Europe, and they’ve never been to France. Neither of them is much interested in history, art or architecture. They picked Paris as a holiday destination because, well, it is one of the first foreign non-resort destinations that come to mind; plus, a chance acquaintance at the ice rink where the girl regularly skates lived in Europe for a few years and gives Paris very high marks all around.

The woman does not do any pre-trip research. She grills that chance acquaintance on the must-see sights and asks her for various advice, but otherwise departs on her trip with very little idea of what she and her daughter would be doing in Paris.

They end up skipping several major points of interest while in the French capital. Since they are not museum types, they make a cursory visit to the Louvre and pass up all other great art museums. They climb the Eiffel Tower, but skip Ste-Chapelle. They don’t visit Latin Quarter or Monmartre. They do not like walking around much, so they run out of things to do, once they are done with all of the different routes of the hop-on/hop-off tour-bus. Paris bores them. Their best activity ends up a day-long guided tour of Bruges, in Belgium, – regimented schedule, constant English-language narration, no need to improvise in order to keep themselves occupied.

Since they do not speak any French, they tend to have their meals in touristy establishments, where the prices are higher and the portions look fancier but are decidedly smaller. They certainly come away from that not liking the food and bemoaning the cost.

When they are back in America, they tell all of their friends and acquaintances that they don’t understand what’s the big deal about Paris. They could not find anything to do there, they saw almost nothing that impressed them, they had to spend so much money for bad food and cramped lodgings…

Any of my American readers recognize themselves in this portrait?

I sincerely hope not.

You might have guessed from the beginning that the “chance acquaintance” was no one else but my lovely wife. And the person described here is one of the moms that she regularly sees at the rink where Becky and Kimmy have recently resumed their skating. Natasha tried to help the woman before the trip, but the attitude was all wrong; it was as if the woman was expecting to arrive at an all-inclusive resort/amusement park and book additional activities as needed. And her lack of interest in art and culture pretty much doomed the entire endeavor from the very beginning.

No wonder Americans do not travel much beyond “standard” destinations of Disney parks, Florida shores and Caribbean islands. You start off as a narrow-minded highlights-reel-seeker and you make no attempt to experience what a foreign destination have to offer – you probably will lose any cursory interest you may have had after just one attempt…

Present company excluded, of course.

8 comments on “Americans abroad”

  1. jason

    Arg! People like this make me crazy. Why bother to go if you aren’t interested in learning something about your destination? Nothing wrong with doing touristy things, getting your photo in front of the Eiffel Tower and such, but so many people seem to travel with a checklist in hand: okay, done this, done that, I guess we can go home now. For me, the greatest thing about traveling anywhere, even here in the US, is just wandering around to see what you can discover. Ride the public transit system, eat at a divey diner, listen to people talk, try to figure out what their lives are like, how they’re similar to and different from your own.

    The big problem, I think, is that many Americans are profoundly lacking in curiosity about the world, and even about their own country. They don’t want surprises and they definitely don’t want to feel any kind of discomfort. My Girlfriend’s family, as wonderful as they are in many ways, tend to be this way. When I told them a few years ago that I was going to Germany, they all responded with some variant of “what for?” And when I said, “Just to see the place,” I got back baffled stares, as if they simply couldn’t understand that concept. Very frustrating…

  2. Random Michelle K

    See, if I travel, I’d just as soon go visit someone I know. They’ll show me the interesting things that are in the area, they know what the good local restaurants are, and I get to spend time with my friends. WIN!

    As I think I talked about elsewhere, Disney (where my husband’s conference was) was a nice place, but it was completely unappealing to me. It was all completely and totally manufactured, which is just… weird.

  3. Random Michelle K

    And now what I originally meant to say… 🙂

    I have relatives who love to travel. They go to a country and wander around and make friends.

    I am… a little too nervous for that. I love seeing new places, but the possibility of getting lost makes me really nervous. And I’m lousy at chatting up strangers, so I don’t know how to ask “the locals” what to do and where to go.

    Hence, the preferring to visit friends. 🙂

  4. WendyB_09

    Several times in my life I’ve lived in touristy places, including a stint in Orlando & Atlanta (where I still live) during the ’96 Olympics.

    I’ve always made it a point to know the fun stuff and the obligitory touristy stuff, and my guests always get a fun mix that way. When I was in Orlando, I only went to Disney/Sea World/Cape Canaveral when I had company. That way I didn’t burn out and it was fun and interesting for me as well. During the Olympics, I had friends & family wander in and out for the whole month and we all had a blast (hot as it was, maybe that should be blast furnace). And if I end up someplace I don’t know, I can usually manage to snag a local long enough to find something interesting to do.

    I’m still in Atlanta, and a couple groups I’m in do the local tours from time to time…World of Coca Cola, Georgia Aquarium, High Museum, CNN, Stone Mountain, the usual suspects. But I’ve discovered some great neighborhood eateries in our adventures as well, so next time I get company I’ve got some wonderful ideas depending on what guesties want to do/see/eat. As I take public transit, I frequently get asked by the conference crowds for recommendations near the train stations.

    And I can’t imagine anyone going on a vacation, especially overseas, without researching everything to see/do/eat before they set foot out of their home! Good Grief, no wonder they were unhappy.

  5. Ilya

    Michelle, I’m afraid you may have missed your chance to see London, then 🙂

    Wendy, when I lived in NYC the first few years after immigrating, I spent so much time getting to know the city that every visiting friend would end up being overwhelmed by my eagerness to show them everything I knew and liked about it. Ironically, as I moved out to suburbs and started to commute to Manhattan, my fondness for it started to wane, and I nowadays almost always let other people select dining arrangements when we go out in the city, so little I know about it now. Something I think I need to work on…

    Jason, as long as we are not talking movies, you and I seem to be in a complete agreement 😉

  6. WendyB_09

    Now see, even though I lived in White Plains for 5 years when I was a teenager, I’d need a tour guide to get around the NYC area now, having been back only twice since I moved in ’73!

  7. Mama

    I like the arts and museums, but I do not like the big “line” to them
    and waiting (on my feet) for hours to enter.
    I like to see new places, new people, but I dislike any discomfort and bad accomodations.
    I like the tasty food, but dislike the bad service and “do not care about you” stance of the stuffs (comparing with American service).
    I am not a native Anerican(only 18 years here), but I very much appreciated what America can provide for you when you are travelling and making a stop either in the middle of nowwhere.
    On the plus side of being in Paris was the 4.5 days spent with you and family.
    Plus to all of this as you know – I am a very bad walker, but
    I was 3 times in London and I am very impressed of and fall in love with the capital of UK.

  8. Brian Greenberg

    Two thoughts here:

    1) I find that Americans tend to think of other countries or large cities as homogeneous places (“I’m going to see Germany,” “I’m going to see Paris”), when in reality, different parts of the country/large city can be vastly different. I think of the foreign tourist who comes to “see America.” What a difference to their experience if they went to Middle-of-Nowhere, Kansas vs. New York City vs. Hollywood. Or even within a city – he who visits Manhattan walks away with a different experience than he who visits Brooklyn or Queens.

    2) I’m not as internationally travelled as others on this thread, but I’ve had two types of international experiences, both of which I enjoyed very much: in Isreal, we took an organized tour. The tour took us to most of the touristy spots, but Israel has so much history to it that the lack of “local flavor” was vastly outweighed by a knowledgeable tour guide who could explain the context of what we were looking at. In Italy, we were on our own with a Fodor’s book, but we had a very knowledgeable travel agent “arrange” the trip for us – multiple cities/stops, all rail passes & transfers pre-purchased, reservations in a few “fancy” restuarants pre-booked, with the rest left to our own whims and discoveries. This style of travel kept us from being bored or “running out of things to do,” but also made sure that we had some amount of structure, so we didn’t feel overwhelmed or hesitant to explore, lest we get lost/stranded. Speaking to others since, I believe we got a very good sense of various spots throughout the country.

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