The Not-So Accidental Tourist

Tuesday, July 8th, 2008 | SMASH Pop Culture with

Euro Guy

Who are the rudest tourists in the world? According to an article on Time.com, it’s the Indians, the Chinese and (no surprise) the French. The French were rated the most obnoxious among the 4000 hotel employees polled in Germany, the UK, France, Canada, Italy and the US. The poll characterized the French as “impolite, prone to loud carping and inattentive to local customs”. Moreover, the study painted the typical French tourist as someone who is incapable or unwilling to speak foreign languages and is, well, cheap, especially when called on to leave tips for various services.

Hold on a minute. You’d think we were talking about American tourists. Yes, that ugly American which has become almost a stereotype even before Chevy Chase crashed into Stonehenge in “National Lampoon’s European Vacation”.

Whatever happened to the Dallas Cowboy t-shirt-wearing paunchy guy with stretchy sweatpants, bloated fanny pack at the waist who is barking at his brood to take a picture of Trevi Fountain before they all duck into the local McDonalds? (Dude! They have beer! Sweet!) Isn’t this the loudmouth tourist this poll is talking about? The Americans who shout about there being no ice in the drinks? Our brethren who shout “Can’t you understand English?!” to hotel staff when they check in? What happened to the Americans?

Actually, the poll found that Americans were more willing to try the local languages and, ravenous consumers that they are, were not shy about spending their money. (The Germans and the French, both accustomed to their strong welfare states and short work-weeks, were the biggest penny pinchers.)

I wonder if the not-so-terrible showing by the Americans suggests they simply aren’t traveling as much, and certainly not to those European destinations either, given the weak dollar and the crushing economy back home. But this also isn’t a new development. To the extent that Americans even travel overseas, it remains an activity of the upper middle class and the well-to-do, and this is likely to become more exclusive.

For us, on a very practical level, travel for vacation may be Vegas, a Six Flags park, or a nearby beach. Gas prices have probably put a kibosh on any long distance driving, and who can afford to fly anymore? At a time when the percentage of Americans who own passports is still relatively low, we probably don’t stand out as much as we used to.

So what about the petulant French? The study pointed out that the French and the Americans are perceived as rude in rather similar ways —and they’re right. I lived in Paris for over a year and was always struck by how difficult it was for the French to adjust to the hordes of tourists who piled into their cafes and museums every spring and summer. They weren’t impressed that people were coming to their country.

In fact, they would insist on others’ speaking their properly-pronounced language. The French are very self-involved people. Of course they won’t speak French. Mon Dieu! Someone might actually hear them. What links the French to the Americans is this: they don’t leave home. About 85% of French citizens vacation in-country, according to the Time article –the villa in Biarritz, the country home in Bourgogne.

That said, when the French do venture out somewhere, they pretty much expect high standards for their comfort. They “wind up”, the article asserts, “getting spoiled” when they do leave. In a similar manner, when Americans get up off the couch and go somewhere, they demand the creature comforts because they have not been used to doing without them.

None of this is an excuse for atrocious behavior. Humans need to treat other humans with respect, wherever they are in the world. It is just as rude for the French to respond to our fractured French in English as it is for the gushy American to remark that the natives they met in a faraway land were “so nice” (as opposed to, what, savages?)

Finally, I guess we’ve become so used to thinking that the French –and perhaps Europeans in general—are the true effete monsters we make them out to be. It’s almost become a parlor game. So, OK, let me partake in this ritual for a moment, and remind us that because we don’t get out much, we enjoy this sport of putting down our creepy, snooty, pompous neighbors from across the pond. Meet Euro Guy, sitting in the audience recently on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien”, and clearly a tourist in New York from some indeterminate European country. He is simply better than us.

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