Joe American's European Adventure
by Claire Weingarden

From the writer: During my semester abroad, I saw many incredible things: the Sistine Chapel, the Eiffel Tower, the David. The list goes on and on. For my final project in WRT 305, I chose to write about how being an American affected how I saw these things. And Joe American was born . . .

From the editors: The experience of going abroad ties together the exciting expectation of the unknown and the reality of America's idealistic ethnocentrism. Documenting her travels through Europe, Weingarden's comical style incorporates a level of honesty and animation that reaches even the most traveled reader.

Joe American doesn't speak French. The only Spanish he knows is from Taco Bell commercials. In his mind, Fosters is Australian for beer.

He likes his McDonalds, his Ford Explorer, and his Platinum American Airlines AAdvantage Visa. He works in a downtown skyscraper with mirrored windows, wears plaid pants in a color not found in nature when he plays golf on Saturdays, and he watches football (the sport with the pigskin, not the long-haired hippies) with the boys.

He doesn't look out of place when walking his black Lab around the subdivision in Anytown, USA, 12345. But, when he's standing outside of Buckingham Palace, Joe American can be spotted from a mile away.

Joe American is inside all of us—myself included. We can't help ourselves.

I talk slower to the guy in Rome who is trying to pour me coffee with no milk—in English, of course. I get pissed off when I am expected to walk up the left-hand side of the staircase. I wear blue jeans almost every day. I also drive a convertible, own a Kate Spade bag, and am enrolled in an excellent communications school at a very expensive private college in the Northeast.

I am a living, breathing stereotype, and I am just as ugly as all the other Americans visiting Europe.

Here is my story.

ALTERNATE ROUTES

Look both ways before crossing the street. Twice.

It was my first time alone in London. I had survived the welcome dinner, the housing information session, and the poorly planned registration day. I had my apartment, my clothes were unpacked, and my refrigerator was stocked in all of its 14"x 24" glory,

It was time for me to buy a cell phone. Excuse me, I mean, a mobile.

My dad insisted that John, the 24-year-old friend of my family who now calls London home, take me to buy the phone because, apparently, my gender renders me incapable of buying electronic equipment.

I met John at the Holborn tube station, and was absolutely beside myself because I figured out how to take the tube. We walked all around Covent Garden and Piccadilly Circus, ducking into various cellular stores looking for a phone. I finally settled on a Bosch with a clear orange plastic case. Funky, yet understated, the salesman told me. And it only set my dad back 59 pounds (100 U.S. dollars!).

The mission was accomplished, so John showed me to the tube. His instructions were simple enough—take the Bakerloo Line to Oxford Circus, transfer to the Central Line and take that all the way to Holland Park. Brown to red, brown to red, I chanted to myself.

I was good to go. Or so I thought.

When I got off the train at Oxford Circus, a man came over the loud speaker and announced that the Central Line was not in service and that passengers were advised to take alternate routes.

Alternate routes? I had been in London for four days, what the hell did I know about alternate routes?

So, I, along with the rest of the free world, made my way to the tube map on the wall near the ticket booths in the station. In vain, I tried to follow the pretty colored lines. I had no idea how to get home. So, I did what every other good suburban girl does when they are in a jam.

I hailed a cab.

I was only in the cab for about 5 minutes when we hit the dense, Saturday evening traffic. It took a good ten minutes to inch our way up to High Street Something. As the driver attempted to make a left-hand turn, I noticed a man on a bike, crossing the street dangerously close to the front of the cab.

I'm not quite sure how this happened, but my cab driver hit the guy on the bike.

Mr. Guy On The Bike goes flying, and Mr. Cabbie turns the corner and pulls over to the side of the road.

"I'm sorry, I am going to have to ask you to get out of the taxi. That will be 8 pounds 30, please," he said to me as he stepped out of the cab and helped Mr. Not On The Bike Anymore.

I forked over the money, and watched the scene unfold. The guy wasn't hurt, just angry that his bike was damaged. Words, and eventually phone numbers, were exchanged.

And I began the long walk home. The whole way home I was half-shocked, half-amused. I couldn't help but think, "If that happened in Chicago, someone definitely would have been shot." Then the police would have been called, and would have showed up in full regalia, all armed and dangerous. Lots of moaning and groaning would ensue, and the guy who fell off the bike would have been hauled away in an ambulance, for "observation," or whatever.

The incident was one of my first glimpses of how the British culture differed from my own.

PARDON MY FRENCH

Paris is such a lovely city; it's a shame the French get to live there.

My roommate, Erica, and I decided to take the Eurostar from London to Paris for the weekend of her 21st birthday. As we waited for a cab at the Gare du Nord train station, I was pretty confident that everything was planned for our two-and-a-half-day excursion. We had our money converted, the hotel booked, and the sightseeing planned.

As soon as we got into the taxi, I realized that there was one thing I had forgotten: neither of us spoke French.

In fact, the only French I know is "Voulez vous couche avec moi?" and I knew that wouldn't get us too far. Or at least not where we wanted to go.

Our taxi driver spoke zero English, so it took Erica and I a good few minutes (meter running, no less) to explain to him where our hotel was. Once we arrived at the hotel, we had to look at the meter to figure out how much to pay the cabby because when he told us the amount, we had no idea what he was saying.

The concierge at the hotel put deux and deux together (well, the fact that we were wearing North Face jackets and carried what many Europeans would consider ample luggage for a three-month stay, rather than a three-day weekend) and spoke to us in English immediately. We checked in and took the elevator up to our room. According to the sign, the elevator was capable of holding four people. We could only fit two Americans with luggage.

The hotel room was nice enough, but for some reason the two twin beds were right next to each other. This is something I still have yet to understand about Europe. Like, why bother making two beds if you are going to put them right next to each other? The Cleavers didn't even sleep that close to each other.

We unpacked and passed out, anticipating a big day of sightseeing ahead of us. We awoke early on Friday, Erica's birthday, and ate our breakfast downstairs; smiling and nodding as the waitress pointed to a coffeepot or a teakettle.

After breakfast we headed to the Metro station. When we bought our tickets, we just held up two fingers to indicate the number of tickets we wanted to buy, to spare us the nasty looks from people in line behind us with our feeble attempts at French.

The Louve was impressive, the Arc de Triomphe imposing, and the Eiffel Tower was, well, towering.

We got back to our hotel in time to change for dinner. We were meeting up with friends later to celebrate Erica's birthday, so we had to get a move on. At the restaurant, our waitress didn't speak any English, but luckily there was an older British couple sitting next to us who spoke French. They spent about ten minutes with us; translating the menu and helping us pick out a bottle of wine. It's strange how in London I feel relieved to hear an American accent, but in that restaurant, the chirpy accent of a Brit speaking English put me at ease.

After dinner we took the Metro to meet up with some of Erica's friends from high school at an Irish bar. Why we went to an Irish bar in Paris is still a little foggy to me. The Irish do beer and the French do pastries, I guess.

The evening was spent in the typical American; "it's your 21st birthday, chug, chug, chug" fashion. I was surprised that Erica was still standing when the bar closed at 2 AM. We stumbled out of there and walked a few blocks to pick up a cab.

Along the way, we fell victim to the catcalls of French men. They would say something that sounded really gross to us in French, and we wouldn't turn around, then they would say something nasty in English, and we wouldn't turn around, so they would resort to Spanish, German (I think), and then back to French. The best thing about being a girl in a foreign country is that when shady guys talk to you, you can pretend, pretty convincingly, that you have no idea what they are saying to you. Fortunately, we were with Courtney, Erica's fluent-in-French friend, who told the guys to "fuck off." At least I think that's what she said.

The streets were packed with drunken French people, all trying to hail a cab. After a while, I was getting cold and getting sober and none of this was amusing me anymore. Courtney, bless her heart, was trying in her best, drunken French, to get this cab driver to give us a ride.

As she was leaning her head in the front window, chatting-it-up with the cab driver, two Pierres got in the back of the cab. Erica starts flipping out and telling them, in English, that this is our cab, and they need to get stepping. Of course, Jean Paul and his friend are not having it, so they say something rude back to Erica.

She looks at me, points to the guys in the backseat and says, "Como se dice, 'asshole'?" I start cracking up, and try to explain to her that she is speaking Spanish. This, of course, makes her even more angry, so she starts screaming, "Como se dice, ASSHOLE?" at the top of her lungs.

The cab driver is not too pleased with our behavior, so he begins pulling away from the curb. Just as he hits the gas, I notice the guys in the backseat.

They were flipping us the bird.

Ah, the universal language. Now, that's something I can understand.

IT'S JUST WHERE YOU LAY YOUR HEAD AT NIGHT

Note to self: While travelling in Europe, if you find a place to stay that costs only the equivalent of $15 a night, it is probably too good to be true.

Like most American, college students, Amsterdam was a must on my list of places to see in Europe. I wanted to see the canals, experience the Anne Frank museum, and uh, do that other thing that they do legally in Amsterdam.

I found cheap plane tickets on British Midland, and it was Erica's duty to find us a place to stay. After searching the Internet for a bit, she stumbled upon a web site for the International Budget Hostel. The IBH boasted about clean rooms, friendly staff, and a great location. Plus, it was only the equivalent of $15 a night. So, she went ahead and booked us three nights at the hostel.

We arrived in Amsterdam late Thursday night, and took a cab to the IBH. Our room overlooked a canal, had flower-print bedspreads, and smelled like mothballs. It was everything I expected—except that there were four beds, and only two of us.

I didn't start freaking out immediately. I mean, we were in Amsterdam, I knew we were staying in a hostel, I was going to be down with the whole communal living for the weekend. Or at least try to be.

Friday morning we got up early and headed over to the Heineken brewery for a tour, and to well, get drunk. After the tour we went back to the hostel to pick up our umbrellas, which we had forgotten to bring with us in the morning. Erica and I stumbled up the stairs, and unlocked our door, pushed the door open and surprise!

Our new roommate was a shirtless 40-something-year-old man with an obvious aversion to bathing.

My eyes lit up in horror, and Erica and I quickly gathered our things in silence, and got the hell out of there.

Maybe it was the beer. Maybe it was the fact that I didn't even like sharing a dorm room freshman year. Maybe it was because I am a rich bitch. But, whatever the reason, I was absolutely terrified of spending the next two nights in that room.

When we came back to the room to change for dinner, our roommie was lying in bed with no shirt on, smoking a cigarette. He had a bunch of clothes drying on the radiator next to Erica's bed. He apologized profusely, in broken English, for having his clothes in our way.

That was nice of him and all, but in the back of my head, all I could think was, where I come from, it is not normal for a grown man to sleep in a youth hostel. Youth hostels are for youths. Thoughts kept running through my mind—this man could have been homeless, he could have been a drug addict, or he could have been a rapist. And my best friend and I had to share a room with him.

I did my best to enjoy the rest of our trip. The Anne Frank museum moved me, and I saw some incredible van Goghs. When it came to going to sleep at night, I just did my best not to think about the situation. In the end, nothing too horrible happened to us. But something could have—and that's what scared me so much.

After my adventure in Amsterdam, I know the true meaning of sleeping with one eye open. I have never felt so uneasy, so nervous, and so vulnerable in all of my life.

To this day, I still wonder why the whole youth hostel experience freaked me out so much. When Erica and I made the plans to stay at the hostel, the people I pictured us sharing the room with were a pair of bumbling British girls, or a couple sassy Spanish students. It never crossed my mind that we would be rooming with a smelly, grown man.

The American in me likes my personal space. At restaurants, I don't like to sit next to people I don't know. On the tube, I don't like it when people stand unnecessarily close to me. And when it comes to lodging, I sure as hell don't like the idea of sharing a room with a stranger.

As silly as it sounds, I am proud of myself for getting through that weekend. It was a test of sorts. I tried the youth hostel thing once, and now I never have to do it again.

From now on, I'm sticking with the Marriott.

MRS. BERMAN'S DAY AT THE BULLRING

Reach out and touch someone.

Over the span of the last 300 years, thousands of bulls have met their fate on the dirt floor of the bullring in Ronda, Spain.

Today, on this same dirt floor, Mrs. Berman confirmed her hotel reservations.

The Weingarden family spent a week in Spain over my spring break. We went all around Andalusia, hitting several key cities—Malaga, Granada, Sevilla, and of course, Ronda.

Ernest Hemingway wrote about Ronda in his novel, For Whom The Bell Tolls. Historic Ronda is known for its amazing 500-foot gorge that the fascists threw republicans off during the Spanish Civil War. Ronda is also the birthplace of bullfighting in Spain—its bullring is the oldest in the country.

This is where our story unfolds.

We had just visited the bullfighting museum next to the bullring. Inside, we studied the beautiful matador costumes, the various newspaper clippings on the walls, and the tributes to the famous matadors who lost their lives in competition.

As we exited the museum, we entered a dark passageway that led us to the open bullring. Light came pouring out of the door, and as we emerged on the other side, we were met with the imposing dirt floor of the ring. There were yellow, white and red columns, black stadium seats and "sol" or "sombrillo," was painted on the walls, directing spectators to either the sunny or shady part of the ring.

It was beautiful. It was big. It was old.

The four of us just kind of stood there for a few moments in the Spanish sun, taking it all in. Simultaneously, our collective concentration was broken as we heard an exceptionally loud American voice.

"Actually, actually, ACTUALLY," the American woman said.

Our heads all turned in the woman's direction. Maybe it was because in a matter of a few short days we had become accustomed to hearing Spanish. Maybe it was because she was American. Maybe it was because she was just really fucking loud.

"Uhm, no, actually, our reservations were for . . ." the American woman searched for the word . . .

". . . MANANA," she finished.

We were dumbfounded. And, amused. First of all, how did this obviously American woman get her cell phone to work in Spain? Secondly, this woman's feeble attempt at Spanish was too much for us to handle.

While we were busy cackling, the person on the other end of the phone line must have asked this woman what name the reservation was under.

"Berman," she replied.

That really did it. We all busted up laughing and had to walk away. This woman was a loud, obnoxious American who not only had enough money to visit Spain in the first place, but had enough extra cash to make sure that her cell phone would work on her vacation—even at the bullring in Ronda.

Part of the reason my family found this episode so amusing was that we could see ourselves in every bit of Mrs. Berman. Here we were, just like her, upper-middle class Americans in all of our Platinum American Airlines AAdvantage Visa glory, spending a week in Spain. We have been known to talk louder than necessary, wear white sneakers, and even use cell phones.

Mrs. Berman's attempt at Spanish wasn't so far-fetched, either. My dad was the only one of us who spoke Spanish, so for the entire trip, my mother and I would smile and nod when waiters came around with café con leche, while my brother would calmly ask for agua sin gas. In more than one restaurant, I actually uttered the phrase, "Dad, what is he saying to me?"

But, there was one thing that separated the Weingardens from the Bermans.

My mom didn't bring her cell phone to Spain.

WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?

"In the American imagination, Europe has traditionally functioned as a place of contrast, it was the place against which America defined itself." Elsner and Rubies from Voyages and Views

As cliché as it sounds, this semester has been an eye-opening experience for me. Having never traveled abroad, I came to London in January with little sense of the world around me. I grew up outside of Chicago, so I already knew how to take public transportation, that there were people less fortunate than me out there in the world, and I knew to look both ways before crossing the street. However, it barely crossed my mind that on the other side of the ocean, people may not have refrigerators as large as mine at home, or that everyone in the world may not speak English, or even that crossing the street could become a life-or-death situation.

As ethnocentric as it may sound, it is 100 percent true. And I'm not the only one who feels that way.

Ellen Magid, 22, is a senior French major at Syracuse University. Ellen spent the second semester of her sophomore year in Strasbourg, France, through the DIPA program.

"Before I studied abroad, I never really thought that my way of doing things wasn't necessarily the way that the rest of the world does things," Magid said. "See, being an American traveling in Europe, we think, 'oh, we're the superpower and number one.' For instance, we think that everyone does, or should speak English. But, this idea is so off base. Imagine if you went into a GAP in Chicago and started asking for help in picking out a shirt, but you were speaking in German. The GAP employee would look at you like you were nuts, and walk away."

Language isn't the only barrier that Americans face when they travel abroad, according to Michael Woolf, director of the Syracuse University London Centre.

"I hate to generalize, but if I had to make a stereotype, I would say that I think Americans walk around with the attitude that there way is the way the world should be, that they know the right way and everything else is backwards," said Woolf, who has directed the SULC for two years. "I think most of our students learn quite quickly that this just is not the case."

While Woolf recognizes many of the typical stereotypes of Americans, he said that there are many positive things that Americans can bring to the table.

"It's all been said before—Americans wear bright clothes, talk too loud, and are way too pushy," Woolf said. "But I think there are many good things American students have to offer. For the most part there is a real 'can-do' mentality and optimism among young Americans that can be contagious. After all, the country was founded upon change and revolution."

Susan Strauss, assistant director of the SULC offers a different perspective. Strauss is an American who has been living abroad for the last five years, and has spent the last two years in London working with the SU program.

"I am an American after all, so I feel that I can say these things—Americans tend to draw attention to themselves. Many Europeans say that we are loud and fat," Strauss said. "In general, Americans tend to show more emotion and enthusiasm towards things than Europeans do."

Magid agrees that Americans stand out in a crowd. While she was travelling through Europe, she and her friends would play a game called, "Spot the Americans."

"It was so easy," Magid said. "Find a group of people with Nike shoes and North Face jackets, and you start racking up the points."

Magid also said that many Americans appear obnoxious in Europe because our ways of personal interaction can be so different than the interaction between Europeans.

"In a lot of cases, I just don't think that Europeans understand that our way of being friendly is a loud, outgoing slap on the back, how's it goin' buddy approach. Europeans tend to be more reserved and formal."

According to CultureGram 2000, a handbook published by Brigham Young University, "Having a long and rich history, the English enjoy tradition and custom more so than do Americans. In general, the English value moderate behavior and emotional reserve. Traditionally they are suspicious of extremes and may be embarrassed by displays of emotion or excessive enthusiasm."

The Living in London handbook created by the SULC echoes these sentiments. According to the handbook, "The British have a strong sense of tradition, of doing things in certain ways because those are they ways they've 'always been done.' To them, America is a throwaway culture where last week is ancient history. If something wears out, we junk it. The British fix it."

Woolf notes that while there are numerous stereotypes that the British have about Americans, there are various stereotypes Americans hold about the British as well. Woolf said that many Americans come to London with the idea that England is a monarchy full of tradition and conservatism.

"While these thoughts may be correct to an extent, you can't think of London in those terms," Woolf said. "London is a cosmopolitan city, we are changing every day."

Woolf said that he thinks many Americans come to Europe with very simple ideas about how things are going to be. He said that the majority of students he has met have gone abroad thinking that things are very black and white, and that cultures don't overlap.

"If anything, I hope that students come to Europe with simple ideas and leave with complex thoughts," Woolf said. "Studying abroad is all about understanding how complex this world truly is."

I am happy to say that in my case, Woolf has accomplished his goal. I came to Europe in January with very strict ideas of the way the world works. I am leaving four months later with the notion that the world is a very complicated place.

While I still find it odd that I am expected to walk up the left-hand side of the staircase when leaving a tube station, I have seen that this is how London works, and has worked for a very long time. I still don't understand how the Spanish manage to accomplish anything when most leave work at 3 p.m. to take a nap or sit in a piazza and drink sangria. But after spending some time there, I have seen that the Spanish culture is rich in tradition, and it has worked so far, so there really is no need in Spain for an American work ethic. I still get pissed off when I think about those French guys in the back of the cab flipping me off, but I can see why the French were so nasty to me. If I were walking down the street at home and some French dude came up to me and asked me where the "Tour Sears" was, I would give him a dirty look, too.

This semester has shown me just exactly how big and diverse this world is. As Gustav Flaubert said, "Traveling makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world."

I am still Joe (well, Jill) American, but now I can laugh at my own ways. My semester abroad has given me the opportunity to see how so many different people live. It has also given me the ability to put my own culture in perspective. And perspective is what life is all about.


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