Friday, July 29, 2011

Flavia's guide to foreign travel

(Note: I do not always follow my own advice.)
  1. Unless you're traveling for research purposes and/or have a place of your own (i.e., not a hotel room), the ideal trip is 12-15 days long.
  2. Never stay for fewer than three days in any one city.
  3. Never visit more than two different countries in a single trip. This is especially true if those countries involve different languages.
  4. Your first 12 hours in any new city will be annoying and cranky-making, even if you're not suffering from jet lag. Roll with it.
  5. Sight-seeing is exhausting. If you're walking all over tarnation every day, budget more than 8 hours of sleep per night.
  6. You must learn how to say at least "please," "thank you," "excuse me," and "the check" in the local language.
  7. Every country has its own marvelous wines, liqueurs, and/or beers. Get to know them intimately.
  8. Tourists are a(n extremely tedious) breed unto themselves. Happily, American tourists are generally no more annoying or offensive than anyone else.
  9. If you dress well, you will get treated better.
  10. Don't just see sights. Do stuff.
  11. If service industry personnel routinely address you in a language other than English, you're doing it right.
  12. If you're traveling in a tourist-rich environment, and especially in a (European) country with a minority language, your best bet when squeezing through crowds, etc., is to say, "Pardon!" in as French an accent as you can muster. Everyone understands it, and you can be as peremptory as you like.
  13. Don't worry about doing it all. Assume that any trip to a new place is merely your first visit.


Anonymous said...

An excellent guide! I would add that you should also learn to say not only "Excuse me," but also "Excuse me, I do not speak X. Do you speak English?" in the target language. It sounds like a lot, but even my mono-lingual mother could manage all that when she traveled, albeit haltingly.

Shane in Utah said...

Great advice; I wish I'd had it 15 years ago.

If service industry personnel routinely address you in a language other than English, you're doing it right.

This presumes, of course, that you're in a non-English speaking country. If you're in England and someone addresses you in Polish, they've probably mistaken you for the help...

Flavia said...


Nah. It just means I'm looking especially Slavic that day.

Phoebe said...

Agree with all except possibly 11, "If service industry personnel routinely address you in a language other than English, you're doing it right." (Pardon the length of comment that follows!)

If what you mean by this is that the way to go is to avoid the kind of places where there's someone out front beckoning passersby to enter and using English to do so, then I agree. That's typically not a good sign, along the lines of a place having menus in many languages (and, if the place is in Italy, possibly having different prices depending which!) If you mean the ideal is to blend in, then I'm not sure I do. Unless you happen to look completely ethnically unclassifiable, or to only travel to diverse places or homogeneous ones where your appearance is that of everyone else too, you will get spoken to in English. Also, unless you buy all new clothes upon arrival, and take on the build and hair-styling approach of locals, you'll look, if not American, then at least foreign, and that's what the English generally means. It's possible to look not-super-American (by leaving the North Face and Uggs at home), but that's about the extent of what's feasible for travel as opposed to immigration. If you look foreign, you get English.

The example of this that most gets at what I'm trying to explain is when my husband, who's Belgian and a native speaker of Dutch, got addressed in English at some bar in a not-super-diverse city in the Netherlands, even though I was sitting at a table outside and we had not been heard communicating in English. What mattered was that he was clearly from elsewhere, even though the "elsewhere" in question was a quick train ride away. A less extreme version of this is that after having spent much of this past year in Paris, once tourist season came, anywhere I went in an area tourists might visit (and I mean central-ish neighborhoods, not the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre), I got spoken to in English. It didn't seem to matter a) that I responded in French, b) that my entire wardrobe-i.e.-t-shirt-collection comes, if not from Paris, then from chains that also exist there, or c) that I'm of an ethnicity common enough among Parisians. I wouldn't say we were travelling wrong in either case.

Meanwhile, my sense is, if you go somewhere where English is not commonly spoken by those in the service industry, even if the place has lots of tourists including Americans (such as: Heidelberg), you'll get spoken to in the local language regardless of whether you've successfully hidden your foreignness.

Flavia said...

Phoebe: I meant a bit of both, but not so much that one should attempt or expect to blend in as that one should not be immediately recognizable as an American or as a native English speaker.

I'm sure neither Cosimo nor I looked like a native Czech or Hungarian, and being addressed in those languages by waitstaff in either place only meant, as you suggest, that we weren't going to obviously touristy restaurants. But we were often addressed in other European languages, chiefly German and French. (I've also been addressed in French in both Italy and Korea, which I find more bizarre.)

And, eh. Maybe that's only a judgment call based on our coloration and our features; obviously, we're still being taken for tourists. It's surely also limited to those establishments with a sufficiently multilingual staff that English isn't their only option for dealing with non-natives.

But (and this is despite my item #8 in which I assert that tourists are all pretty much interchangeable) I prefer to feel pleased that I'm not fulfilling someone else's stereotype of what an American tourist looks like.

Phoebe said...

"But we were often addressed in other European languages, chiefly German and French."

See, this surprises me - I'd always assumed (based on anecdotal evidence from countries neither Czech nor Hungarian) that English is just the default language for addressing foreigners, even if it's suspected that the foreigners' native language is some other major European language. My guess would have been that even if you were German or French, you'd get English in that situation, but if you're that close to Germany, German, at least, might be the better guess, especially if you both look give-or-take ethnically German. On that note - I could just about never spot (whit)e Americans in Heidelberg, because for whatever ethnic/cultural/sartorial reasons, they tend to blend in. This big group of American tourists came into a traditional German restaurant we went to, and even once I'd heard them speaking English (and once my husband mentioned overhearing a Dutch group at a nearby table mocking them with a reference to the "Fawlty Towers" episode about the American guest) I couldn't quite believe they weren't just Germans with especially good American English.

"I prefer to feel pleased that I'm not fulfilling someone else's stereotype of what an American tourist looks like."

I have mixed feelings on this issue. On the one hand, when someone at the Heidelberg market assumed my husband and I were Italian (dark hair, presumably, being the giveaway), it was nice, insofar as this meant this one woman didn't think we were about to down as much beer as physically possible and yell at bar staff for not speaking English. Same when we were handed the French rather than English menu in Rome. On the other, I'd like to think something is gained by a) not trying to hide that one is American (or British - same stereotypes go for them, I've heard, esp. in Prague), and b) not acting like a drunken buffoon, trying to communicate in the local language, etc. That doing so will somehow fight the stereotype. Problem is, these things are so ingrained that however an Anglo tourist behaves, as soon as the identity's ascertained, some kind of Anglo Tourist switch flips for the waiter or such, and one will be spoken to as though one is an ignorant fool with money to burn, regardless of behavior. (In Paris, at least, I don't think the locals who work in the tourist-industry-broadly-defined much care if the Americans they're dealing with are in college sweatshirts or gussied-up for the occasion in newly-purchased scarves.)

Britta said...

Phoebe, Flavia,
Very interesting. I think if part of the difference is if you're in a place where people speak English well or not? I'd imagine the Dutch speak English much more fluently than the Czech, so switching to English as default foreign might be easier?
Interestingly, I've found that I almost never get addressed in English when I travel. I've recently only traveled to places where I have some knowledge of the local language, whether proficient (China) or rudimentary (France), and no one has switched to English to speak with me, even when, in the case of French, it's obviously not great. I did go to Italy on vacation in college, and I remember Italians being kind of rude and impatient with my guidebook Italian but generally dealing with me in Italian. In France, I figured it was because everyone assumed I was German, and while Germans tend to speak English better than they speak French, I feel like the French might find it easier to speak French with Germans rather than switch to English? I really don't know.

In China people mainly just speak in Chinese, or weirdly enough, like Flavia, sometimes in French(!) That I really don't get, since I don't look French in any way. In rural areas especially, people all guess I'm French, so I really don't know where they're drawing their ethnic stereotypes from. I guess street vendors in tourist areas do shout "hello hello" after foreigners, as do young men on the street sometimes when I walk by (sometimes it's "hellowelcometochina!"), where the default foreign language is English. In Manchuria, people would sometimes yell "previet" instead of "hello," probably because most foreigners there are Russian.

In the US, sometimes I will get tourists who assume I am from their home country and address me in a foreign language, or even sometimes Americans who assume I don't speak English (this is before I open my mouth), so I am not sure how "looking American" is determined. I don't go out of my way to look American (USA t-shirts), but I don't go out of my way not to look American either. I wonder, if in a weird way, the opposite of looking ambiguous enough to be from a large swath of the world is looking specific enough to be from exactly somewhere (which is not in the US), even if people don't know where that somewhere is, exactly.

Britta said...

It does seem the stigma is actually more against English-speaking tourists, rather than Americans in particular. Australians have kind of a bad rep in China, and I remember in Bretagne everyone hated the British (I guess the 100 years war also helped with that). I also think there's something to be gained for being unapologetically American AND not a boorish cultural chauvinist. I've found this concept is so mindblowing many Europeans would rather respond with a no-true-Scotsman-like, "well, you're not a 'real' American," rather than change their opinion, as those the definition of American were "loud and ignorant" not, from the geographical area known as the US.

Dr. Virago said...

Kind of following up on the conversation that has ensued (or really, riffing on it), I thought you'd be amused, Flavia, that Karl Steel was addressed in German in a restaurant in Siena. We think it's because when he attempted to speak Italian his *accent* sounded German.

I always love it when other English-speaking tourists address me in the native language. It's happened in France and Italy so far. I figure it goes along with always being asked for directions all over the world -- I look like I know where I'm going and so must be local.

Flavia said...

Sorry to leave this thread unattended!

Actually, I suspect that in the Czech Republic and in Hungary, there are political reasons that English is the default language (other than its global dominance), and it seemed to me that Americans/English speaking tourists were NOT regarded as negatively there as they are in other European countries. The tourists the Czechs really hate are the Germans, and both countries have historical reasons that people might take some satisfaction in speaking English to obvious German-speakers rather than German, even if they know both languages.

(Which does nothing to explain why, in one restaurant in Budapest--right as we walked in together--Cosimo got addressed by the maitre d' in Hungarian and I in French.)

But maybe what we're really encountering, in all our anecdotes, is the fact that we each have an incredibly small sample size.

Dr. Koshary said...

One could add as well that you may be encountering a dizzying number of stereotypes that service personnel in different countries put together in order to do their jobs effectively. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that there are plenty of people who look tolerably like you throughout most of Europe. It's just a very rough and not-at-all-accurate tool that people look at your complexion, your hair color, the clothes you wear, the way you hold yourself, and attempt to pin on ethnolinguistic/ethnonational designation on you.

Case in point: my presumed identity shifts wildly as I move throughout Europe and the Middle East. I don't dress like a stereotypical American tourist dood, but I don't dress quite like the locals, either. My coloring is pretty generic Mediterranean, so people can (and do) guess me as whatever Mediterranean nationality they imagine would be in my position as a tourist/traveler/customer. The fact that I am fluent in several Mediterranean languages, with an accent that always sounds a few clicks off of "right here," leads to all sorts of entertaining incorrect guesses. Almost no one ever guesses anything close to my self-identification.

The odds are that, if you and Cosimo took a trip to my Research Country, no one would think of speaking in anything other than English to you, no matter how you dressed or tried to comport yourselves. You wouldn't look at all like any of the locals, who assume that English is as useful a language for communicating with foreigners as any, whether it's 'their' language or not.

I think I will stop geeking out now.