There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America. — Bill Clinton
Visiting four countries over the span of five weeks led me to one astonishing revelation: I am proud to be an American. I don’t mean to insinuate, with the use of the word “astonishing,” that I am particularly surprised by my pride — as the daughter of a military man, I cannot help but choke up, my chest swelling with satisfaction for my motherland, every time I hear that part in Lee Greenwood’s famous tribute that goes, “And I’d gladly stand up [cymbal crash] next to you and defend her still today, ’cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land! God bless the U.S.A.!” But despite all my love of country, when I left for Europe, I did so with an apologetic air. After all, I’d read about the Ugly American, that loud-talking guy in the shorts with the fanny pack and baseball cap who inadvertently offends his hosts wherever he goes; that swaggering bully who lays down the law, takes no prisoners, and calls it like he sees it, especially when seeing it means telling you what’s wrong with your country. Not only had I read about him, I’d seen him with my own eyes, right here in his native habitat. I didn’t want to be that guy, and I certainly didn’t want to be lumped into the same category as him. I was determined to do my part to improve my country’s grim reputation by demonstrating that not all Americans are uneducated, beer-belching, gun-toting crusaders. I ventured east on the premise that all Europeans would consider me inferior until I proved otherwise. I hadn’t considered the possibility that I would find fault in the very people I was striving to impress. In Paris (where gratuity is factored in to the price of food), all but two of the ten waiters who served David and me were unequivocally rude, and it wasn’t because our country’s leaders voted to rename french fries “freedom fries” — Parisian servers are quite egalitarian in this regard. One evening, at a restaurant whose menu was written in both French and English, we were asked if we wanted to order an aperitif. By definition, an aperitif is an alcoholic beverage one drinks before a meal. Speaking French, David asked for a glass of Lillet, a typical French aperitif wine from Bordeaux, and I ordered a Kir Royal. Minutes later, the waiter placed my champagne and cassis mixture on the table and then set a tall glass of cold milk before David. David was humiliated, thinking he’d pronounced something wrong. When the waiter finally returned to take our order, David apologized for his miscommunication and explained that he had wanted Lillet(pronounced lee-lay), the wine, not le lait (pronounced lih-lay), which literally translates to “the milk.” The waiter rolled his eyes, said, “Oh, leeeelaaay.” Then, looking put off, he scooped up the milk and sauntered away. Having overheard the exchange, the French woman next to us offered, “He knew what you meant. Milk is not an aperitif.” “Yes,” her husband agreed, “He was doing this on purpose.” The woman then explained that because they can only handle so much of the poor service that is prevalent in Paris, she and her husband prefer to eat at home.
A week later, David and I took a plane from Amsterdam to Kalmar, Sweden. At the airport, we had to stand in several lines, from the ticket counter to a snack bar to security checkpoint to boarding the plane. In every case, regardless of how fast or slow a line was moving, the person behind me would stand uncomfortably close. The first time, at the ticket counter, I wrote it off as an isolated incident. To mark my territory and stake out my personal space, I placed my hands on my hips and turned sideways, so that my elbow nudged the trespasser. But it didn’t work. The woman continued to inch closer, until I could feel her coat against my leg, her arm on my elbow. The second time, at the snack bar, I was bolder. When a teenager’s head appeared over my shoulder, and I could feel his breath on my face, I hoisted my laptop bag onto my shoulder and stepped back, right up against him, hoping this would drive him back a foot or two. No such luck. The kid just stayed there; when I’d had enough of his closeness and moved forward, he closed the gap — all the way to the cashier. When I was finally boarding the plane, I snapped. While we were stuck in the aisle, waiting patiently for a guy who was taking an extraordinarily long time to put his carry-on bag in the overhead compartment, an older woman actually leaned on me. I poked at David’s shoulder, and when he turned his head, I said, “Do these people have no concept of personal space? Jesus!”
When we arrived in Sweden and began to deplane, I watched as an old man several rows ahead attempted to enter the aisle. But no one would let him in — I looked on in outrage as passenger after passenger pushed past, ignoring the elderly man’s attempts to enter the flow of foot traffic. When David and I made it to the man’s row, we stopped, defying the pushing throng behind us, and let the poor guy enter the aisle. Later, I told David, “I find it hard to believe that so many people are deliberately discourteous, so I can only conclude that Scandinavians are an oblivious bunch.”
“You know,” David said, “that would never happen in America. As loud and rambunctious as we may appear to many cultures, as much as we may accidentally offend, I think most Americans are generous and kindhearted, and it would never take ten rows of people before one would let an old guy pass.”
The more time we spent abroad, the clearer it became to me that the “Ugly” phenomenon does not only pertain to Americans — I saw Ugly Brits, Ugly Frenchmen, Ugly Swedes, and more. In every city, I encountered at least one person who impressed me and at least one who offended. All along, I’d been trying to be a good American, when all I really had to do in order to make a good impression, all anyone in the world needs to do, is to try to be a good person.
While sitting on the plane from Frankfurt to San Francisco, David and I reminisced about our trip: the mopeds of Florence, canals of Venice, vineyards of Provence, fashion of Paris, darkness of Amsterdam, strangeness of Sweden, bustle of Rome, and beauty of Trevi. We’d visited old friends and made new ones; we’d shopped and dined; we’d placed our hands on the Coliseum, the Louvre, and a blooming olive tree that had been planted 150 years before the Mayans laid the first stone for their temple. “That was a lot to see in such a short time,” I said. David scooted into the empty seat between us and I put my head on his shoulder. “What was your favorite part?”
He answered without hesitation: “Eating baguettes in Paris.” I slapped his leg in mock offense, as if he’d flubbed the answer to my trick girl question. David laughed, a nervous, almost embarrassed laugh, at the truthiness of his answer. He put his arm around me and I closed my eyes, instantly soothed. David stroked my hair while I made happy noises. We stayed like that for a few moments, and then, waking me from a brief doze, he asked, “Yours?”
“Too many to choose from,” I sighed. “The whole trip was amazing. Exciting. Fabulous.” Before I slipped back into slumber, I added, “Yeah, it was cool, I’d go back, beh beh…but there’s no place like home.”