Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Innocents Abroad

(The title of this post comes from a pretty funny Mark Twain book about a Mediterranean cruise with a bunch of American tourists)

The stereotypical American tourist is alive and well.

Overseas (at least in Europe), the stereotypical American tourist speaks loudly, expects everyone to speak English, and is unintentionally rude. (Watch National Lampoon's European Vacation for more sterotypes.) Now, it is true that most American travelers are not like that at all. But during my stay in France, I've noticed a lot of American tourists who make what I beleive is a boorish cultural faux pas: refusing to speak any French.

I don't speak French. I've never taken a French class. And my working vocabulary is quite limited: bonjour (hello), au revior (goodbye), s'il vour plait (please), merci (thank you), oui (yes), non (no), l'eau (water), cafe (coffee), Parlez-vous anglais? (Speak English?), and a few other random phrases, some of which will get me beat up (ferme la bouche, or "shut your pie hole"), and some of which are not all that useful in most situations: faux pas and sans coullottes (or however it's spelled). That's about it. I can read a lot more words than that, but I can't pronounce them or even recall them. Yesterday I tried to say my hotel room number (105, or cent cinq), but I screwed up and the hotel clerk thought I was asking something about the composer Saint-Saens. Whatever. I tried.

But I've noticed, at least at this hotel, that most of the other Americans aren't even trying to speak any French. Not bonjour, not s'il vous plait, not even cafe (come on, that one's an English word, too!). I think it's quite rude not to even try a couple of words, especially common ones.

I'm a strong believer in manners, and I think it is good form to learn a few words in a local language, even if it is just, "hello", "goodbye", "thank you", and "Do you speak English?" Sometimes it buys you an amazing amount of goodwill. Sometimes you get corrected on your pronunciation. But at least you don't come across as demanding (i.e., demanding that others speak your language). When foreigners visit America, don't too many of us claim that they should speak English or go home? Why shouldn't it be the same for Americans abroad?

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