Am I an Ugly American? I certainly recognize it in others.
Back before the Euro was in circulation, it could be a challenge for American tourists & business travelers to rid themselves of one nation’s coins before entering another country. You couldn’t trade in coins internationally, and tended to spend them at the border.
My boss and I were traveling from France into Germany, and we stopped at a bar he was convinced few Americans knew about.
“Bonjour,” I said to the bartender, who winked at me as he gestured to us to sit at the bar.
As we paid for our drinks, I started to pull out any French coins I had. We were about to end up with a fair amount of money that would be useless to us.
“Don’t do that,” my boss said in a loud whisper. “They’ll know we’re Americans.”
“So what? We’re Americans,” I replied. “I can’t change that.” He looked furious.
“Trust me,” I went on, matching his stage whisper. “They know we’re Americans. They spotted us the minute we walked in. Right?” I looked to the bartender, who gestured to the crowd behind us. I turned and most were smiling and nodding their heads.
I asked the bartender if it were a problem paying in coins. “We have currency,” I told him, “and we really don’t want to inconvenience you.”
“It’s not a problem,” he said, “Money is money. And tourists, we understand.”
“’L’argent est l’argent’?” I replied. I’d studied French. “Or is it, ‘l’argent c’est l’argent’?”
I wasn’t sure if my grammar was right, but the words were correct.
“Parlez-vous français?” he asked with a grin.
I rattled off a phrase I’d memorized in French saying, basically, I’d studied French for six years but now I’ve forgotten most of it. “Actually,” I continued in English, “I’m having a hard time understanding what people are saying here.”
We went on to have a conversation I’m sure he’d had a dozen – or a hundred – times before, how it’s one thing to learn a language in a classroom, and another to speak it in a native environment. How Americans who study French have little opportunity to actually practice it anywhere outside the classroom. And so on.
I felt so burdened NOT to be the Ugly American, I was afraid I was becoming one.
My boss was fuming. “They hate Americans,” he told me, again with his not-so-subtle whisper.
“Well, I can’t do anything about that,” I said, not even pretending to whisper, and turned to the bartender. “I hope I’ve been respectful. It’s hard sometimes, not knowing how you’re perceived.”
Immediately I was pretty sure I knew how he perceived my boss. We both seemingly deliberately weren’t looking at him.
“If I didn’t like tourists, all tourists, I’d open a bar somewhere else,” the bartender said, and winked again.
We got up to leave. “Au revoir,” I said.
“A bientôt,” the bartender replied, and moved toward another customer, American, I guessed. A few others seated at tables nodded at us as we walked out, and I smiled at them and nodded back.
“I don’t know what he’s talking about,” my boss said. “Americans don’t know about this place.”
Sacré bleu! Oh wait, the French don’t actually say that.