Rules for the Well-Intended

photo via flickr

By : Joan Frank

Some months ago, a close family member planned an extended trip to Europe—by himself—for the first time. My relative, while superbly accomplished in his professional life, has lived alone for decades, is gaining in years, and had never traveled anywhere before, to speak of, except to a ball game in a nearby city. I was worried.

I decided to set down a few basic pointers for him before he left. I knew I risked sounding like a meddler or a prude, maybe paranoid, even a scold. But the thought of him shuffling along with his worn backpack and baggy surf shorts and huaraches, radiating naïveté, unpredisposed (putting it gently) to assess the scene or think twice about much of anything—I feared he may as well have been wearing a sandwich board that shouted ROB ME!

The few guidelines I felt compelled to offer would be, I hoped, self-explanatory. But the words I sent him, after I’d stared at them awhile, made me sad and self-conscious. They sounded brittle, fearful, withholding. Those words did result, however, from experience, and must be classified—however unhappily—as common sense. When we think about travel, it serves nothing to deny certain realities. Even the emperor of travel, Rick Steves, was pick-pocketed—in Paris no less—where he (above all others) should have known better. That fact, together with Steves’ willingness to admit his gaffe (foolishly keeping his wallet in his back pocket) also made me sad. This thinking led me back (in a well-worn confrontational loop) to the riddle of why we travel at all.

Steves is adamant on the subject, writing frequently and energetically about it. Keep on travelin’! is his robust motto, a cheerful cheek-pinch-and-salute with which he grinningly closes each videotaped episode. Steves continues doing his utmost to spread the gospel of travel for travel’s sake, explaining (on television, in blogs and interviews) that he believes travel can only help us become more aware of each other as world citizens—help us see ourselves in one another, and therefore (the tacit reasoning extends) not be as prone to hate and destroy each other. An earlier trope for this thinking, meant to avert nuclear disaster with the then-Soviet Union by means of personal visitor exchanges, was called Track Two Diplomacy.

But besides generic distraction, cultural novelty, and the above, shining ideal of good will, why bother? What’s the point? Elsewhere I have speculated that a possible answer may be the refrain from the old drinking song “The Bear Went Over the Mountain”: To see what we can see.

But one chips away at this question from a range of angles. I asked an older, wiser friend. Part of her answer: “A chance to float in anonymity and silence and wonder.” She thought it useful to issue a few rules, too. Hers went as follows:

Never think you understand anything about the country. Accept being only a tourist. Make no generalizations about the culture and the people, but always try to be a kind and humble guest in their country. Understand that you come from a country where physical comfort and privilege have been, until recently, more extensive for more middle class types, and have come (until recently) at less cost. Know when the weather has licked you.

These strike me as gentle and reasonable (and with the weather part, somewhat funny). But to me they don’t face down enough grit. Until some kind of revolution changes things (which none of us should ever rule out), American travelers do tend to live better than most of the world—and most of the world, along its various corridors of transit, is desperately on the take. Forced to be on the take, you might even say. Haves and Have Nots. Supply and Demand. Everyone has many stories.

Here were the seasoned traveler’s ground-floor commandments I sent to my relative:

Passport, wallet, phone: the eternal mantra. Kept on your body at almost all times (passport can be stowed in a secure hotel room or hotel safe—for men, nothing in back pockets). Clap a hand over each article while you murmur that mantra, every single day (maybe every hour) before making a move or setting off for anywhere. Feel the fact of them. Never let go of your belongings. Maintain sharp awareness of where you are, where your stuff is, who is around you, how the immediate vibe feels. Do not be charmed by anyone who strikes up conversation. This doesn’t mean being a paranoid jerk; it does mean keeping a force field of alert space around you. Do not “hold” anything for anyone who approaches with that request. Extract yourself at once from groups (including little kids) who crowd up and start asking questions or pawing at you. Teenagers on public transport have a trick: one young person asks you innocent, beguiling questions as another expertly picks your pocket or motionlessly unzips your handbag or pack while you are concentrating on answering your enchanting questioner. This happened to me on the Paris metro (the teens were interrupted by the shriek of a nearby, simultaneous victim; they were obliged to race off without my wallet).

If something wet or fruity suddenly splatters you in the back or on your head or shoulder, do not stop in confusion but keep walking faster—and at once push away and flee anyone who (instantly) appears to “wipe you off.” This is, I’m so sorry to say, another pickpocketing ploy, and tends to happen very quickly. It happened to a dear friend and her husband their first day in a South American city. They had to spend the next several days cancelling credit cards, applying for replacement identification, and so forth.

Finally, at the risk of sounding drearily obvious: do not count or handle your cash or examine credit cards or phone in public view. (A friend’s phone was snatched from his hand while he was staring at it—this, too, in Paris. The thieves ran. He gave chase, but was unable to catch them.) Before using an ATM be aware of who’s around: if it feels or looks sketchy, it probably is; find a better locale, preferably one inside the bank or its portico. Do not get drawn into seemingly friendly theatrics. Put cash away rapidly.

On the kinder, brighter side of these advisories, I’d add simply: Stay curious. (This actually also means taking adequate rest and nourishment to feel well enough to care.) Attend and retain as much of the avalanche of “so various, so beautiful, so new,” as possible.

My relative did not, as it turned out, do badly with these rules. He learned plenty. (That his favorite sugarless gum might not be automatically available in mom and pop grocers. That ice is insanely hard to obtain. That wi-fi service flickers and wobbles in and out. That most cities feature terrific art museums filled with mind-boggling treasures. That excellent live music happens routinely in subways, parks, cafes. That most food, up and down the price-point ladder, is damn good. That it’s best to keep your pulled carry-on snugged close to your heels lest you trip some luckless human walking in its path. That public transport is do-able, and gives great views.) Overall, he enjoyed his odyssey. He was not mugged or conned. He did get sick toward the end of his adventures, with some violent intestinal ordeal—but that’s a pitfall not always easy to thwart.

First and last, messieurs-dames: We are obliged, for our parts, not to be jackasses. Obliged by what, you ask? By common decency, which—sadly—is not always common. By which I mean: too often decency is most starkly missing—more sadness—among Americans.

I’ve told my husband that I can tell who’s American in an overseas public setting before they open their mouths (and when the mouths open, last scraps of doubt are removed). Americans of all ages tend to be bigger—visibly better-fed—than most, and as a partnering feature, louder. Cockier. More dramatically gestural—often rudely so. I am frequently embarrassed by my countrymen and -women, in foreign lands. They tend to be obnoxious, demanding, and oblivious: to ignore cultural cues and behave as if they owned everything around them, expecting citizens of their host country to render precise services in perfect English. They act out at top volume in places that obviously prize quiet, courtesy, calm—again, where English is not the preponderant language. I am fairly sure these herds of Americans (at least those who may think twice about it, which would not be many) believe themselves not only to be sparkling iconoclasts but that they are actually doing the surrounding, benighted natives a favor; teaching them better, livelier, more interesting ways to carry on. What’s missing in most cases is any sensitivity to what’s around them, sensitivity that translates as bare bones respect. We’ve watched people assuming jokey poses as they snap photos of each other in front of the remnants of the Berlin Wall.

What also becomes cringe-makingly clear when I witness my fellow citizens being idiots is the reconfigured perception of locals; of passers-by or serving personnel who must deal with recurring hordes of vulgar visitors. Inevitably, their faces reflect a kind of willed endurance: profound weariness, redoubled efforts to complete tasks with patience and dignity—and infiltrating all that, a visible mixture of pity, incredulity, and scorn.

My husband swears it’s his experience that each traveling citizen is most embarrassed by his or her own countrymen in a foreign setting, no matter where they’re from: the Danes are fretful about the cluelessness of traveling Danes, the English about the obtuseness of the touring English, and so on. I am touched by the democracy of his concept, and semi-persuaded that some of it may sometimes prove true—but not convinced. Without naming names, I can admit that there are several countries besides the United States whose denizens have graphically earned an international reputation for being public louts. But I strongly suspect that Americans lead the charge of that awful brigade.

Why are they—why are we—that way? Because the portion of us able to afford international travel—and willing to take on the modicum of risk it will involve—has (nonetheless) grown accustomed to getting exactly what we want when we want it, in English and dollars, thank you very much. And we assume that the ability to pay for it, justifies everything: that is, after all, the tacit American creed. One can’t change those for whom one feels semi-responsible (by association), therefore ashamed. One can do one’s best, by example, to offset them.

What, you may wonder, might be my private rules for myself, during travel—besides those cited for my relative? They would be something along the lines of my older friend’s:

Take everything in, humbly, warily, thoughtfully. Shut up. Whenever possible, defer. Assume little. Let experience marinate. Much later, try to re-assemble and re-interrogate the memories. And only then, perhaps, begin—begin!—to find out what you may think.

About the author: Joan Frank is the author of six books of literary fiction and an essay collection about the writing life. Recipient of many honors and awards, Joan also reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle and similar venues. She lives in Northern California. Learn more at www.joanfrank.org.

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