Let it be known that I do not condone stereotypes. Not negative ones, certainly, or even positive sounding ones. But, alas, they do exist, and if you think Europeans don’t stereotype Americans, you’re dead wrong. Believe it or not, we’re not known internationally as “The Greatest Nation on Earth.”
Because I travel frequently, I encounter preconceived notions of Americans fairly often. And because I strive to fit into local culture, I am proud to say that I’m often held slightly apart from other American tourists by the locals I meet. As a result, I find myself fielding awkward questions about Americans in general.
For instance, I was recently in Spain, sitting at a beachside bar looking at golden sand covered with Spaniards and tourists of every kind. I shared a cool pitcher of blood-red, fruity sangria with two local ladies who spoke a very Penelope Cruz-sexy kind of English-Spanish. We watched the waves kiss the shore and children run on the sand, scattering it over unhappy sunbathers. For them, it was a normal scene; but for me, something stuck out. Well, two things.
Breasts. Women’s breasts – unapologetically bare and bronzed. Now, I’m not a prude, but it made me … uncomfortable. There were children around for goodness sake! But when I mentioned it, my hosts turned the question around on me – and the floodgates of American oddities flew onto me like so many grains of sand kicked into a sunbather’s face.
Why are Americans self-conscious about their bodies?
Why do Americans get so drunk?
Why do we wear such ugly shoes?
What’s up with fanny packs?
Why do we work so much?
Why do American couples avoid public affection?
All good questions, most of which I didn’t know how to answer. But I realized that here was the root of foreigners’ opinions about Americans, and it bothered me. I’d always believed myself to be on the path of the worldly wise, and these questions confirmed that as much as I might pretend to be Spanish or Italian or Irish when I’m abroad, deep down, I’m American to the bone.
For the rest of my time in Spain, I thought about these stereotypes. I walked past topless women on the beach, unconcerned with their weight or if people were looking. I sat in tapas bars and watched locals drink a glass of wine, slowly, enjoying every sip – not throwing it back like water. Handcrafted shoes in shop windows hurled accusations at my department store sandals. I winced at tourists wearing the accursed fanny packs. I glanced across the café table at my husband checking his work phone for the umpteenth time, unable to ignore it even from 5,000 miles away, and then thought how creepy it would be to open-mouth kiss him in public.
On one lonely night in the Barcelona Metro, so late that only the most terrifying people were aboard, I thought of the questions the ladies had asked me. I wondered about the truth of their words, and what it all meant. Emerging from the underground to the first light of dawn, I could smell petrol and the grindings of the day’s espresso beans. Suddenly recharged, I decided to be the difference. Everywhere I travel, I will be a different, less neurotic kind of American: the tourist who shows everyone that we’re not all fanny-pack-wearing, prudish over-drinkers. Instead, I will spread the message of American Coolness.
And I will do it in some really great shoes.