The Ugly American

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about a story that will be in Walking to the End of the World.

Linda, my developmental editor who was generally right about everything, expressed some concern about keeping this anecdote in the final book. She worried that it would make me seem too critical and would turn readers off. I opted to keep it in, though. For the sake of the narrative, I think it sets up some of the challenges Eric and I had as we transitioned from the Via Podiensis (the Camino route from Le Puy to Saint Jean Pied-de-Port) to the Camino Frances (from SJPP to Santiago).

More than that, it was an important experience for me, a reminder of how thoughtless words can affect others, especially when you’re engaging with people from other places, other cultures, and other backgrounds. I know I had my own moments, especially at the end of a long day, when my words got ahead of my perception. These moments happen, and not just on the Camino.

So what do you think? How would you/do you handle the careless comments of a thoughtless person?

Note: this happened in Roncevalles, after the grueling climb over the Pyrenees and just a few hours after my Camino Miracle. For most people walking the Camino Frances, this is the end of their first day. For us, this was Day 36.

IMG_1755
This Camino pilgrim would never say the wrong thing at the wrong time

There were tired, awkward, happy pilgrims everywhere, waiting in lines for showers and getting in each other’s way in the hallways. It would take time for them all to find their routines, and we decided the best thing to do until then was stay out of the way. Eric and I got settled as quickly as possible and then left in search of a bar and a celebratory drink.

We found The Dane and Caroline at an outdoor table, surrounded by their group of French admirers. We greeted one another, even the French guys we’d barely met before, like old friends. Beers were passed and stories shared. The group kept the conversation mostly in English for our sake.

I noticed that a man sitting alone at the table behind us was clearly eavesdropping. He was probably in his fifties, with a button-down shirt stretched tight over a sizable paunch. When I heard him talking to the server with an American accent, I smiled and said hello. It was still so novel to meet an American.

So yes, what happened next is all my fault.

Without more of an invitation, the man — we’ll call him John* — pulled his chair up to our table and started to talk. And talk. And talk.

Have you heard the stereotype of the “ugly American” abroad? You know, the uncomfortably loud, arrogant, ethnocentric, insensitive clod with the white knee socks and the loud opinions?

That was John.

He told the group he was from northern California, and how perfect it was there compared to everywhere else in the world. This had been his first day on the Camino, yet he lectured us on the best gear to carry and the right food to eat. He told us about all of the other long-distance hikes he’d done in different parts of the world. “Those were real hikes,” he said, waving a hand dismissively around him. “This Camino thing is a walk in the park.”

I laughed and challenged him a bit, telling him about the 500 miles that everyone else at the table had already walked, through mud and over roller coaster hills. “Hell of a park,” I said.

“Six weeks in France?” John not only didn’t take the hint, but he picked up a shovel and dug himself deeper. “I wouldn’t want to do that. I’ve been to Paris.” He puffed up a bit at this, and I wondered if he understood that several of the people at the table lived in Paris. “I don’t get what the big deal is. Just a lot of people too interested in what clothes they’re wearing. The language is terrible. The whole place isn’t that great.”

There was a long, awkward pause. Not all of our friends spoke English fluently, but they understood enough. I saw a few quick glances in our direction. Would we defend him?

Hell, no.

Eric turned and said something to Caroline in French. I had no idea what, but it didn’t matter. Our allegiance was declared. Without another beat, the conversation switched exclusively to French. I could follow enough to laugh at the right places and throw in a word here and there.

Effectively shut out, after a few awkward minutes John got up and moved away. When we tried to apologize for his behavior, our friends waved us off. Every culture has someone like him.

 

*I have no memory of what his real name was. I really hope it’s not John.

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7 thoughts on “The Ugly American

  1. Oooh, I hate the Ugly American. I have to say, 9/10 the Americans I encounter in Spain are really open and friendly people who want to learn about the culture, but that 1/10 that is the Ugly American gives the rest of us Yanks a bad name! I’m glad you’re keeping it in the book 🙂 I think the only readers it would turn off are the ones who behave like that!

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  2. Not sure your usage of “ugly American” should have been kept in your manuscript. Every country has an ugly resident or two, not only America. Why not simply say “Ugly tourist” or “ugly Peregrino? It conveys the same sentiment of your experience without the American label. Sorry, I may have taken this personally but I did find it slightly offensive. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jeff. I appreciate the feedback, and I apologize if I offended. Perhaps my error here is that the cliche phrase “the ugly American” isn’t as well known as I thought it was, and so comes across as harsher than I mean it. The label isn’t mine, but is pulled from a long line of books and movies: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ugly_American_(pejorative)

      And you’re absolutely right, when traveling we meet challenging people from any country. Americans in general were no better or worse at social interactions than anyone else, in my experience. I struggled in writing a personal book to find the balance between being honest about some negative experiences (which are there as much to show my own changing reactions) and not coming across as complaining or rude.

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  3. Glad you left it in. It’s important. Anybody not familiar with the term “Ugly American” needs to look it up, at the very least, and read the book if they have the time. When traveling in the South Pacific in ’84 I met some very cool folks. Then we got to Fiji, and ran into some people who were just starting their “round the South Pacific” journeys, while we were winding down from two months on the road. What is it about people with only a few days under their belt and this need to impose themselves on everybody within earshot? Oddly, it was a couple of “ugly Canadians” (Why can’t we sunbathe topless? Why are the conservative locals so upset?) and one “ugly South African” who could have been the younger, female version of your “John”. Everything was better in SA. Fijians were stupid and boring, etc. etc.. Couldn’t get away from her fast enough.

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  4. I’m sorry to be negative, but I think it was rude how you treated this individual. It may be true that he said things that were inappropriate and offensive, but you don’t know his background or his motives. It is possible that he is a very awkward person, has a hard time with friendly conversation, and was doing his best. Even if he was simply an “ugly” person, willfully ignorant to social norms and cues, instead of reaching within yourself to find kindness and love for a fellow human being, instead of giving him a positive experience or trying to teach so that he could grow, you shut him out and rejected him. Possibly reinforcing the negative stereotype that he already had about “French people”. I was not there and can certainly only offer a limited perspective. But I am newly researching the culture of the Camino, and I had hoped to find it was a place where everyone was accepted, even the ones who are ugly, or difficult, or tedious, or awkward, or different. Everyone is on a journey of some kind and we benefit from helping people and from being helped in all stages of that journey. I guess I am disappointed to read this and to read the support for it in the comments.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing your reaction. I don’t claim that my friends and I handled the situation as well as we could have, but for better or worse, this is the story. Perhaps you’ve hit on the real point: none of us in the situation was without fault, and pilgrims aren’t perfect, even after 35 days on the trail. There was a lot of grace on the Camino, but there were also a lot of physically exhausted, culture-shocked people who sometimes retreated inward when faced with a challenging person. And most pilgrims find that they have moments of each.

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