When abroad, you’re not a hipster, you’re a foreigner.
It’s a glorious fun thing to be. The interloper, the voyeur, watching and absorbing what’s happening unfold. Finally, you’re the person with the accent. Relish it.
So why be like every other American schlep to stroll through town before, pull up a bar stool and ask for a pint of Guinness?
But if this is your first trip out of the U.S., you ‘ll soon learn that being an American is not always enviable. Quite often, it’s regrettable. We’re not talking about the “risk” of being American. As many times as you may hear about the danger to Americans overseas, much of that is simply overstated. Yes, it can happen, but you’re more likely to be hit by a bus than kidnapped.
Despite our own self importance, only in the most dangerous places will someone think about kidnapping you, torturing you, or shooting you because of your citizenship (see our chapter on staying safe for how to get home in one piece).
In most cases when you come across your fellow countrymen, you’re going to wish someone would snatch them up and take them away. Your homeland has created a traveling public who take every opportunity to personally embarrass you.
Unlike you, many of the traveling Americans have just left their fraternity with their parents’ credit card to “find themselves” in Europe. They are the people to avoid.
Then there are the purple haired tourists who have have waited their entire lives to take a two-week bus ride through Ireland’s country side, coming upon every “quaint” little village where the “natives” live. These people half expect to find leprechauns wrapped in loin cloths. A trained hipster on the road will dread every moment they hear them shouting at store keepers slowly and loudly, “Don’t you understand English? Ennnnggg-llllissshhhh.”
It is not a criticism, it is a fact, Americans are the travelers of excess. They are too drunk, too loud, and too self-absorbed to know any better. After World War II, Europeans used to say there were only three problems with the Americans stationed in Europe: They were over paid, over sexed and over here.
Now even your best hipster planning may lead you to places where you’ll run across Americans but there’s no reason for your overseas adventure to be spoiled by other people with blue covered passports.
You don’t have to be from America at all. When no one knows you, you can be from Iceland.
You can select a different country, but Iceland offers the best of everything as a native land. No one knows what Iceland is like. Facts about the country are as rich as your imagination and the best people to share your Iceland birthplace is with are Americans.
Here’s a typical conversation you may encounter on an evening of drinking, one I actually had in Salzburg, Austria:
American: “Where are you from?” (Their accent was distinctly American, naseling, loud and slightly indignant.)
Me: “Iceland.” (I spoke quietly and did not look them directly in the eye at first.)
American: “That’s really interesting, I’m from Ft. Myers. What’s it like there?” (Note, that’s a city, not a country, a mistake many Americans make. Also, Ft. Myers is a somewhat obscure city, especially to Europeans – the vanity is overwhelming.)
Me: “It’s very cold.” (Duh.)
American: “Wow. It’s never cold in Florida. I’ve lived there most of my life. Really, I’ve lived all over – Naples, Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, Tallahassee, just about everywhere really. What do you do?” (Actually, you’ve only lived in America. And just Florida, for that matter. That’s not ‘all over’ that’s one state.)
Me: “I’m an artist, I mold fresh lava into rock sculptures.” (I thought this occupation was interesting and, if they gave it any thought, impossible. But they were Americans, they weren’t listening.)
American: “Oh really, that’s very interesting. I’m in sales, that’s why I’ve lived in so many places and have enough money to travel. I’m paid very well. I love traveling and try to go to some place new every couple of years. You’re English is very good.” (The conversation has turned, I could say I fight vampires and they wouldn’t hear me.)
Me: “Thank you, I studied at your, your, how do you say, universities.” (Nice, I say to myself, if you want to convince people you’re from Iceland, ask them ‘how do you say’ certain words. Americans love to help.)
American: “Wow, where?”
Me: “MIT” (I picked a place this person most likely didn’t go.)
American: “Hey, that’s impressive dude. Can I buy you a beer?”
Me: “Well, OK.”
Now if I was from New Jersey, the conversation would have lasted much longer. We would have become cohorts traveling the world and this American in Salzburg would have felt some sort of kinship with me that I did not want to share. A free beer? Sure. An obnoxious travel buddy? No thanks.
The key is to turn the conversation back to the American and talk about them – because that’s the topic they know the best.
But there are more important reasons to hail from the land of ice and rock and fire, especially to the locals.
No. 1: Americans overseas are seen as a bottomless pit of money. If you’re from Iceland, the carpet salesman, tourist shop owner or merchant has no idea how much money you have and they’ll be constantly worried that you’re about to pay for things with ice cubes or lava pebbles. Ask if you can pay in Icelandic Kroner or would they prefer U.S. dollars – you’ll get a much better deal in dollars.
No. 2: People know what Vikings are but very little about them. This is an easy way into a conversation. Iceland was settled by the Norseman, the original Vikings. People around the world know Vikings were mean and tough. They were a people not to be fooled with because of their pillage mentality. People will think twice before crossing Eric the Red or, even, Hagar the Horrible. They don’t know many details about the Vikings, but you’re welcome to fill in grandiose facts at your discretion. “Well, my people rowed to Iceland and carved farm fields out of the mountains and brought boat loads of soil from Ireland to grow crops. Each field required more than 53 boats of dirt, and many slaves died in the great land build of 756 AD.” It’s a story I told to a table of Americans in Turkey.
However, you should avoid being from Iceland when traveling through Scandinavia. Vikings were their ancestors and it’s likely they will know much more about Iceland than you. Also, because of their heritage,
they can physically plant you into
the frozen ground with a single thump on your head.
No. 3: American politics are always a favorite topic for people to bring up. If they know you’re American, they’ll want to see what you think about the war in Iraq, 9/11, President Bush, and, now, President Obama. It gets tiring to act like an ambassador from the U.S. especially if you’re up to speed on politics. Being from Iceland frees you of those conversations. If you run into Americans, you can bring up those topics with them, and try to gain an understanding of the American traveler’s mind from the outsider’s perspective. This will only make you want to be from Iceland even more.
No. 4: If Iceland is too much of a stretch, there are a few other places you can choose depending upon what you’re hoping to achieve:
Want a free beer from an American? Be from Ireland. Pick a place like Cork and say “aye” every now and then and the beer can flow for hours. This is a big money saver. When your turn arrives to buy a round, excuse yourself to the “toilet” and head to another drinking establishment.
Want to end a conversation: Be from Israel and your table will empty faster tha
n a wine glass on Shabat.
Need a break on price: Be from Mondova. It’s one of the poorest Eastern Europ
ean countries around and no one even know what money they use, but only use this outside of Europe, such as South America or Canada.
The most important thing to remember is that Americans have a distinct accent – yes, you do, you sound American no matter what your mother tells you.
However, if English is not a person’s native tongue, he or she will have a difficult time picking up exactly what kind of accent you have. Many Germans cannot tell if you are American or English or Australian, especially if you change some of your word choices.
Here are a few ways to sound less American.
Say “university” not “college” Example: “What university did you attend? Did you go to the university?”
Say “toilet” not “bathroom” Only Americans use bathrooms, everyone else uses a toilet.
Say “brilliant” or “great” or “fantastic” Avoid “fabulous.” “Sex and the City” was cancelled for a reason.
Never say “quaint.” The word is anything but.
Feck, fecking, fecked: One vowel gives you a universal word that doesn’t rhyme with truck and adds another layer of sophistication.
Pronounce it “Oy-ro” not “Your-o” That’s the way the Europeans say it, so use their universal pronunciation and no one will know where you’re from.
Simply speaking quietly will make most people wonder where you’re from, and if they ask, you’ll have an opportunity to invent a new version of yourself.
Really, the best reason to be from Iceland is that you’re improving everyone else’s trip as well. That guy from Ft. Myers would never think about meeting some guy from New Jersey in a bar in Salzburg. But to this day, he’ll always remember that artist he bought a few beers from Iceland.
Those two had a feckin’ brilliant time.