This level of apathy is almost always met with derision from my American friends. If I have a bad day I hear a lot of, “shut up, you live in Paris!” But for me, living the everyday hustle in Paris is exactly like living it in Seattle or Marrakesh or New York City. You get up, you work, you buy food, you eat, you maybe see friends that day, you snuggle with your dog and fall asleep to cheesy television programming. In a word, the experience becomes simply average.
But all of that was about to change! Two weeks ago I ventured out of my day-to-day and, thanks to an American friend who flew into town, stepped into the bubble of American-European resident tourist. I visited the small village of Cassis in the South of France, bussed it over to Spain to marvel at Barcelona and then took a ferry over to Italy so I could explore Rome. Along the way I discovered just how much I’ve changed since moving over here.
The first indication that nothing would be as it once was came as I overheard a couple behind me at the Port of Cassis. My friend and I had stopped into enjoy some ice cream and as I sat down a strong Midwestern accent struck me from behind, “Well, these types of towns wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for us tourists, you know. So we’re doing them a favor.” I groaned audibly and bit my lip. I didn’t want to make a scene, I wanted to enjoy my ice cream. What could even be gained by explaining to them that Cassis existed not just before the Pilgrims descended unto Plymouth Rock, but even before the Roman ruler Antoninus Pius made it a popular maritime port in the region? Given that multi-millennial ancestry I think it’s safe to say the town can survive without the massive influx of French, English and American tourists it sees yearly. But instead I stayed silent. I rolled my eyes, called it a fluke and let it go.
Yet this was an attitude I witnessed over and over again. That Europe should be grateful for the tourists who grace her muddy shores. After all, without all the revenue from postcards, hotel rooms and Eiffel Tower key chains, the economy of the EU would most certainly fail, amirite? Never once was it considered that Americans should be grateful they are allowed such free access to the continent. That Schengen agreements have made European travel not just simple but cheaper and more efficient is never brought up in ice cream parlors by red-faced couples in nondescript tank tops. Instead most tourists not only expect those who live in tourist towns to know English just because it is constantly visited upon them, they expect these townsfolk to treat them as if they were some sort of novelty.
Speaking with a local bartender brought home that point as he heaped praises upon my French. I know how to communicate but by no means is my French at any level one would describe as “excellent.” Yet just a few simple present-tense phrases and he was asking me to help him understand the English orders that were being lobbed his direction. By the end of the night I was crowned Queen of Translation and was given free rounds of Pastis as I fielded questions and explained drink combinations for a group of British tourists behind me.
In Rome I found this same attitude displayed in the form of a drunken blonde Australian girl who interrupted a conversation I was having outside of a club. She plopped down and asked the usual questions: where are we from, what are we doing? Do we speak English? Then she proceeded to go on a ten minute rant about how she tried to speak Italian to a cashier at a nearby grocery store but he didn’t so much as smile at her. “Innn farct,” she slurred, “he juurst threw down the money on a stand. Din’t even hand it to me. Din’t have the fucking de-decency to hand it to me.” I tried to explain to her that this was normal in Italy and in some parts of Europe. That the little plastic stand next to the receipt printer was for placing money on and it wasn’t a slight but just a cultural norm.
“Still,” she continued, “he din’t even try to speak back. The lady behind me he was allllllllllllll friendly with. I mean, if he was in Australia and he tried to speak Australian with me, I’d be fucking polite enough to speak Australian back.” It was about this point where I was holding the sangria in my mouth with all my might, lest I spray it all over her in an impolite fit of giggles. Given that my time in Italy had been amazing so far, I had no commiseration for her, but soon another Australian girl popped down next to us.
“Ugh, why can’t I sign into chat?” she grumbled staring at her iPhone. I looked at my friend and asked if he wanted to get going. “Where are you two from?” she asked, glancing up from her phone.
“America,” we replied.
“Ah, your first time in Europe?” she smiled, her eyes swimming in their sockets. I replied that actually I lived in Europe and this was his fourth time over, but it was his first time in Rome, so there was that. “Well, sweetie, what part of Europe?” she asked, slightly accusatory.
“Oh really? Where in France?”
“Paris.” She sniffed in almost immediately, what she must have thought was an all-knowing smile plastered on her sunburned face. “Mmmhmmm, been there. They don’t care about tourists at all in that town do they?” she remarked as if she had just smelt dog shit. Up until then I had tried to be polite but this had gone too far and it was time to kibosh this shit and go back to my tent.
“No, they don’t. And why should they?” I said, my voice much harder than I had intended it to be. “All you guys do is come in and expect some red-carpet treatment and then complain loudly when it suddenly dawns on you that nobody in that town thinks you’re a special snowflake. So yeah, we don’t care, nor should we. Personally when I see groups of tourists I immediately calculate the shortest distance around them, because they walk slow and say stupid shit like, ‘Why don’t people treat us like motherfucking queens and kings because we spent 40 fucking Euros on some cheap ass RyanAir tickets–’”
“And we’re going now,” my friend said, standing up and picking me up with him. I took a swig of my Sangria as he half pulled me away from the two girls, who either didn’t register what I said, or had simply ignored it as they continued text chatting on their iPhones.
However the train of complaints carried on and on. It seemed that everywhere I went people found it fashionable, witty even, to complain all about the city they were in. If it was Barcelona, then the comments were about the rain or that the cathedral was under construction. Even mundane issues that were solely the responsibility of the complaining party were tossed around in restaurant dining rooms across town. “I was cheated on that fan today, I just know I was,” people would huff, as if willfully handing over too much money for some plastic and fabric were the fault of the vendor. And the Plaza Catalunya? “Well, it’s probably a lot more beautiful without all these protesters,” remarked one lady in her twenties as she stared into the crowd of demonstrators camping on the rain-soaked concrete in hopes of making their country a better place to live.
I just didn’t understand. Why spend all the money to come to Europe, get a fancy hotel or nice hostel room and just go on and on about what you hate in the culture? It’s doubtful any of those holidaymakers were under duress to be in Europe. Unlikely that they couldn’t afford a 40 Euro plane ticket to leave the country if they really hated it. I wasn’t treated like shit in any of the places I visited. Then again, I don’t particularly feel I’m owed an Eat, Pray, Love experience. Really, in the end all of those people who run off to Europe and then complain endlessly about the experience just end up sounding like petulant children brimming with ingratitude for their own immense privilege. If you don’t like Europe, go home. We won’t miss you.
“There was this one lady who stood right in front of me on the metro in Rome,” a red-haired woman I met at the bar told me. She was from San Diego and was in Italy to eat food and look at men, both things I mightily approve of. The stools we sat on overlooked a bright blue pool, in which splashed a myriad of shockingly beautiful people. The bartender opened her beer and smiled as he handed it to her. She took it from him and then turned back to me. “That and being charged a service fee for a 30 dollar lunch really gave me a negative view of these people.” she mused, almost absentmindedly. I glanced at the bartender, who could hear her clearly and wondered how often he had to listen to sunburnt tourists complain about his culture in front of him.
“I’ve gotten only great service so far here,” I said, a pit of irritation growing in my stomach.
“Well, sure, you’re from here.”
“No, I’m not. I’m American.”
“Yes, but you live here, you understand these people. You even look like one of them.” I didn’t know what that meant. I lived in France, not Italy. The two were almost nothing alike and my knowledge of Italian consisted mostly of exclamations and “thank you.” I felt as foreign here as she did. However, I realized that for many tourists, Europe is just one large coagulated mass of stinky socialists living in theme parks full of pickpockets and exquisite architecture.
Which is not to say all visitors to Europe are rude or brimming with snide remarks.I’ve met plenty of vacationers who were perfectly nice and as polite as they could be. For many, a trip to Europe feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and so they treat it as such. They learn a few pleasantries, attempt to shop at the local markets and aren’t afraid to make fools out of themselves. These are the tourists that end up having the best time because they are endearing creatures that other humans naturally want to go out of their way to assist.
Yet for those who treat their traipse through Marseilles as just another blase thing to do on their Contiki Bus Tour (“No, not Contiki, Top Shelf,” one Australian woman told me with an agitated sigh), Europe will always be one sweaty mass of stuck-up locals. We will be cold and curt and purposefully give vague directions. We will cheat them at every possible opportunity and steal wallets if you let us get too close on the metro. We are your enemy and you saved our asses in WWII and so we should be grateful for every dime you spend here but instead we’re just culture of thankless assholes. Also we smoke too much and our cheese made your stomach hurt and the Holocaust. All of this and more has been said to me by self-righteous tourists with more money than perspective.
But what can I say? I’ve been converted to the dark side. I prefer my socialized medicine and like the fact that even most right-wing party members seem practically Democratic when compared to American party lines. This is my home but it doubles as your playground. It’s fine. I’m happy to share my streets with my fellow world citizens and even help show them around. I cannot count the number of times I’ve used the phrase, “gare means station” when pointing out Gare du Nord on a map for a lost stranger. But please, if you ever do visit us, don’t assume a pissing contest of awful experiences. Don’t tell me how rude your waiter was and how you don’t understand the tipping system of Spain. Google it. Then Google search “How to be a gracious guest” and please keep in mind that when you’re in another country, that is exactly what you are.