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The Ugly American

“Ugly American” is a less than affectionate term given to Americans who travel abroad who are a bit loud, lacking in manners and who dress like goobers.

Being an American I take offense to the term. Okay, so I may dress like a goober from time to time (I like my leisure suits and sneakers) but when I embarked on my first trip to Europe I decided not to be counted among the uglies. The best laid plans.

The first thing you notice when visiting Spain is that it has manners. A funny thing to say, but true. There was eloquence about the people. They had style, calm, a distinct politeness and grace. Things I think we could all use more of. I didn’t feel a clash or distinction of any one class. I liked that and wished that it felt like that in the country I call home.

Spain had much to offer in beauty, majesty, amazing food and warm and wonderful people. The weather was great and I often felt like we were in Santa Monica only the ocean was green, clean and facing the wrong way as it happened to be the Mediterranean.

We were on the go most days, which was complicated for me since I fractured my foot in 3 places just before leaving for the trip. Yup, I muddled through Spain with a boot on that was almost as long and big as my leg. Of course since I have penguin legs, I guess that’s not saying much. But it wasn’t awesome. Still, I didn’t miss a beat.

We visited the Rock of Gibraltar, spent a day in Ronda (my fav), did an overnighter to Granada, visited the Alhambra and spent a good deal of time on the Costa del Sol. All the while drinking fabulous wines and eating Tapas, none like I’ve ever tasted.

I never encountered any ugly Americans, but I did encounter some ugly Spaniards, Arabs and a British bloke who was completely out of control but so adorable doing it that it made it okay.

I have to fess up; our family travel party of 9 was not perfect. To be fair, I must say that those of us who spouted off were duly provoked. There was the incident of fighting for a cab at 2 in the morning that almost came to a punching match, another cab fiasco that quickly developed into a yell fest as someone tried to steal someone’s cab and of course there was the encounter with the arrogant Spanish airport lounge manager who had adopted different rules for his lounge than all the others in the world (I’ll let you guess which incident was me). We did not go completely unnoticed. Other than that we were complete angels and a pleasure to be around. No, really!

Adjusting to the way things operate in a different country is challenging. In the spirit of viva la difference, let me share some of the stark differences I encountered.

Toilets on the sidewalk that can be used for the price of one Euro were amazing. They are clean, smell great, talk to you, lock the door, and give you 20 minutes to do your business (Really? If you know what you’re doing it should only take a few) and are quite large. I almost wanted to buy one and put it in our backyard. You can never have enough toilets.

The wonderful winding cobble stone streets look so inviting in the brochures but I assure you, when it comes time to drive them, put your helmet on. The streets were about as wide as my butt (hey! No comments from the peanut gallery). We rented a dinky Peugeot which was a stick shift (something we hadn’t driven in at least 40 years), and tackled the highways and byways of Spain.

Driving was one thing, parking quite another. The parking garages were so very narrow that a bicycle would have to proceed with caution. It was clear to see why pretty much every car we saw had scrapes and dings. The spaces offered pity little room to park the car let alone get in and out of. We found this to be true everywhere we went as the streets were too narrow to allow parking.

I never thought I would miss the freeways of Los Angeles, but when it came to merging, I did. Each time you merge onto the highway in Spain you do so after coming to a complete stop at the stop sign. Until you’ve merged onto a highway where everyone is going 80 – 100 kilometers per hour from a dead stop, well, you just haven’t lived.

The famous siesta time took a bit of getting used to. I think the idea of closing for a couple of hours in the afternoon for a snack and a nap is awesome. While I think the Spanish are on to something here, it doesn’t sync with our American notion of doing business during the day. We soon learned to gauge our day to accommodate the closures of ALL the stores and businesses from 2:30 to 5:00 every day, no exceptions.

I loved the way people lived above the many business stores. Along each winding street were 2-3 stories of apartments above the mercantile. Communities within a community, and they all looked out for one another. It wasn’t uncommon to walk into a leather shop, all the goods out in the open, and the owner or vendor nowhere in sight. He/she is off getting a latte and his neighbors are watching the shop. There is a lot to like about that. Trust in your neighbor, what a concept.

When it came time to leave I was ready. My aunt is wanderlust and can live out of a suitcase for months at a time and love it. I think I’ve discovered that after 2 weeks I’ve reached that place of wanting to be home. So much for heredity.

I never did spot any ugly Americans. It comes to mind that I run into one every now and again here in America. People are just people everywhere you go. Rudeness, manners, smiles, insults, caring, yelling and laughing are found in people everywhere. The only goober I spotted was me, and interestingly enough, I was okay with it.

I miss Spain and the moments I shared there with the kids and my Aussie/New Zealand/UK family. Being with them made it all the better. I miss them and wish they were just down the street from me so I could pop in for a cup of java and some good conversation. I send them my love and heartfelt hug in this post.

Spain was so intriguing, so different, so romantic and so wonderful. I could get used to living there. Who knows, maybe someday I will. But before I decide I think a visit to Italy, Ireland, Australia and Israel are in order. There’s always next year!


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kellie kennedy - Tammy welcome home! Sounds fun!
Having been fortunate to have traveled throughout Europe I
found the term “Ugly American” an unfortunate term we got nailed with and stuck with. I find there
Are ugly French,(very) in my travels to France and ugly Itallians too. I have experienced ugly people
in probably every country I have visited along the way in Europe, Africa and Middle East. However, I always remember theses types of people are few and far between and I never let them ruin my experience.

Mel Glenn - A very sweet and informative column on Spain. I
thoroughly enjoyed it.

Cynthia - I’m so glad that you finally visited a part of Europe. I will say that in my travels (and of course many to Czech Republic), I seem to notice a distinct difference when setting foot in a US airport. You do not see people in European airports traveling in sloppy, baggy sweat pants and slippers. Welcome home 🙂

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