Ugly sentiments sting American tourists
By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY - 3 March
As an A-list celebrity, actor Vince Vaughn employs an array of weapons to cope with hecklers, from a Saharan wit to a waiting limo.
But during a movie shoot recently in England, Vaughn found himself repeatedly reaching for the same comeback. Three totemic words from the attic of history: the Marshall Plan.
"I'd say one in three conversations wound up the same way, basically that 'America is the devil.' So I'd ask folks to think about the Marshall Plan a bit and get back to me," says Vaughn, 32, referring to the Allied blueprint for the reconstruction of Europe after World War II. "In the end, though, I just had to tell people, 'I'm not having this discussion anymore.' "
But if you're heading overseas, be prepared to have it. Again and again. If the past 100 years were widely considered the American Century, this new one is fast shaping up as the Anti-American Century.
Just ask tourist Colleen Frost, 33, who hopped into a cab recently on her first day in Berlin. An English-speaking driver demanded an explanation for what he called "America's megalomania."
"He wanted to know what I would think of my country if my brother or boyfriend was killed in a war," says Frost, a dental hygienist from Santa Fe. She says the ride was over before she could provide an answer for the disgruntled cabby.
How times have changed.
A mother lode of goodwill fostered in the decades after the defeat of Nazi Germany has been reduced to dust in recent years. A growing number of foreigners see some of the United States' political decisions (pulling out of the Kyoto Treaty on global emissions) and personal choices (Americans' penchant for gas-loving SUVs) as at best unilateral and at worst selfish. The confrontation over Iraq is just more fuel on a bonfire.
From Spanish plazas to Parisian metros, American tourists are being quizzed, grilled and even spat on by people who do not approve of the Bush administration's drive for a war against Saddam Hussein.
As a result, a declining number of Americans (54% today vs. 79% a year ago) believes that the USA enjoys a favorable image abroad, according to a recent Gallup poll. And a majority of Americans (64%) cite a fear of unfriendliness as the top concern of traveling abroad during wartime, according to a survey in the February issue of Conde Nast Traveler.
Anecdotal evidence from across Europe indicates those fears are not unfounded.
"I've spent 100 days a year for the past 30 years in Europe, and, generally, people always managed to differentiate a government's action from its citizens," says Rick Steves, a Seattle-based tour operator who specializes in Europe.
"But I have never seen this level of frustration in my lifetime. They just can't understand our push for war, especially the younger generation."
Steves says the current climate is in stark contrast to the "breathtaking" we-are-all-Americans sentiment that gripped Europe on Sept. 11, 2001. He is not discouraging his clients from traveling abroad now, and cancellations have been few. That said, his Web site features a flurry of concerned exchanges about overseas travel. Steves urges would-be tourists to pack the right attitude.
"Being defensive does no good. You have to keep things in perspective and listen," he says. "At its best, travel remains a vital force in promoting understanding."
And is it ever needed. If European criticism of the United States was previously limited to newspaper headlines and kaffeeklatsch debates, the tug of war over Iraq has unleashed a torrent of frustrated invective on the streets.
Much of such vitriol is aimed at the Bush administration. That has never been more in evidence than during the weekend of Feb. 15, when more than 6 million people in roughly 60 countries hit the streets in some of the largest anti-war protests since the Vietnam War.
But sometimes this antagonism filters down directly to the American tourist.
Laurel Scapicchio and her 13-year-old daughter were waiting for a train in the Paris metro a few weeks ago when their conversation was interrupted. Two men in their 20s overheard their American accents and shouted, "Pigs!"
"It brought us back to reality," says Scapicchio, 42, a freight forwarder from Saugus, Mass., who was on her first trip to the French capital. "It was a little spooky. But we shrugged it off. It wasn't personal. It was just because we were Americans."
European tourism officials, who are battling a 19% drop-off in U.S. travel since a record 13.1 million visited in 2000, discount such incidents as aberrations.
"I am certain that a number of American visitors will be asked about the U.S. administration's policy on Iraq. But if indeed there have been some unpleasant encounters, I strongly believe that they are few and far between," says Patrick Goyet, vice chairman of the European Travel Commission in New York. "Furthermore, speaking as a European and for the vast majority of my fellow Europeans, I consider any such behavior idiotic and embarrassing."
Be ready for harsh words
Nonetheless, many Americans abroad have stories to tell. Their warning? Expect the unexpected. While living in Spain recently, Jane Kelly, 20, recalls a friend being spat on for being American.
Tips for blending in
Concerned about being a magnet for anti-Americanism during your next trip abroad? Bruce McIndoe, CEO of iJet Travel Intelligence, offers his tips for staying under the radar:
Avoid American fast-food restaurants and chains.
Keep discussions of politics to private places, not rowdy bars.
Take a rain check on wearing clothes featuring American flags or sports team logos.
Keep your passport out of sight.
Keep cameras, video equipment and maps tucked away.
Soften your speech; Americans typically overshadow their hosts in the volume department.
"In any country you're going to get people who do this," says Kelly, who was studying at the Madrid campus of Boston's Suffolk University.
However, fellow student Kate Perlis, 20, says the atmosphere was charged. "It seems that the only English a lot of people there know are the words, 'We hate Bush.' "
Joshua Eckblad, 28, an American high-tech manager living in Madrid, has had similar experiences. Daily he faces the comments of Spaniards who "feel free to say anything against America, who think Bush and his people know nothing about the world."
His sister, Vanina, 27, an architect living in Paris, has fared no better. She says that the other day a man on the street "told me to go back to where I came from."
Such run-ins can cause some visitors to contemplate retreat. When Linda Severson, an American who has lived in Brussels for two years, was visiting Amsterdam recently with her mother, the pair found themselves at the Hard Rock Cafe, surrounded by anti-American protesters.
"We were looking down at all the demonstrations and signs that said 'Kill Bush, not Iraqis,' and we just sat there stunned," she says. "We felt a little homesick."
But other Americans abroad prefer to tack right into the storm.
Louis Nebelsick, 45, is an archaeologist from Louisville who organizes exhibits for the Dresden museum of archaeology. He says he hasn't seen this level of anti-Americanism in Germany since the days of Ronald Reagan, when in 1983 masses protested the installation of medium-range missiles in Europe.
But despite the rancor, Nebelsick proudly wears an American flag on his baseball cap. It might as well be a lightning rod in a thunderstorm.
"One guy saw that I was American and said he just had to tell me what he thought of my country," he says. "His opinion was that America is being run by a rabid cowboy."
Nebelsick also carries a cigarette lighter emblazoned with an American flag. Several times of late, folks have turned down his offer of a light as soon as they caught a glimpse of the Stars and Stripes.
"The era of Americans as heroes is over," he says.
Pleasantries also exchanged
But that isn't to say that positive connections can't be made between nationalities on a one-to-one basis. Some tourists interviewed spoke of not only pleasant exchanges but also an appreciation for those Americans who would travel overseas despite the current climate.
When Tony Vitanza, 42, of Fort Worth unleashed his Texas accent on a shopkeeper in Belgium, she immediately asked what state he was from.
"I made sure to tell her I didn't vote for Bush," says Vitanza, a flight attendant who was careful to pluck all the pins off his jacket before heading outdoors. "But the woman said she was interested in my accent, not my politics."
Similarly, when Jay Rooney, 57, and Bruce Plank, 35, were in Europe a few weeks ago while on business for Armstrong Flooring, the only run-ins they had were with vendors haggling over prices at flea markets.
"We've had no problems at all," says Rooney while touring London's famed Portobello Road market. "Some of our hosts even seemed apologetic. I haven't felt criticism. Haven't felt rudeness, haven't felt pressure. Quite the contrary, I feel some people have gone out of their way to be nice."
One veteran Europe-watcher thinks the average American is still very much appreciated by the average European. It's when the policies of a nation are pinned on an individual that the sniping begins.
"I've found that most Europeans are generally fond of Americans," says Pieter Ockers, European analyst for iJet Travel Intelligence, an American company that provides travel risk management advice for corporate and leisure travelers.
"But the (European) media often stoke the fires," he says. "Their media portray Americans as culturally inferior, ignorant of world politics, arrogant in our interaction with the rest of the world and, worst of all, the bully of the neighborhood."
During Vaughn's stay in England, he found himself criticized on all those levels. Like a boxer countering each blow, he shot back with the best responses he could.
Sometimes the complaints left him speechless, like the time he was told " 'America had no culture' by a kid wearing a Kobe Bryant T-shirt and listening to rapper DMX."
But one incident really stung.
"Man, it was bad," says the Rat Pack-y star of Swingers. "These girls saw us and were kind of flirting, and they kept asking us if we were American. Finally we said, 'Yes,' and they just took off.
"One girl turns and says, 'We were hoping you were Canadian.' Canadian? Since when was it cooler to be Canadian?"
Contributing: Ellen Hale in London, Noelle Knox in Brussels, Vivienne Walt in Paris, Jody K. Biehl in Berlin and Laura Bly