She's wearing a skirt that barely covers her and holds her heels in her hand as she stomps into the bar. Flat-footed and zigzagging, she stumbles up to the counter and slams both hands down, pushes her very exposed chest out and proceeds to slur to the bartender that he "like really needs to turn the game on right now because it's the finals and do you have an iPhone charger because mine is dead" in English. Without a please or thank you. With her arm outstretched and her cracked iPhone 5 in the bartender's face, I bury my head in my hands in embarrassment.
It's three-thirty in the morning and we are in the center of Florence, Italy. The historic structure of the Duomo sits silently only mere feet away from the front door to the bar, but this chick just rolled in like she's at her best friends flat. Ladies and gentleman of the lovely country of the USA, I beg of you, please, when you are not in the States, it is truly OK to be proud to be American, and I am usually too, but lately, you're making me feel the need to apologize for us instead.
When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.
Traveling is to learn about the world. It is to show you that the world is this gigantic sphere of people that are all incredibly different and live in extraordinary places, but yet we are all so much the same. Remember this, travel is for the landscape, yes, but it is also and more importantly for the people that call it home. Perhaps they speak in different languages and may not have the same respect for, let's say, PB&J, as we do, but they are still men and women with families and dreams. Travel is learning about differences and similarities and discovering that the world that we have in our head may be completely different than the actuality. Maybe the differences aren't that different.
Since living in Europe and watching many semesters of study abroad pass through, I feel that many are forgetting this idea and simply want a different beach or mountain as a backdrop to their American life. Here are a few pet peeves that I have to point out. Please, when you get on the plane, remember these and avoid them like the plague:
Become a chameleon and blend with the colors of the culture
Girls who study abroad may attempt to look "Euro" for instance, but few manage to get it right in the short time they're abroad. Knee high flat leather boots, jeans or leggings, and a brightly colored jacket - complete with a Longchamp or an across-the-chest leather bag. Ladies, you aren't fooling anyone.
Take a look at what the locals are wearing and try and find some deals. Even ask if you can, where they purchased their stylish clothes or shoes. In Italy, for instance, trade out those knee high boots for some ankle-high studded ones instead. Feeling really daring, grab a pair of wedged sneakers or bring your favorite pair of Converse. They are completely in style with skinny jeans and an over-sized sweater in the winter months.
Guys -- you aren't out of the line of fire either. Baggier jeans, work boots or sneakers, sweatshirts, a no-style haircut or a baseball cap. You're a target. I understand that most can't afford to buy a completely new wardrobe while you're here, but a simple purchase of a few items like the local in-style footwear and jacket will have you blend in.
A little skinny in your jeans won't kill you! Try on some tighter jeans and maybe a fitted T if you can swing it! And no, guys wearing scarves are not "gay" they are for sure getting more looks from the ladies than you are in your salmon-pink shorts that you are so adamant on wearing.
Benefits of this? Less pick pocketing, more international style, and more respect from the locals. Depending on where you are, foreigners tend to be more fashion forward in a conservative way. They are stylish without showing skin. Dressing the part also allows you to try and speak the language more - while many will be less apt to assume you are American and begin taking your order in English. You will be able to fit into the culture better, if you look the part first.
If you can walk the walk but can't talk the talk, you're in trouble
If you are going to travel, especially to study abroad, and have decided that you're not going to learn the language, there's already a problem. If you deem it too difficult, I understand that one -- I, for instance, will never succeed fluency in Swiss-German -- but you need to still try. In the world of technology, you can translate anything in a matter of seconds through the multitude of apps. Excuses are invalid.
The next time I hear "ugh they don't even know a word of English" coming out of an American's mouth when outside the boundaries of the United States, I will shove a translation dictionary into their open mouth. Just because someone does not know English in a country where English is not an official language, does not mean they are subhuman. Do not speak poorly in front of them. You are in their country. I'm sure they do not like that they have to press their own language on the ATM's either.
Take a language class. Even if it isn't necessary for your major. You'll only benefit from it. Simple things like how to order politely will get you places, and it'll set you apart from other Americans. Respect will be given -- not because you can roll your r's perfectly or you can make that lisp sound in Spanish, but because you are attempting to understand their culture. You'd be surprised how much differently you're treated if you try and learn the language a bit!
You won't find an authentic burrito in most of Europe. Stop it.
One of the biggest complaints I have heard from Americans abroad is that other countries don't have the same food as we do. Well, yes, that is correct. If you cannot function without your daily dose of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, extremely large coffee from a drive through, Doritos, Mac and Cheese, or Bud Light, traveling abroad is not the path for you. At home, we're gifted to have almost every possible type of food because of the multitude of heritages. On any given night you can have Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Italian, German, etc. But that is because of how our country was formed! From a mix of cultures! This isn't the case in most places you'll go. Of course, everyone needs that Mac and Cheese box for a homesick emergency, but don't spend your days at McDonalds or in the specialty stores looking for food that's like "home."
If you cannot function without your daily dose of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, extremely large coffee from a drive through, Doritos, Mac and Cheese, or Bud Light, traveling abroad is not the path for you. At home, we're gifted to have almost every possible type of food.
Instead of complaining that the restaurant you're eating at in Austria doesn't have your favorite snack of cheesy chicken fingers after a night of drinking, stop, smell the wurstel and try out some of the dishes that the locals eat instead. You may even gain a new favorite you can brag about when you get home. Find new recipes with ingredients readily available and go for it.
You're in your host country to learn about its culture, and embracing their foods and the culture surrounding it is all part of your education abroad. Whether you're studying in Italy and learning how to properly conquer that deceptively buffet-looking Aperitivo, or eating your way through Spain -- at your new, later dinner time, of course -- focus less on the American food you're missing out on, and more on all the delicious foods and drinks just waiting to be discovered!
Only one at the bar with a 5th drink in your hand? Put it down.
Don't go to the American bars. Observe the crowd - if there's beer pong, get out and use your newly honed language skills to find where the locals go to socialize. If you do find a "local scene", you can use your new fashion to fit in, and maybe even find someone to practice your vocabulary with. Believe me, this will cure your homesickness more than an American bar because "American" is not the picture you may see in your head as you read this.
Some cities with a large population of American students are starting to cater to us with Americanized drink specials, music, and décor - and English speaking bartenders. These places may be great for the occasional moment when you just need a night to have a sing-along to Wagon Wheel and drink a Bud heavy, but if you head to these places every night, you won't meet new people, won't understand the culture, and won't learn the language. Plus - these places are goldmines for promoters, salesmen, and creepy (yes! This is where they are actually creepy) guys looking for "easy" Americans. This place may look like home, but it will give you the opposite of the experience you want.
You should not expect to have your college basketball game playing on a flatscreen in the middle of the city you're studying in. If this is available, be lucky because I haven't noticed many people playing cricket games in the States, nor do I see the English getting upset if they aren't playing them! If you do get a chance to watch your game, perfect! But if the bar isn't showing it, please don't get upset with the staff. They are not in the US and have no interest in showing a sport they barely know about. Instead, learn the sports played in the country you're in - watch the soccer games and learn the rules of cricket. Go to a game if there's a stadium close by! Gain knowledge and maybe even a new sport to play.
Side note: Stop talking about how drunk you are. If you are, enjoy it and keep it to yourself. Foreigners are less inclined to have "blackout nights" and drinking too much for anyone is never a good look. Try to relax a bit and get a nice buzz on instead. Again, be a chameleon, watch the locals at the new bar you just found and learn new ways to have fun!
P.P.S. Vomiting over a thousands-of-years-old buildings and streets is a faux pas in every culture.
If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.
Explore. Dream. Discover.
Of course we all have those days of homesickness. Of course sometimes all we want is a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie or to stroll into Walmart in your PJ's and no one gives you a second glance. But when you travel, travel to understand. Try not to be the girl stumbling into the bar at 3am giving orders with dirty feet. Try to be better than that. As Mark Twain said, "Explore. Dream. Discover" - and change. Study. Adapt. You will become a more well rounded, worldly, and respected individual and citizen of the world - even if you still can't shake those cravings for Reese's.Photo credits: Brendan Adkins, La Citta Vita, Federico Zanone, Garry Knight, and alessandra elle.