I come by naivete honestly in matters of faraway places. Although my father traveled extensively for his work, he preferred home to away, and rivaled Gulliver as a travel reporter. He once declared that anyone who liked San Francisco would love Baltimore, since "they're both by a bay, have hills, and are dirty." A relative ventured to Montreal and had a miserable time. It was, she stated, "too much like a foreign country."
For me, coming from such a background, there was no 19-year-old's grand tour of Europe comparable to those made by my classmates. To cross the imaginary line separating Northern from Southern California was to stray into an exotic land, with strange customs, strange people, and water stolen from the North. That was foreign enough.
So it was a prescription for disaster when an invitation to a conference in Germany expanded, in our fantasies, into 10 days in Prague imbibing culture and beer. Four days before departure, however, we learned that our travel agent had failed to book a hotel room for us in Prague. Three days before departure we learned that the city was overwhelmed by German tourists and no rooms were to be had. We did what any sensible travelers would do. We sulked and procrastinated.
We also looked at maps and tried to guess where German tourists were unlikely to go on a spring holiday. Normandy came to mind. Driving there from our arrival point, Frankfurt, appealed to another part of my California heritage: if we believe that there is no place like home, we also believe that God gave us countries so we can drive automobiles across them. Less than an hour before our flight was due to take off, we reserved a rental car and worked up a rough idea of where we would go. One of us doubted the other's European driving skills. The other doubted the French, whom he regarded as rude people with wonderful food and an impossible language. I was wrong about the rudeness.
The trip was a joy and an opportunity to meditate about America. That is not to say it went smoothly. We mangled all local languages, as in a French town when I wanted water, thought wine, and ended up ordering a bottle of "life." The worst episode happened the first day, when I promised to "drive around the block" in Strasbourg while my wife exchanged dollars for francs. Two hours and many wrong turns later, I explained to a gendarme that I had "misplaced" her. The officer thought that misplacing a spouse was neither unusual nor cause for alarm. After a telephone call and very explicit directions, we reunited at another police station.
The other serious misadventure similarly involved getting lostÄa major motif of the tripÄand occurred in a traffic circle, which the French treat as vehicular centrifuges. After taking the wrong exit on the first try, I came back with my eye on what I thought was the right one. About halfway there, my wife pointed to the right and said, "That." Had my nerves been less frayed, I would have heard the rest of the sentence, which several harrowing seconds later turned out to be "...is where we went wrong last time." The Mercedes driver behind us had eloquent hands.
Incompetence and innocence aside, we found unfailing courtesy and good will, even among those who clearly regarded us as roving village idiots. It began with the German customs inspector who waved me through, while commenting that I should sign my passport to make it valid. It continued until departure, when a German airline employee assured me that losing a boarding pass in a waiting room was not especially stupid. In between we saw cathedrals, were deeply moved by the remaining signs of two world wars, received much advice about food and wine, found desk clerks and waiters who never made us feel like the cheapskates we were, and never felt endangered (other than by ourselves) or confronted hostility (except occasionally toward each other). That set off the meditation about America.
Our 19th-century tourist predecessor, Henry Adams, used Mont St. Michel and Chartres to mark differences from America of his day. We, on the other hand, found uncomfortable familiarities in Europe (notably American popular culture and hamburgers) as well as a major dissimilarityÄcivility, which we deeply missed after only a few days back in Baltimore and a few hits of talk radio and a commute to work.
Perhaps we would have been treated rudely if we had gone elsewhere in Europe, notably Paris. But we wondered if na‹ve tourists are received so kindly and generously here. Americans now occasionally talk about the need to be nicer to each other, but perhaps we also ought to think about rudeness as an inadvertent and unfortunate export, rather than simply a domestic product, and hope that the guardian angel protects strangers in this strange land as well as two middle-aged Americans in Europe.
"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.
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