I will freely admit that, when it came to vacations, I was a xenophobic American elitist.
Why travel to foreign countries, I pondered, when there is so much here in the world’s greatest nation that I have not yet seen?
My wife would ask to go to Paris; I would say, “but I have not yet glimpsed the splendors of the Great Salt Lake; have not looked up Abe Lincoln’s nostril at Mt. Rushmore; have never once gazed upon the world’s largest ball of twine (Cawker City, Kansas).”
She would ask about Amsterdam or Casablanca or Barcelona. I would say “but I’ve never ridden a floating casino down the Mississippi, never balanced atop the Space Needle, never stepped foot in the great state of Texas.”
Sure, I’ve got a passport, so I can venture across the nearby border to Canada when necessary, but even those short trips make me feel uneasy, desperately seeking the comfort of baseball, hot dogs and apple pie.
This summer, however, I was tricked into visiting Europe for the very first time -- I thought we were going for a leisurely drive to lovely Rome, N.Y., to bask in the scenic Utica region, and found myself in Italy.
My fears of lo these past five decades, however, were slowly but surely eliminated. I was able to find acceptable food and did not have to rely on Clif Bars smuggled into the country. The language barrier did not prove debilitating. No member of my family was thrown into a foreign jail on a trumped up drug charge.
Though my trip was relatively brief, and spent entirely in one European country, I now consider myself an expert on foreign travel. I’d like to share some tips for those, like me, who have been resistant to leaving the bounds of North America.
Listen, trying not to look like a tourist is pointless. The natives will know. Just try not to look like an American tourist.
Americans are generally disliked everywhere these days, and our fearless president is a widely mocked symbol of derision around the world. Pickpockets, hucksters and hooligans will target you.
I recommend trying to look Canadian. They appear similar to us and many of them also speak English. Just trade your Aaron Judge jersey for a Canadiens sweater, wear black socks with your sandals, slap a maple syrup flask on your hip and try to be unfailingly polite. Voila: you’re Dave from Ottawa, and no one hates you.
Yes, there are other countries that speak your language, albeit with outrageous accents, but many parts of the world use completely different words, and sometimes an entirely different alphabet.
Unlike Americans, however, who fight learning a second language as if it’s an invading force, many foreigners are fluent in multiple tongues. If you’re lucky, you’ll visit a country like we did, where most of the people have at least a little English.
Even English speakers, though, may find North Country English completely indecipherable. Speaking slower and louder, as if your target is deaf, is highly recommended. Also wave your arms and gesticulate wildly.
You can also download an app for your phone that will translate short conversations, but it’s not a bad idea to learn a few key words, like “toilet.”
Public restrooms overseas are not always as available as they are in the U.S. Also, when you find one, prepare for certain disappointments -- in Italy, most of the public bathrooms we found did not have toilet seats.
Even in the Vatican, no toilet seat. Wouldn’t God want me to have a seat to sit on?
There are some toilets that are just a hole in the ground, possibly with an outline of footprints helpfully showing you where to stand. If you encounter these, adapt, or hold everything in until you get back to the U.S.
Yes, you can find a McDonald’s everywhere. The Pope has one right around the corner. The menu might be slightly different, but the golden arches are the same everywhere.
Should you want to venture a little bit further from your comfort zone, be prepared for the local cuisine. We discovered that Italian food and Italian-American food are somewhat different. Less sauce, for instance, and smaller serving sizes than the Olive Garden. And no one would give me a shaker of parmesan cheese.
Realize that your foreign eatery might not even HAVE ketchup. Stock up on little packets before you leave the U.S.
It’s important to learn what the local customs are for restaurants. For instance, in Rome, one night I waited 4½ hours for the waiter to bring the bill, because I didn’t ask for it. Then I waited two more hours for him to come back for my credit card, before discovering that I had to go to the cash register to pay.
No matter where you’ve traveled in the continental U.S., you've probably never had to spend double-digit hours on a plane like you will if you cross the ocean. Use the time productively -- I watched four movies! -- or try to stave off the very real jet lag by sleeping strategic hours on the plane. Tip: if you drool when you sleep, try not to lean on the stranger next to you.
Once on the ground, consider renting a car -- then quickly discard the idea. Motorists in England, and nearly a third of the world, drive on the left-hand side of the road, which will totally mess with your head. And in much of the other two-thirds of the planet, the drivers are insane, working on some kind of weird internal logic that only makes sense to them.
Don’t trust the cab drivers, however. They’ll cheat you, if they suspect that you’re not Canadian.
Do try the trains though. Americans have been poisoned against train travel, but in much of the world it is efficient, affordable and fast. I experienced high speed rail (around 200 MPH) for the first time, and it was glorious, with free wifi.
Who would have thought, there are things in other countries that are better than they are here. Why didn’t anyone ever tell me this before?
Email Steve Ouellette at: firstname.lastname@example.org