In Defense of Tourists...

Stanley, you tourist, we're judging you...
Today, during the lunch break of my tour, I took a seat at my favorite coffee shop between the Comédie Française and the Louvre.  Sometimes Seattle does a body good, especially when it’s free.  As my tourists were off doing their business, getting sandwiches, heading to the bathrooms, the woman next to me asked where I was from.  And, gasp, she asked it in English.  The urge to look at her with a smoldering gleam in my eyes arose within me.  There’s no way that this woman was speaking English to me at this café in the first arrondissement of Paris

She was dressed head to toe in, well, clothing, but I bet her underwear was made of ignorance.  I couldn’t tell, but let’s assume, just for kicks, eh?

But here’s the best part: her accent was marked.  Yep, that’s right, I could tell that this lady didn’t come from England.  And she definitely wasn’t from Australia.  She said things like Y’all which not only means that she’s a total idiot, but that should be grounds for deportation, if you ask me.            

She introduced herself as a visitor from Texas.  I shuddered.  I ground my teeth as I, rather thoughtfully, asked her why she was visiting.  Her employer offers his employees a trip every year, and she chose to come to Paris with her granddaughter.  Of all the nerve.  I bet you she was going to take a picture in front of the Eiffel Tower, too.  She might as well have slapped me in the face with these insulting remarks and notions of travel.  She was daring to be a tourist in my city?  In Paris, of all places?  Appalled.  Some people just don’t get it.
Taking your picture here = loss of street cred?
Sounds ridiculous, right?  Well, it’s not pure fiction, sadly, for some people.  Rest assured, this did happen without all of the tawdry self-important commentary.  In reality, I was happy to talk to that lady for the five minutes that we sat next to each other.  She was a curious traveler and she asked me questions.  Ballsy, one might say.

Peter Jon Lindberg of Travel+Leisure a very important question in an article that was included in 2010’s selection of best travel writing.  “Doesn’t every traveler start out as a tourist?” he asks.  And it’s a poignant one.  But that an American should even become a tourist is, let’s face it, a remarkable feat.

Only about 30 percent of us have passports, a number far inferior to many other countries.  Admittedly it’s easy to stay within the United States, but going abroad is an experience that requires more effort.  Those willing to take the plunge are commendable for taking a step in the right direction.

Coming to France, especially, with its overhanging cloud of American-hating, which largely doesn’t exist at all, is even more daunting for many Americans.  Dreams of whimsical villas in Tuscany and pubs in Ireland are comfortable and friendly, but baguette-wielding Parisians, forget about it.  “They hate us” is wasted mental baggage that so many tourists bring with them.

The real hate, however, emanates not from Parisians, and certainly not from the French in general.  Dozens of trips to other cities and towns in France has proven to me that, in fact, the French are fascinated by foreigners coming to visit them.  And Parisians, well, even many French people from the provinces will tell you that Parisians are just a separate breed.  They are crotchety to everybody, but easily won over if you have enough time here to learn to play your cards right.

The real hostility seems to seethe from beneath the more-French-than-the-French attitudes of many in the large expat community here in Paris.  Those who have left their nation behind for the allure of Paris seem to detest any reminders of their seemingly former life.  But who amongst is not secretly hoarding a jar of peanut butter?

Starbucks?  Forget it.  McDonald’s?  Gross.  Speaking English?  How horrid.  Being sensitive to the fact that not everyone has the privilege to move to one of the most expensive cities in the world and experience it like a “local”?  Out of the question.

Judging tourists who are coming to Paris and not conforming to an expat’s image of what a traveler should be, well, it’s elitist and, quite frankly, embarrassing.  Who among us owns the gavel and powdered wig of tourists' motivations?  Who gets to decide how we define experiencing culture?  Expats brutally and ignorantly calling out another American for embodying the "Ugly American" stereotypes is the pot calling the kettle black in every sense.

When my parents first came to Paris, I admit was perturbed that they didn’t know how to speak French and I cringed when they said, “thank you” instead of “merci.”  I thought that after one day in Paris, they should have gotten it.  Only afterwards did I stop to think that it took me 6 months as a student here to find the ropes, let alone to learn them.

A French friend told me, during one of my rants, to calm down and be patient.  I tried, and it was difficult, but I’m at that point where I understand that.  I understand that not everyone can have the same immersion experience that I have had.  The fact that my dad even listened to French CDs in the car before his trip was more than commendable.  It was real effort.  My first job in Paris put me in a French-speaking environment – it wasn’t really any effort on my behalf.  I learned French because it was sink or swim.  My dad was learning it in an effort to get into the pool at all.  He didn’t have to take that step.  He wanted to.

These days, I avoid tourists speaking English not because I don’t want to talk to them.  On the contrary, when I meet English speakers out and about in Paris, I like seeing the different reasons that people find themselves in Paris.  Trips, studying, living, loving – it’s fascinating. 

I avoid approaching them instead because I know that there is a certain joy in wandering a city, in reading a map, in getting lost, and then in finding your way all by yourself.  We’re Americans, we’re all about doing it ourselves and part of traveling is the discovery.  I don’t want to steal someone’s moment by telling them where Notre Dame is.  They’ll better remember their struggle and eventual success more than that snotty expat that pointed them in the direction.

But should anyone every sit down next to me and in a beautiful Texan accent ask me what I’m doing in Paris, I’ll tell them.  The unseen fatigue, constant discomfort, and difficult experiences that tourists face can be so quickly alleviated by a few comforting or even informative words from a fellow English speaker, a person who was there, who started out as a tourist themselves.

After over two years living here, I’d still take the innocent and glittering glint of a tourist’s eye over the smoldering gleam of a seasoned and apparently hardened expat any day.