When I was younger, I was adamant that when my family took trips, we were not tourists — we were travelers.
In my brain, “tourist” was a dirty word, conjuring up the kind of ignorant, America-centric sightseer who goes into another country expecting everything to work exactly the same as it does at home. They don Hawaiian shirts, oversized hats, fanny packs, socks and sandals, or clothes with prominent American flags, big cameras swinging around their necks. A “tourist” is the kind of person who expects everyone to speak English, who comes to other countries just for the nice pictures and who often doesn’t take the time to say thank you. A “tourist” is everything that I try not to be when I travel.
My belief was that a “traveler” was different. They don’t push back and don’t ask for too much. They say thank you, preferably by learning that basic phrase in their host country’s primary language. They see parts of the local culture and community that most tourists don’t think to look for. They view themselves primarily as a guest, and don’t take advantage of hospitality. They’re respectful, patient and curious without being careless.
I’ve been fortunate enough to travel a decent amount, both nationally and internationally. International travel, however, is always incredibly intimidating — mainly because I always feel like I stick out like a sore thumb. Everywhere I go, I fear that my “American-ness” is obvious, like a tattoo on my forehead. My mom always jokes that it’s easy to feel frumpy in Europe because of what we typically wear, but I think it’s about more than just clothes. No matter how much I prepare, I can’t shake the feeling that being American makes me stand out in a crowd — and there are dozens of lists on the internet indicating that I’m right. Whenever a local mistakes our family as tourists from another country (often Germany, because of our blond hair), it’s a victory.
Last month, I traveled with my family to Greece and Italy, spending a week in each. While I was there, I found that the trip could be easily split into two — not just in terms of the country where we were staying, but in terms of how I felt about the country I’m from. In Greece, I found myself self-conscious about my American-ness; in Italy, I stopped thinking about myself, but instead became embarrassed about the other painfully obvious Americans who were vacationing there.
Part of this is because Greece doesn’t get as much tourism as Italy (though tourism to Greece is on the rise). For much of our time in Greece, we walked through busy streets filled with Greek-speaking locals or through archaeological ruins with a local guide. Both Athens and Crete, our two primary spots for the Greece leg of our trip, were incredibly fun, but I still felt like a fish out of water. We wore our summer clothes in the 70-degree weather while the Greeks wore long pants and jackets. Not to mention that we only spoke English — because, try as I might, I can’t speak Greek. I could recognize words on signs based on my limited knowledge of Greek letters (which I knew only because of physics classes and Greek life on campus), but I couldn’t wrap my tongue around the heavy stresses and staccatos in their words. We talked to one of our drivers about this when we were in Athens, and he agreed (maybe to be polite) that Greek is very difficult to speak if you aren’t a native-born speaker. “It’s all Greek to you, huh?” he quipped.
Italy was different. During the week, as we moved from Naples and down the Amalfi Coast, we found that the towns got progressively more touristic-centric, to the point that it hardly felt like we were in Italy anymore. Some towns were so overrun by tourists that it felt like there were no Italians living there at all — often to their long-term detriment. The island of Capri, with streets lined with designer clothing shops, is host to millions of tourists every year, but also has a problem with the trash that they bring along with them. Positano seemed particularly attractive to Americans: They were everywhere, speaking English and taking hundreds of photos. It was surreal, and a little upsetting, to be walking around the streets of an Italian town and primarily hear American-accented English.
One of the nights that we were eating dinner in Positano, a man playing live music at our restaurant broke out into a rendition of “Sweet Caroline.” You can guess what happened next: Many of the Americans in the restaurant and across the street started singing along, including the Fenway Park-style “so good!”s. My parents and I cowered in the corner, looking away. They might not have been wearing Hawaiian shirts and fanny packs (everyone dressed very nicely on the Amalfi Coast), but they were still painfully, obviously American, belting the refrain out into the street.
The influx of American tourists in Europe has its roots in the post-World War II Marshall Plan, but it seems as though going to Europe has become an essential experience for Americans who can afford it. Celebrities seem to love the Amalfi Coast; on a more local level, the weeks after winter semester ended were an endless stream of vacation photos from different European countries. But the reality is that, American or not, European countries make significant money from the tourism sector every year: Tourism makes up 13% of Italy’s gross domestic product (GDP), 6.8% of gross value added (GVA) in Greece and 10% of GDP in the European Union. Following a nearly two-year lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU has renewed efforts to revive the tourism industry.
I won’t sit here and pretend that my vacation wasn’t fun, or that my irrational anxieties made it impossible to enjoy. As an anthropology major and a member of the Rick Riordan generation, visiting the archaeological sites in both countries was amazing. The food was incredible, the perfect balance of things that I could never cook on my own and delicious simple meals that I could easily learn to make. And in the end, the fears about one’s ability to sense my intangible American-ness quieted down in the back of my mind. I was certainly not the first American to go to Europe, and I certainly will not be the last.
It’s true that my family probably looked like tourists, but I remind myself that everything we did was deliberate. We believe religiously in itineraries and guidebooks. We wear our fanny packs for convenience and for shielding against thieves; we wear oversized hats to cover our faces from the sun, and shorts and sandals because our poor, Seattle-residing, Vitamin D-deficient bodies are terrible at handling the heat. There’s a line between practicality and so-called American-ness that’s difficult to avoid, in part because there’s only so much you can pack into a suitcase under 50 pounds (since I would rather die than pay extra for overweight baggage). We might’ve stuck out in our frumpy clothes, but we were comfortable.
At some point, I think it’s time to get over myself and just enjoy my trip. Because the truth is that my fears of being perceived as “American” are mostly in my head. At the end of the day, restaurants were happy to bring us gelato and ouzo or limoncello on the house. Our guide on Crete brought us to her friend’s house for apples and raki, and offered to host us for dinner at her house if we ever return. I imagine that those things wouldn’t have happened if we had been the kind of loud-mouthed, grand ole Americans that I feared we would be perceived as.
I don’t know if I feel as strongly about the tourist/traveler distinction as I used to. In the weeks since we got back to the U.S., I’ve realized that it’s more complicated — that being respectful doesn’t change the fact that I’m foreign, and that being American doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m unwelcome. At some point or another, I probably made those faux pas that point to me as being deeply American, but I like to think that it didn’t matter much.
Statement Correspondent Kari Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.