When I was fourteen or so, my family and I spent almost a month tooling around Europe. Apart from certain miseries associated with putting six people in a cramped BMW and the fact that my sister Ella had a terrible smell for the whole summer (we later discovered that she'd jammed a piece of sponge up her nose), we had a great time. We were exploring foreign lands, the dollar was really strong, and the U.S. government was footing a big chunk of the bill, as my dad was officially there on business. What's not to like?
In retrospect, I guess I was something of an ugly American. While I've since learned to become a little less obvious when wandering abroad, my pictures from that summer show a scrawny kid with a too-short haircut, too-high kneesocks, ugly shorts and loud Hawaiian shirts. Although I remember being very easygoing and polite, it's likely that my sisters and I spent much of our time bitching about everything. After all, we were all in our teens, we were spending way too much time together, and, well, we're American.
Now, however, the shoe is on the other foot. Living in New York, I find myself playing host to an endless stream of European tourists. They clog the stairways at the subway stations, rudely insist on speaking languages that I don't understand, and generally get in my way. Walking down the street, I have the joy of listening to them complain about everything they see, making sweeping generalizations about America and Americans. For example, I have heard more than a few Europeans comment that Times Square is the definitive American landmark, the perfect symbol for a country full of over-stimulated, attention-deprived me-monkeys.
At this point, I want to note that, when visiting Amsterdam's red-light district, I didn't immediately assume that all Dutch people were prostitutes. I'm just saying.
On the other hand, there is a great deal to be said for European tourism. Basically, we're getting a lot of money for being ourselves, and there's always the possibility that Europeans might see something that will undermine their image of the United States as a land of cowboys, mindless stupidity, and fast food. Added to this is the fact that, in an unstable economy, it's nice to have at least one industry that is growing.
Besides, being entertainment for bored Europeans doesn't seem to be all that hard. In fact, it's particularly easy in New York, where being cranky is part of the mystique. Yelling at tourists to get the hell out of my way just seems to make them happier, and I love watching them scurrying to memorialize the moment: "Look, Jean-Claude, it's a rude American. A real one! Take his picture! Maybe we can get one of him yelling at the kids!" The children, of course, aren't as impressed, as I have neither a tail nor big black ears. They know that the real heartland, the true America, is carefully preserved in the Magic Kingdom. Walt's cryogenically-preserved head rules over all, ensuring that the promised land will remain pure and safe forever.
Speaking of Disney, the company is doing exceedingly well right now, due in no small part to the inflated dollar. Basically, the massive influx of European visitors to Disney's American theme parks has caused the company's stock to rise by almost 3%. Personally, I think Disney's boom year offers the best of both worlds: not only is European tourism funneling vast amounts of money into American coffers, but the thought of Frenchmen spending hours waiting in line for Mr. Toad's Wild Ride gives me an evil thrill. The joy is only compounded when I imagine them spending a small fortune to load up on the substandard junk food that fills Disney World's restaurants. Another Donald Duckdog, Philippe? Be sure to tip the mouse on your way out.
Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He really, really tries to be good when he goes overseas; when he makes an ass out of himself, he usually breaks into a heartbreaking rendition of "Oh, Canada!"
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