01.24.06

Shorts and white sneakers in Iceland

Posted in Travel at 15:31 by RjZ

I walked straight past several fellow campers lounging in the common area. I was only there to refill my water bottle and return to my tent. I could feel eyes on my back as they observed me walk in, perform my task and turn around and leave. I said hello and goodbye.

We were in an improved campsite in Iceland which we had already started calling windland thanks to the cold gusts that seemed to blow all day and then all night against the tent. The campground wasn’t full but there were other campers around and the common area was nice because it was a good shelter from the incessant wind. I was tired though so I only returned to wash my hands before going to sleep. When I entered again, the same people seemed to be around chatting in English with each other.

Almost immediately after I entered, one of them asked me “if you don’t mind, where are you from?” “States.” I answered. “Ahh, I knew it.” He said, nodding smugly to the others in the room. I was a bit surprised. Granted, I remember playing this game and being rather good at it. A new friend and I sat for a whole afternoon in a café in Freiburg guessing what countries people were from. She helped a lot. It was my first time in Europe and I wasn’t so keen on the clues. Shoes are a big hint (Europeans wear dark socks with their shoes and U.S. Americans wear sneakers.) But there were dozens of other clues as well.

By the time I’d traveled to Iceland I’d been around a bit more and you start to get many more clues from how people dress (U.S. American’s dress casually and will wear shorts almost no matter what), what glasses they wear (Germans seem to have a penchant for bright colored exotic and asymmetric glasses.) The Dutch are tall, really tall. Italians really are well dressed, but just as out of context well-dressed as Americans are underdressed. The French travel to very exotic places and bring their families with them. They seem shy, but I think it’s because they’re not interested in speaking English. Australians are fun-loving and have the look of someone who’s been on the road for a year, because they often are! Often the clues are very subtle, but just keeping your eyes open is a good way to get a feel for it.

Some rules aren’t as practical. For example, U.S. Americans are generally considered loud so a loud group is often assumed to be American. Fact is Americans often travel in tour groups and people are just louder in larger groups regardless of where they’re from. I remember yelling “Rühe! Verdammt noch mal!” from my hotel room in Florence to a group of Germans who thought that because there were 10 of them it was OK to scream at each other at 11 at night outside my window.

So back in the common room at Iceland I looked carefully at the assembled travelers there. Most were about my age plus or minus a few years. Most looked German to me; a girl was even wearing the tell-tale glasses. A young man had the short hair of an English football rowdy. He looked tougher and smaller. Scottish! Suddenly it occurred to me that while I couldn’t see what was so damn American about me; I hadn’t said anything, wasn’t wearing shorts and didn’t have white sneakers on, I had an equally uninformed guess about nearly everyone there.

“Hmm, good guess,” I said “how did you know?” “It’s not too hard to guess Americans. I could just tell.” He said in a German accent. “You know the same goes for most everyone.” I said looking around the room. The observant German seemed a bit smug so off I went. “Do you mind if I try? German…British…Scottish, hmm, maybe Swiss, not sure. Maybe Swedish or Scandinavian in any event. German, and German…Northern German make that!” I said looking around the room and guessing. “How’d I do?” Several around the room, especially the Scot and the northern German we’re smiling. The Brit said “Pretty well, I’d say.” The smug German looked a little less smug and added “I guess it’s not so hard to tell where people are from.” “Yeah, well, I live in Holland right now and I travel a lot for my work. You get the hang of it, right?”

So I left and returned from my tent feeling pretty darn smug myself. Of course the truth is that these are just stereotypes and I got lucky. But it’s easy for each of us to travel to other places and spot our fellow compatriots acting in ways that embarrass us. We can tell from a mile away that that loud obnoxious guy is an American and we wish he weren’t our irritating representative. Not to worry, you are your own ambassador. The locals will likely know where you’re from even if you try to crawl in a hole. Be proud of it!


And please don’t give me those stories about how you’re such a chameleon, a citizen of the world who speaks five languages and nobody, not even the CIA and Interpol can tell where you’re from. That you blend in like Brody from Indiana Jones. That might be true; great for you. I doubt it though and you’ll sound exactly like the smug German from the story. If you’re too embarrassed to be your own ambassador than you’ve missed the whole point of the story…. On second thought, if that’s you’re comment, let’s hear it!Check out some pictures of Iceland here.

1 Comment »

  1. Tim Rohrer said,

    January 26, 2006 at 10:42

    Actually, I think I’m an American as soon as I open my mouth. I never could pass for someone from Central America, no matter how well I spoke Spanish; but in Denmark I could sometimes pass at a distance for Danish, especially after buying clothes there for year. Then again, as soon as I opened my mouth and tried to order a beer in Danish, the barmaid would sweetly smile and if she was feeling charitable, she’d draw me a fadol (a draft beer; pronounced rather like fath-ole if you swallow while saying the th). If she wasn’t feeling sweet and charitable, she’d make me ask again and again until I switched to English. Danes seemed to never tire of this game, always amused to hear foreigners butcher their very difficult language.

    So it came as a great success the one day a Dane walked up to me on the street and asked me for directions, I answered them back in Danish and walked away amazed. I was lucky; I was already summoning my well-practiced Danish version of “No, I’m sorry, I don’t speak Danish well. I’m a foreigner,” when I realized I knew exactly where he wanted to go and I could actually tell him how to get there. I found myself cutting off my excuse and just answering. he rushed off, perhaps surprised at my foreign accent, or perhaps more surprised I had understood him and spoken his language back. I was walking on air until I went out that night for a drink with my Danish mates to celebrate, and the barmaid…

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