How to Travel While American (When Being an American is not Cool)

Liz Biscevic—Moral Compass

Since President Donald J. Trump took office in January, global leaders have not been shy about hiding their opinions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Germany can no longer rely on the United States as an ally, and said that “Europeans must take our destiny into our own hands.” French President Emmanuel Macron has taken his criticism of Trump administration policies, particularly its decision to pull out of the Paris Accord, to almost gleeful ends. And he’s not alone in trolling Trump’s “America first” attitude—media outlets in countries like the Netherlands, Spain, and Denmark released parody videos responding to Trump’s bizarre jingoism. Comedy aside, that political disdain has a way of filtering down to affect those of us who just want to enjoy our Parisian crepes in peace while on summer vacation.

While years of uncomfortable family Thanksgivings may have taught us Americans to keep our political opinions to ourselves, in other countries it’s not uncommon for strangers at the pub to get into a heated argument about government policy over pints. What that means for American tourists is that, while international travel will remain at least as safe as usual, we should be prepared to answer questions about American foreign policy, politics, and of course, the last election. How to do that when the United States’ reputation for diplomacy seems to worsen by the day? The answer is the same regardless of your political affiliation: tactfully.

Now if the thought of being interrogated on your politics while abroad gives you anxiety, some experts recommend sewing Canadian flags onto your luggage to avoid standing out as an American. Others tell you to avoid certain “American” clothing styles, like wearing white sneakers, t-shirts, or sweatpants anywhere except a gym, and advise that if you really want to fly under the radar, dress to impress, preferably in black. Still others will point out our loud tone of voice, bursts of laugher, and smiling at every stranger as big tells. In many other countries, voices are kept low in conversation, and smiling too much is suspicious. Besides, those strangers are bound to wonder what you’re smiling about anyway — your country’s politics are causing worldwide panic.

This is all sound advice in general (well, OK, except the impersonate a Canadian advice), but hiding your nationality is not and never will be the best way to travel the globe. After all, and at the risk of sounding like a cliché, I’m proud to be an American. Regardless of what’s happening in our government, I’m grateful to have grown up in this melting pot, alongside hundreds of different ethnicities, cultures, and opinions. It’s what shaped my desire to leave the world better than the way I found it, and also inspired my passion for travel in general. If you’re like me, you’ll never pretend to be from anywhere else, even if it requires extra, and sometimes uncomfortable, effort on your part.

Research more before you travel

Most travelers already recognize the importance of learning at least some of their destination’s history before visiting. Aside from the fact that knowing the “why” behind famous sites and attractions helps to create a more immersive and interesting experience, it’ll give you better perspective when talking to locals. Additionally, knowing the history of the country as it pertains to the United States can help you understand why those you meet may feel personally connected to our political choices, and open the door to meaningful conversations.

Some Americans ask why countries care so much about American politics, and the answer is simple: because it matters. America’s military, and our economy, are among the largest in the world. Our two-party political system is also one of the most polarized, and when the balance switches from one party to another, the results extend far past the nation’s borders, and can directly influence the actions of other countries, for better or worse.

For example, the United States is one of the largest contributors to global health initiatives, and the way the administration works with development programs dramatically shifts depending on who the president is—particularly where family planning initiatives are concerned. Trump’s recent expansion of the global gag rule, prohibiting foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that receive American aid from providing patients with abortion information or procedures, could affect nearly $8.8 billion in global health funding.

Ask Questions

If you find yourself immersed in a seemingly hostile interrogation from a local, don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Earlier this year I traveled to Montenegro, a tiny country south of Croatia. The trip was spontaneous—I was staying in Dubrovnik and the Bay of Kotor was only a short drive away—and I didn’t know much about the rich history of Montenegro, other than it was formerly a part of communist Yugoslavia. In Croatia, locals seemed to generally like, or at least tolerate, Americans. But in Montenegro it was different; my tour guide, Vasko Vujovic, wasted no time telling me how much he hated the United States.

I was ready to play defense, to explain that at least half of the country was shocked by the outcome of the last election, and there were frequent demonstrations against troubling policies, scandals, and political appointments. But when I asked him why he disliked my country, I was surprised to find his anger towards the United States had less to do with Trump, and more to do with U.S.-led capitalism, which he blamed for the devastating Yugoslavian War nearly 30 years ago. Before the war, he told me, Montenegro was a thriving socialist economy.

“Yugoslavia, the country I was born in, was great. Tito was great. No one compared to his greatness,” Vujovic told me of the 20th-century leader of Yugoslavia’s ruling communist party. But, according to Vujovic, after the Yugoslavian wars and the shift to a westernized government in 2006, the economy plummeted and has only recently began to increase as Montenegro becomes a tourist destination for western countries. “Back then, we had jobs,” he said, “Now, we must rely on tourism.”

Before traveling there myself, I was unaware of Montenegro’s problems, and even more oblivious to U.S. involvement. Understanding that the United States has likely impacted the country you’re visiting, and asking open and honest questions, can help you gain crucial insight into what’s behind local ill will.

Don’t Take Offense

Haters are going to hate, and some aren’t going to want to listen to your explanations. I’ve been refused service in Paris after admitting to being American, and no attempt at diplomacy would have changed it. This was days after Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, and I was for the most part shunned by any Parisian who heard my Yankee English.

Don’t let experiences like that ruin your trip. Instead, remember you can’t change everyone’s mind, and it’s not your responsibility to, either. After all, you’re on vacation—enjoy it, and just do your best.

Regardless of how you choose to travel during this new era, the important thing is that we still do it. Americans traveling internationally have the ability to show the world a different side of the country than the one that dominates international headlines.

Though travelers are not ambassadors for their country, to the rest of the world, they represent the average citizen, and now more than ever that role comes with certain responsibilities for Americans. Respect local customs and traditions, learn the local language, and build friendships whenever you can.