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Americans Abroad

"You speak English?" she said to me with a pained expression. The woman didn't want to attempt Spanish. From the moment her corn-fed body and disheveled husband-in-tow alighted the plane, I pegged them as American. They banged down the aisle, frantic from not wanting to miss a connection deep within a foreign country. They were also desperate to sit together, and conspired in stage whisper. While she spied the two open seats next to me, she did not identify me as a fellow countryman. The bright green and blue skateboarding sneakers, black corduroys, gray prep school hoody and iPad didn't tip her off.

I'm obviously American. I can't hide it. During foreign travel I've tried, if just to blend in. But to anyone whose eyes are open, there really isn't another country I could be from. The brands I wear. My haircut. The way I carry myself. Even to other Americans, I'm clearly regional. A recent acquaintance within minutes of meeting me for the first time determined correctly I'm from the Northeast. "You're very direct," he said. "Blunt, in fact. And a little cold." (Thanks, JAG.) I had never considered it, but New Englanders are about as discernible as Texans or Californians.

The same cannot be said for my current traveling companion, EJ, who is a born Frenchman but a naturalized American since age 16. He's tough to place. I'll spare him a description. But in the airport he enjoyed helping me with a little American spotting. He has a keen eye for nationalities. In addition to his background, his job in apparel entails regular worldwide travel. So he's well-versed sizing people up from a distance. It's a fun game.

As we observed, Americans abroad are distinct in both obvious and subtle ways. Our volume is higher. We are jovial. We generally have broad shoulders and an athletic figure. And we possess an overt sense of confidence that brushes up against obnoxiousness. Taken altogether, our very posture betrays us in a crowd. We appear driven, almost to the point of aggressiveness: hand on hip, head high, determined and usually desiring service. (That actually sums up EJ as well.)

Canadiens are similar. They are at times difficult to distinguish. However, their speaking voice is softer and their stance lacks our confidence. This is not a slight. While Americans flirt with arrogance, Canadiens do not. Australians are also similar to Americans. They carry all the same characteristics, including the confident demeanor, but Australians can be gruff the way Americans were when the west was wild and free. 

After that, there are few comparisons. Europeans are strictly different. Mostly they can be spotted by their sporty shoes and frumpy clothing. They generally don't have the musculature Americans do. They are fit, but meager by comparison. They also wear boxy eyewear and have bad haircuts, including women who often lack a sense of femininity. Further, they're organized and when in groups can be directed calmly and easily. Americans are a cacophony of insistence.

I didn't say anything in response to the woman who wanted to plant herself and her husband next to me, taking up my precious free space and legroom. I just nodded and gave her a quizzical look. Her, loudly: "My husband and I are going to sit here." I shook my head. "But these seats are open, right?" I tormented her by pretending not to understand. "We want to sit together." She again looked pained, as if trapped. I exhaled a breathe audibly.

Then I spoke up in clear American-English: "I want to sit by the window and I want maintain an open middle seat for comfort. You are free to have the end seat, but that's it. Besides, there are two open seats right there." I pointed across the aisle, one row up. In the row of three sat a European woman, likely Scandinavian. She had on a terrible beige jumpsuit, square metallic glasses and short, shocked hair. "You can sit with her."

The American woman looked surprised at my clear instructions, and also relieved. She grabbed her husband and they crushed into the polite, accommodating European, who said nothing but looked uncomfortable, crammed against the window. I, on the other hand, stretched out, taking in all those around me of every nationality, beautiful and ugly alike.

For a moment I wondered what any of them might think of me. But then I hit the call button, ordered tea, grabbed my iPad, put on my headphones and stared out the window—off into the cloudy mountainous landscape beyond. What was out there seemed far more interesting to contemplate.

Reader Comments (1)

It's fun to be an American. As the song goes, "America - F@#$ Yeah!"

Nice Beats by Dr. Dre headphones, by the way.

January 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterArt Swift

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