What is it with Americans abroad? One of my favorite games to play when travelling internationally is Guess That Person’s Nationality. In order to be any good at this game, you have to be very judgmental. You also have to invoke assumptions, stereotypes and other forms of bad anthropology, which I would feel guilty about if I didn’t get such a thrill out of being right.
I find that it’s best to start with shoes. Sneakers are a dead giveaway: if the entire family is wearing them, with matching white socks and jeans, they’re Americans. If, however, the sneakers in question are strangely colored (for instance: all black, but not in the bus driver sort of way) or strangely shaped, then they belong to a genuine European. The seasoned observer can, through a series of complicated calculations involving sole heights and the leather to synthetics ratio, separate the Mediterranean from the Eastern European but this requires great skill. I’m still perfecting my technique.
There are two ways to win Guess That Person’s Nationality. The first is to “accidentally” read the cover of their passport. The second is to eavesdrop, unless of course you’re one of those Americans who can’t tell the difference between German and French, in which case you had better stick to Option #1.
I was dutifully scrutinizing footwear at the airport shuttle bus stop in Lyon when I discovered three obvious prospects. Sandals, polo shirts and shorts? They were American alright.
Generally, I treat Americans abroad like I treat wild animals: back away slowly and no one gets hurt. I used to think there was something wrong with me—something gone terribly awry with my sense of patriotic duty— but my trek through Vieux Lyon would suggest otherwise.
Emerging from a particularly dark and dramatic traboule, my hostess and I happened upon a trio of American girls. They were dressed for a night on the town but had, evidently, missed the memo about Lyon’s topography. We stared as they tottered up the steps in their stilettos, an unspoken vow of silence passing between us. Only when they were out of earshot did we dare to breathe again.
“You do that too?” my hostess laughed.
“Yeah,” I confessed, followed by a rather snarky, “Did you see what they were wearing?” We spent the next five minutes congratulating ourselves on the vast superiority of our footwear.
It’s tricky. Ugly Americans give the US such a bad reputation, and even if they’re not obnoxious frat boys or sorority girls, they’re still American. This means they’re friendly and that they like to talk, hence my aversion the countrymen I meet abroad.
I avoided the American boys at the bus stop for this very reason. I engaged in numerous activities such as Looking French, Retrieving My Suitcase from the Lost Luggage Office and Changing into Clean Clothes (finally!) in The Handicap Restroom, but eventually my curiosity got the better of me. And even better than Guess That Person’s Nationality is Guess That Person’s State.
Unfortunately, the eavesdropping wasn’t working. I scoffed at the boys when they took a seat at a café just past the security check point—don’t they know EasyJet lounges never have enough seats? Unless you want to stand around for half and hour, you buy your drink in the café but you don’t sit in the café. You sit in the lounge, and you sit near the front because EasyJet flights don’t have assigned seating. If you want an exit row seat (and the associated leg room), you need to be near the front.
“Amateurs,” I thought, handing my boarding pass to the attendant and taking a seat near the window. But when the boys finally made their way to the lounge, I couldn’t help myself. Like a moth to the flame, I sidled up to the trio as we waited for the flight to Brussels and finally asked, “So, where are you guys from?”
“Louisiana!” they chorused. Law students studying in Lyon as it turned out, though you wouldn’t know they’d already been there for a month.
“You must love the bikes,” I surmised. Between the funiculaire, the cyclo pousse and the traboules, I’ve forgotten to mention Lyons fleet of free bicycles but the Velo’V system is, without a doubt, the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Velo’V is similar to ZipCar or Philly Car Share in that all you have to do is register, swipe your card and you’re good to go. The difference—and the genius of the Velo’V system—is that you can return your Velo’V bikes anywhere you want. This means that you can unlock a bike at the top of a hill, ride it down to the bottom and leave it there.
This is my kind of cycling. If you plan your route wisely, there’s no peddling required and the city of Lyon takes care of the maintenance. Best of all you don’t have to remember where you’ve locked your bike because there are hundreds of bikes to pick from!
Also, if you return the bike within half an hour it’s free.
Lyon’s more astute citizens manage to avoid fees altogether by changing bicycles every twenty minutes, but the American boys, I soon learned, were having difficulty with the Velo’V system.
“The machines don’t read our credit cards,” one informed me.
“Do you have a chip?” I asked.
“A chip card,” I explained, whipping out my Barclays Debit to expose the microchip embedded in the bright blue plastic. “Your card needs to have a chip.”
They shook their heads; they did not have chip cards.
“Can you get those from American banks?” one asked.
“No,” I replied. “Mine’s from the UK.” Poor Louisiana law students.
I always knew my collection of bank accounts would come in handy some day.