Here we go again!  Another article about the relatively low numbers of Americans with passports at 30% by CNN .  In a foreign newspaper no topic gets Americans instantly commenting like this one since the standard foreign article often advances the argument that the low possession of passports reinforces the international ignorance and insularity of Americans.  The CNN article does not go there but confines itself to the reasons why more Americans do not travel overseas. We read that Americans are a little afraid of abroad, something foreign articles also mention.  But we still get the standard observation that Americans have a large country and do not require passports in order to enjoy a variety of climates and cultures.  Then comes the riposte that you may be able to taste Italian food but what about the scenery… so on and so forth, blah blah blah…

I might have ignored this piece except that it gives the UK statistic of 75% as a favorable comparison.     My instant reaction was that the author and contributors have never lived in the UK. If they had, they definitely would have moved on (as I have) from worrying about numbers of passports to depth of cultural experience. When it comes to travel,  quality should trump quantity every time. Ask the Spanish.

British youth (many of them university students) are the scourge of the Spanish coast. Excess of alchohol leading to street noise, assaults, fights and general rowdiness have changed formerly quiet communities beyond recognition. They wanted tourists who would respect local customs but that is not what they have.   Instead a local council found it necessary to pass legislation banning beachwear on their streets and sordid behaviour to restore its civic reputation. Of course single young adults  are not the only people to take overseas vacations.  Many families regularly vacation in a nearby country but they do not necessarily achieve a better result where the local culture is concerned.  British people can spend multiple vacations in France and Spain without learning to speak the language or visiting historical sites.

The penchant for renting cottages in the country both at home and overseas is strong among the British whose yearning for space and love of countryside makes a country cottage an ideal vacation.   Sitting in a cottage in the countryside is a wonderful way to appreciate beauty but not the easiest way to experience another culture.   It requires effort and many do not bother. They see no reason to do so.  They are only there to “borrow” the sunshine and the access to delicious food. When I first came to Britain I  was struck by the attitudes of people who boasted that they spent every single family vacation in France yet had obvious disdain for the French.   Such attitudes no longer shock me because although they are not universal,  they are widespread as any French person who lives in England can confirm.  I also knew a  family who went on day trips to Calais every few months and never had a word to say against the French.  Well, they wouldn’t because the only French people they saw were at the checkout. They went to Calais to purchase cheaper wine (the British seem to pay more for almost everything).  Is that what we want Americans to do with their passports?

If we looked at the travel habits of other nationalities I am sure we would find comparable examples. So instead of criticising how many people travel, what’s wrong with taking a look at what they do when they get there?  Thousands of Americans go overseas for a few weeks but others are there for a few months or even years including  lawyers, teachers business people and of course exchange students.  Many of the longer term visitors could do more  in terms of cultural exploration  – that is why I write this blog.  But I would bet that most of them are engaging with the local culture more than the thousands of British and other passport holders who use other countries as a mere backdrop. This is precisely because – as pointed out in all these articles on passport numbers – most Americans (like most of the British) just want to relax on vacation.  If they actually bother to travel to another country they are most likely doing so in part for cultural reasons.   The much maligned American tourists may be a little overwhelming in numbers in European cities and painfully monolingual but they want to see what these impressive cultures have produced by visiting their cathedrals, museums, castles and monuments.  This is what they are doing instead of drinking themselves into a stupor or provoking alchohol-fueled fights.

In my first few months in Britain a fellow American teaching at a local school told me she had excitedly told a colleague how much she enjoyed seeing Big Ben and the Tower of London with her children. Her colleague practically rolled her eyes and said “How typically American!!”  Case closed.


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