We all can stand out in a crowd. We may feel unremarkable, ordinary or average so we may not think of ourselves as standing out in a crowd. The thing is, it all depends on what crowd you’re in. I found that out on my first trip to Rome.
During our trip, my wife and I would encounter guys on the streets selling souvenirs and trinkets. They were obviously drawn to tourists in an effort to make a quick and easy sale. Most of them were African, so they immediately noticed my wife because she’s from Ghana. They were able to identify her immediately as a fellow African.
But as for me, they identified me as well. How they did it, I’m still not sure. It’s probably something exceedingly obvious that I’m overlooking, but haven’t picked up on it yet. And it happened every time.
What would happen is this. We would be walking down the street and one of the vendors would spot us and walk up to us. Immediately they would say something to my wife about where’s she’s from. They would guess (often correctly) or ask and note that she’s their sister. After they converse with her briefly, they would turn to me and say “and you’re American, right?” At first I was a little taken aback, like, was it that obvious? It didn’t bother me and I wasn’t trying to hide it, but it was curious. Then I wondered what made them say American?
It happened twice the first day that we were there. How in the world did they know that I was American just from looking at me? My wife and I laughed about it throughout our evening.
What was it?
Later that night, I played back the interactions in my mind. I realized that it was possible that I spoke just a word or two when they approached, like maybe I said “hello” and they picked up on my American “accent”. Even now it’s funny to think that I have an accent.
In your mind, it’s always other people that have accents and not yourself. But that’s another beautiful thing about travel.
I thought to myself that had to be it. They heard my voice for however brief, but my accent stood out even in that short time just as a British, Italian or Ghanaian accent would catch my ears.
But was that really it? I didn’t remember saying something every time before they made their prediction.
The more I thought about it, I realized that it might have been the shoes. In my reading before our trip I came across the fact that white sneakers are a distinctly American fashion choice. And indeed I was rocking my beloved white shell toe Adidas with red stripes. So it very well could have been that.
I also noticed a lot of men wearing their pants rolled up at the cuff. That was interesting, and kinda cool. My pants weren’t like that. So it could have been that as well.
Now I was super curious, just what was it that identified me as an American? I could’ve been French, from the Caribbean Islands, from some African nation or even Canadian. But no, I was identified as American.
Well now I had to figure this out. So I had a plan. The next day I would be sure not to say anything at all when approached. I rolled the bottom of my pants up just as I saw many of the Italian men do and I pulled out my brown loafers and left my Adidas in our apartment. I was sure that my beloved Adidas has betrayed me and it was time to find out.
I’m going to figure this out
The second day came and out we went to explore the magnificent city that is Rome. And sure enough, we saw the vendors, they saw us, and they were quick to greet us. Just like the previous day, they happily approached my wife first and with a hearty “SISSSSSTAHHH”, a brief conversation about where she was from and then turned to me.
I had consciously remained silent the entire time. Waiting for the moment. And then turning his attention to me…”and you’re American, eh”.
How did he know? How could he possibly know? What was it? He didn’t hear my voice; I wasn’t wearing my American Identifier white sneakers. I even had the bottoms of my pants rolled up and he still identified me!
He wasn’t the only one. The same scenario had to have been repeated about five times that day.
Every time it was like a script in a play. Every time we had the same exact roles and the same exact script. The only character that changed was the vendor.
And every single time I was identified as an American.
It wasn’t just the African vendors who identified me. There were several Italians that identified me as an American as well. So whatever gave me away was a pretty universal signifier. But each time, I had really nice interactions and even some cool conversations with the people that I met.
So what was it, you ask? I still don’t know. Your guess is as good as mine. Actually your guess is probably better than mine. My only regret was not asking any of the men how they knew that I was an American.
The obvious American
It made me realize that the phrase “stop acting like a tourist” is pretty unproductive. There is always going to be something that identifies you as a person who’s not from there. Now you don’t want to be rude and offensive or put yourself or others in any danger, but being overly worried about trying to fit in or dress like the locals shouldn’t take away from your experience.
No matter what you do, you’re going to be different. But that’s one of the inspiring things about travel. Being the “other” person in a foreign city or country and interacting with local people. Seeing what it’s like to be the foreigner with the accent. I can say that I was intrigued by the experience and appreciated the different perspective.
One day though, I’m sure that I’ll crack the mystery. But until then, I’ll just keep traveling to places where I stick out as the obvious American, and I think that I’ll even keep on wearing my Adidas.