How to be a clueless tourist and not be dead.

It was a Greek restaurant.  There was a Greek newspaper on one of the tables.
There was Greek music playing on the radio.  In Greek.

I ordered three gyros, in Greek.
And was promptly thrown out of the restaurant.

Well, Happycrow, that’s because you were in Paris, and being an asshole.


Didn’t mean to be.  I thought “hey, I get to practice my greek again, wheeee!”  But what I did was to hopelessly humiliate the young greek emigre behind the counter, who couldn’t understand a word I said, while his grandfather laughed his butt off from back in the corner (where the Greek newspapers were).

Fortunately, nobody got hurt.  Unfortunately, I was tired and now had to eat my gyros out on the sidewalk, too close to a whole lot of whores I didn’t want to deal with (why yes, in fact, I was quite close to Gare du Nord, why do you ask?)

Much less charming than McCoy’s version.
Just as colorful, though.

What happened?  Well, it’s pretty simple.  I violated the rules.  A LOT of them.

You need to learn the rules of the people you’re hanging out with, especially as a tourist.

Between the two of us we have been in 43 of the 50 United States, been in 15 different countries and three different continents. We’ve lived and worked in the the largest urban centers in the North American continent and lived in towns so small that they barely register on the map. We have been in corporate high rises and cattle barns. We have been in the mansions of millionaires and squatted in the gutter with winos. We regularly consort with movie stars, truck drivers, politicians, cowboys, artists, scientists, college students, college professors, secretaries, scientists, busboys, CEOs, bikers, criminals, cops, military, liberals and gang members. We have lost count of the number of ethnic/cultural/socio-economic groups we have routinely dealt with not only professionally, but on their terms. In short, unlike many people, we exist outside a very narrow cultural/social/socio-economic/racial circle.

We tell you this because of how often we have seen people mistake how things are done in their niche existence as how things are (or should be) done everywhere. When in another type of situation, they proceed to act according to the ‘rules’ of their usual circle.

And then they wonder why the other person attacked them….

In ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ George Bernard Shaw wrote: Pardon him … he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.

MacYoung, as usual, is dead on the money, and has several world-class examples in his books that are true to life.  Here in Texas, if you pass far enough out of SWPL-land, you see some real cultural differences pop up, fast.  One of which is that it’s not all that rare for guys to throw completely undeserved and out-of-line bullshit right into your face, just to see if you’ve got any balls, or whether you knuckle under and put up with it.  You have to know which is the right answer, or else you’re going to get stomped. 

Kinda like this, but with less politics and more spilled teeth.

Women will generally get a pass in a lot of those places (assuming no social predators), but unlike, say, Starbucks, there are a lot of places where “the barbarians” have a set of rules which includes “good women are protected: mouthy bitches get punched in the face until they learn some respect.”  aka, they’re very into equal rights where ass-beatings are concerned, and a woman who gets out of line in the “wrong kind of bar” is just as prone to lose her teeth as a man would be.

My neighbor’s a barbarian.  His wife once trimmed her branches and threw it all over my side yard rather than actually clean any of it up.  Yeah, considerate, that.  So I knocked on his door and said “hey, I want you to come look at something.”  I was pretty firm about it and obviously irritated.  His response to me throwing the “you don’t know what yet, but you have fucked up” card was to respond with the “back off or I’m going to rearrange your face” look and body language.

Now, I registered that, quite clearly.  About half a second later, I decided that I simply did not give a shit (and have been punched in the face enough via personal hobbies that this wasn’t an abstract decision) — he was GOING to deal with my issue.

Barbarian neighbor walked out with me, looked at the problem, realized he was in the wrong and proclaimed that he was going to bust an ass.  We’re on good terms, friendly, and  haven’t had the problem again.  Did he REALLY “bust an ass” (aka, his wife’s?)  OH, HELL NO – that was “barbarian man-speak” for what a Victorian would have said thusly:  “I concur that you have been wronged due to the completely unacceptable rude and selfish behavior of my spouse; what’s more, I agree that this behavior was beyond the pale, and I will discuss the matter with her so that it doesn’t happen again.”

Now Available in “public humiliation” or “broken ribs.”


And if I’d used language like that talking to him, I’d have his shit in my yard every single week – he’d go OUT OF HIS WAY to find shit to throw in my yard, on general principles.  And I’d deserve it, for being a dick.  When you refuse to talk to somebody in their own language, you are being a dick.  You are saying “I’m better than you and I want you to know it.”

JudgyBitch has a post up today about learning the rules, and how to be a happy tourist, rather than a dead one.

This looks like a free eyeball about to happen….

It’s a pretty good post, whose twist, as usual, is aimed squarely at a certain breed of feminist she rightly disdains.   Her basic take, and it’s a VERY good one, is that being a tourist is more than about getting stamps in your passport.  It’s about learning how the rules are different when you’re in different circumstances.  There’s a LOT of tourism you can indulge in without ever leaving your living room.

Norah Vincent’s big revelation?  “Gee, men really aren’t anything like I thought they were.”  And, as one local who clearly saw through her ruse and appreciated that she was an upper-middle-class person slumming in their world helpfully informed her, “the difference is, we bowl without irony.”

As Ms. Vincent puts it:

“I passed in a man’s world not because my mask was so real, but because the world of men was a masked ball,” Vincent writes. “Only in my men’s group did I see these masks removed and scrutinized.”

That’s a perfectly valid position for an upper-middle-class lesbian chick to have on mainstream heteronormative male society. What she misses, though is that the vast majority of men don’t need a self-help group in order to comperehend everything they’re seeing.  Most guys have a very, very good understanding of what’s going on with other guys — those aren’t masks, they’re helpful labels.

But I don’t want to be too hard on Ms. Vincent, because there was something she did right, and it’s the ABSOLUTELY MOST IMPORTANT THING you can do as a tourist:  get a friend.  The friend knows you’re a tourist, and will say helpful things like “don’t pull that gun, they’ll kill you.  He’s just messing with you to see if you’ve any balls in your pants.”  (real story, not mine)

Can I travel to Paris on my own?  Sure.  Can I travel to, say, Morocco on my own?  Sure.  I could even be edgy and go to Kurdistan on my own (Basra? Eh, probably not).  There’s enough international culture, and agreement on the what the rules are, that I’d be fine — I’d do better with a local friend, but I could do it. 

Can you travel, say, to North Waziristan or Somalia your my own?  Sure. Before you go, can I have your ipad? Simple truth — If you go to some places on your own, you are simply out of your depth.  What “out of your depth” means will vary by person, but it’s a real concept, and you’d better learn it, or you’re going to wind up like that dude who thought he could be friends with bears.  And he was!  That grizzly loved him.  Especially the greasy parts.

That’s just Alaska.  Waziristan?  Even the hardcore journos go to places like Waziristan with friends.  Professional friends, called “fixers,” whose job is to help arrange things, and provide the visitors helpful advice so that they don’t wind up gang-sodomized (not joking, the Taliban does this) or worse because they violated an unspoken rule that all the locals get, but that you haven’t been told yet.  As my father’s prone to say, “the problem with the school of hard knocks is that first you take the test, and then you learn your lesson.” A local buddy keeps you from having to do that. 

But what if you don’t know anybody where you’re going?  Well, then, like Ms. Vincent did, you have to behave in a manner that’s going to win you friends.  “Speak the language, or at least try,” is an obvious one.  But there’s more to it than that.  My trick for Central Europe?  Be polite, cute, and harmless.  Because middle-aged Polish women will come out of the woodwork to help a cute guy who’s obviously trying.  Thank you, Old Ladies of Poznan, because my Polish wasn’t good enough to say “oh, I need to buy a plastic bag for these groceries, please,” and you gals saved the day (and my apples).  I overlooked that, b/c bags COME WITH in America, and they don’t in lots of Europe.

You go, Grandma. We know you rock.

In an urban environment, my rule of thumb, and you may have a better one, is “don’t waste people’s time.”  Urban people love small-talk, too — but usually not with strangers, unless they’re intentionally chewing up the clock.  Stuck waiting for a flight at JFK?  Oh, you’re in for CONVERSATION.  Curbside, that’s another matter. 

Rural environments?  By being stupid-polite.  Lots of urbanites get in trouble in the sticks, because they’re condescending without realizing it.  Yes, you need smarts to have an advanced degree and work in finance.  Guess what?  You ALSO need smarts to be a successful plumber or general contractor.  They’re not always the same KIND of smarts, but just because somebody’s blue-collar or prefers jewel-tones to “that little black dress” doesn’t mean she’s stupid. 

This works in Japan, too.  The Japanese are friendly people, if you’re not walking around being rude as hell — you just have to take ten seconds to learn some basic rules.  Like, “in Japan, when you get something from the vending machine, drink it there and put it right into the trash, rather than walking all over town eating and drinking like a disgusting rude person.”

But that’s not the most important part.  If you’re planning to be a tourist, any kind of tourist, and you’re not setting out with the notion of figuring out how to make a friend, you’re doing it wrong.  First and foremost, behave in a manner that encourages people to help you.  They’ll tell you when you’re about to step on your own dick.  Because it’s good to know how to build a fire, but for most of us your most important survival skill is good old-fashioned communication.

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