Tips for Looking Un-American in Europe

Blending in in Rome

Some Americans get a little nervous about their citizenship when traveling overseas. When Bush was president and the Iraq war was started, there was some ill will towards Americans in some countries. Some travelers didn’t want to obviously stand out as Americans. Of course, if you are wandering around Paris or Berlin with a backpack on your back and your head down in a tour map mumbling in American English about how to find the nearest McDonalds, it’s pretty easy to tell that you’re not a local.

I’m not suggesting that you should try to hide or even that you would be successful at that endeavor, but there are a few things you can do to make it not so obvious that you’re an American tourist.

Blending in in Rome
Blending in in Rome

First, check your socks and shoes. If you’re a man, wearing white athletic socks and white Nike cross-trainer athletic shoes is a dead giveaway. Better to have some black Pumas with dark socks, or nice leather loafers. If you’re a woman, wearing comfortable, practical walking shoes sounds like a good idea and you’re thinking that your feet will thank you after a long day touring every last exhibit at the Louvre. However, the local women most likely will still be wearing uncomfortable, impractical high heels. Because looking good is more important than sore feet.

Next, don’t wear shorts. Even if it is very hot, wearing cargo shorts (with the aforementioned white socks and athletic shoes) is a no-no. For one thing, nobody wants to see your spindly white legs and knobby knees. Instead, get a lightweight pair of pants. But not those travel pants with the zip-off shorts. Those just look dorky, and who would wear those around your own city anyway?

If you have one of those fancy travel vests with the 39 pockets, leave it at home. Those should only be used if you’re fly fishing in Montana.

Americans love their baseball-style caps. They might look great for cheering on the Yankees, advertising your farm’s seed choices, or making political statements, but in Europe and other places you might as well replace the logo on the front with a sign that says “I am an American! Be rude to me in Parisian cafes.”

A good general rule is to dress up a little more than you would do at home. Americans have a tendency to look, well, sloppy. Blue jeans, a baggy t-shirt, and a bulky hooded sweatshirt advertising the college you wanted to attend or dropped out of is the uniform of the American traveler. You don’t have to dress up to look like an insurance salesman. But you also don’t need to look like you just finished cleaning the garage.

Leaving some of the bright colors at home is good, too. The lime green shirt, orange socks, and purple pants might be fine for your golf course, but will look strange in many places in Europe. I was in Copenhagen, Denmark in the winter and I am sure that 99% of the people on the Strøget wore black. Black pants, black boots, black leather jackets, black scarves, and black hats. I thought I was at an undertakers convention. I had a bright blue ski jacket on and felt very conspicuous.

I don’t always follow these tips, but sometimes I do have minor successes. I was waiting for the elevator to go up one of the towers of the Frauenkirche in Munich, Germany when a woman asked me for the time. In German. I gave her a slight smile and answered her in English. She looked puzzled and walked away to ask someone else.

Curacao is an island in the Netherlands Antilles where they speak Dutch, Papiamentu, Spanish, and English. They also get a lot of Dutch and German tourists in the winter. My family was greeted by the owner of a restaurant in Willemstad first in Dutch, then in German, and then in Spanish. We didn’t say a word. Finally, he spoke in English and we all smiled.

You don’t have to shop at H&M or Zara before leaving the US, but a few minor tweaks to the wardrobe may help you blend in. At least until you open your mouth…

Wearing the wrong touring clothes
Breaking all the rules