In Praise Of National Pride While Abroad

The book “Rick Steves’ Guide to Germany” weighs in at more than 700 pages but devotes just three sentences to Heidelberg, one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. Steves’ authors opine that Heidelberg, home to one of Europe’s oldest universities and one of the better preserved old town centers in Central Europe, isn’t worth visiting on a three-week visit to Germany because it’s “overrun with Americans.”

The book doesn’t list a single hotel, restaurant or attraction in the city, apparently in the belief that lemming-like readers will avoid the place simply because the author has instructed them to. I have a lot of respect for Rick Steves and I like his guidebooks, television programs and podcasts. But when I’m advised not to visit a place, it piques my curiosity. Is Heidelberg really that bad? And does it make sense to avoid a place simply because there are too many Americans there?

Heidelberg has been a stop on the American’s Grand Tour of Europe itinerary, particularly for college students, for a very long time. I have no doubt that there are plenty of Americans in the city in the summer but I’ve just spent a few days there and found it to be anything but “overrun” with Americans. In fact, very few of the tourists I encountered were English speakers, and quite a few of those were Canadians. (More on them later.)But even if the city was crawling with American tourists, would that be a legitimate reason to avoid the place? I have mixed feelings on this issue. On the one hand, there’s no point in spending a king’s ransom and losing a night’s sleep flying around the world only to hang out with Courtney and Trent from Connecticut. And David Farley recently raised some good points in noting that a place can seem less than authentic if other Americans are in the house.

But I have to laugh at Americans who completely eschew even making eye contact, let alone conversation with Americans they encounter abroad. I’ve met Americans overseas who act as though they’re almost ashamed to be Americans when they leave the country. As Americans, we carry a lot of baggage when we travel outside the country. In many places, we’re perceived as big, loud, monolingual rubes that have only a superficial understanding of the world outside the USA.

The stereotype doesn’t fit most Americans who take the time, effort and expense to travel overseas but some of our countrymen act as though they’re vaguely embarrassed of their countrymen – even when there’s no reason to be. That said, I have been to places that are so overrun with tourists that I have a hard time enjoying them. For example, there are 227 inhabited Greek islands, but two of them – Mykonos and Santorini – attract more American tourists than all the rest combined.

I’m not enamored with either place, not because I have a problem encountering Americans overseas but because once the locals to tourists ratio tips too heavily in the tourist direction – no matter what the nationality of those tourists – the place loses something. It’s hard to feel like you are in Greece when you hear more Swedish than Greek.

I grew up in Western New York State just a few minutes drive from the Canadian border and over the years, I’ve met scores of Canadian travelers overseas. Many of the Canadians I’ve encountered wear their nationalities on their sleeves, hats or backpacks much more readily than we do as Americans. I’m sure part of this is because they’re proud of their country but they’re also trying to advertise the fact that they’re NOT AMERICANS!

Sean McLachlan pointed out the futility of this tactic a few years ago, but estimated that only half of those who use the Canadian maple leaf on articles of clothing are actually Canadian. I’ve never met a fake Canadian in my travels, but I don’t doubt that the phenomenon exists.

Yesterday, while waiting in line at a bakery in Heidelberg, I met a nice group of Canadian college students from Oshawa, Ontario. There were dozens of them in the city and each and every one was wearing a bright red jacket with the word “CANADA” emblazoned in a large font on the back. We’re one of the more patriotic countries on earth, but I can’t really imagine a large group of American college students wearing blue USA jackets (unless they’re part of a national sports team, which this was not). In fact, most of the time I see people overseas wearing clothing or hats with the US flag on it, the person is not actually American.

I’m not suggesting that we should travel the world draped in American flags. I keep a low profile when outside the country and always make an extra effort to be a respectful visitor so as not to become a walking stereotype. But there’s also nothing worse than an American who leaves the country and becomes a self-loathing American. We have our issues, perhaps more than most countries, but there’s no reason to walk around with one’s head hung in shame. And please feel free to visit Heidelberg. It’s a great place, no matter what Rick Steves and the gang says.

[Photo credits- 1) Editor B on Flickr, 2) Dave Seminara]

Note: I haven’t seen the 2012 edition of “Rick Steves’ Guide to Germany,” so it’s possible he’s corrected the Heidelberg slight.