It’s a common story, one that you’re likely to hear in any chronicle of a travel abroad told by friends, acquaintances or relatives: “So there I was, bang in the middle of the dodgy suburbs of Kinshasa and guess what? I bump into some fella from Peterborough!” What follows afterwards is, usually, a frown and a lengthy explanation of what kind of oafs the fellows from Peterborough turned out to be, and what a disgrace that not even Kinshasa is safe from their scourge and on and on and on.
I used, obviously, a fictitious example: there’s a distinct possibility that no one from Peterborough ever strolled around Kinshasa’s mean streets and, even if they did, they might very well have been extremely decent people, still fondly remembered by every local who robb…erm encountered them. But that’s not the point.
Every country has its fair share of unpleasant people and, obviously, said unpleasant folks tend to travel about and, by default, give the rest of the country a bad name. Germans have that annoying habit of sneaking out of their room at six AM to lay their beach towel on the best sun lounger in the resort (which says a lot of how happy their life must be at home). Frenchmen and women simply do not accept that there are individuals, in this vast world, who haven’t opened their minds to learning the idiom of Baudelaire. Italians are exporting chavs with the same frequency with which “volunteers” in Russian uniforms appear in eastern Ukraine or Crimea. And I could go on.
Some might say that this is a relatively new phenomenon, born out of the boom of affordable air travel, but I don’t agree. Firstly, and chiefly, because the supporters of this classist view are overwhelmingly snobs who, as it turns out, are as big oafs than those getting pissed to oblivion in Magaluf or Mykonos, if not more. Secondly, because of this brilliant piece of literature.
It may not be amiss to consider the causes which render the English so unpopular on the Continent; […] In the first place, it arises from the number of ill-conditioned persons who […] scatter themselves over foreign lands, and bring no little discredit upon their country. But in addition to these, there are many […] who, through inattention, ungardedness, wanton expenditure in some cases, niggardly parsimony in others but, above all, from an unwillingness to accommodate themselves to the feelings of the people they are among, contribute not a little to bring their own nation into disrespute.
This passage, cited by Alan Silltoe’s delightful Leading the Blind, was originally found in the Hand-Book for Travellers in France, written and published by John Murray in Abermarle Street, in 1843. Now, I’m willing to concede Micheal O’Leary the status of precursor, but considering Ryanair to be 171 years old is a bit too much, isn’t it?
The thing is, though, that oafs have always existed, and always have travelled abroad. And oafs have always made a deep impression on the communities they visit, lasting a lot longer than the one made by decent people, because we humans are inclined to remember unpleasantness more deeply than positive experiences. After all, doesn’t marketers say that a disaffected customer will tell 10 friends about his ordeals, whereas a satisfied one will mention his experiences only to 3? And sometimes the bad impression must’ve been a hell of a bad one, like the one that a group of pesky Italians made on the good folks of Djenné in Mali when they visited one of the famous mud mosque and outraged the locals so much with their behaviour that, soon after, the entrance was limited only to Muslim wishing to pray and not to snap pictures.
So, what should we do? Should we travel in constant fear of meeting an arrogant fellow countryman, or a petulant countrywoman? A racist compatriot, or a plainly ignorant fellow citizen?
I, personally, have decided to give up on pretending to be Swiss. Firstly because, honestly, I hate doing it (everyone thinks you’ve got loads of money stashed away, or chocolate, or both) and, secondly, because I’m not good at it. I’m Italian, and such will remain. What I decided to do, should – well, it’s more a case of when – I encounter another group of compatriots behaving like dicks is, instead, to behave my best by being respectful of the places and people I’ll encounter, appreciative of the local culture and as open as possible to try and get to know the place as I can. Because, as Murray wrote 171 years ago, when one goes abroad he
[…] too often forgets that he is the representative of his country, and that his countryment will be judged by his own conduct; that by affability, moderation, and being easily pleased, he will conciliate; whereas by caprice, extravagant squandering, or ill-timed niggardliness, he affects the reception of the next comer.