Back when I used to write for a website called Reality TV Talk, I posted an article entitled “I Am That Ugly American.” Originally, the article was part of a series of recaps I was writing in 2011 for the fourteenth season of The Amazing Race. It was one of my favorite pieces and I have referenced it several times over the past several years as it deals with my personal lack of desire for foreign travel, a preference that is challenged time and time again. This week I wanted to share that article with you. Please note, the context article has been edited to bring it up to date and allow it to stand on its own (hence the term “Redeux). Enjoy!
I Am That Ugly American
My wife Deborah and I met over a mutual interest in The Amazing Race and when we began dating we both thought it would be great to compete on TAR as a team. However, once we sat down and really thought it through we came to the conclusion that that may not be such a good idea. For Deb the reason was simple: she refuses to bungee jump, parachute, travel at high speeds on contraptions such as roller coasters or perform any other activity for which medals are awarded at the X-Games. My reasons were less obvious and became apparent slowly over the course of our early years of dating.
I have never been much of a traveler. I have always preferred to save myself the trouble of vacation planning, not to mention the expense, and simply just stay close to home. That doesn’t mean I never went anywhere. It just meant that travel was not in my top 10 things to do. Deborah is just the opposite. She loves traveling, and not just the trip itself, but the planning as well. Because of this, I have probably traveled to more places in the first three years of our relationship than I have in my entire life up to that point. I don’t mind traveling within the United States, but certain events occurred in those early dating years that suggested that International Travel may not be my cup of tea.
One event didn’t even require me to leave the country. Deb and I went took a trip to Charleston, SC. One night we ate at a French restaurant named 39 Rue de Jean. The name 39 Rue de Jean is basically it’s address, 39 John Street, made to sound all fancy and French-like. It’s website described itself as “a refined French cafe and bar offering the best in classic Brasserie cuisine.” The point is, this is the most authentic, fanciest French Restaurant I had ever been in. In fact, I think the only other French restaurant I have ever been in was the France pavilion at Epcot, Walt Disney World.
I enjoy French food and could potentially eat it at every meal. I could eat their toast for breakfast, their fries for lunch and pour their dressing over my evening salad. But now I had a chance to sample some real French cuisine.
For starters, when you think of French dining you think of fine wines and 39 Rue de Jean had their share, including a Bordeaux, Chateau Haut Peyruguet; a Chablis, Boucard Fourchame Chardonnay; a Picpoul de Pinet, Beaulieu; and a Cotes de Provence, Domaine Houchart. Yeah. I didn’t have clue. Considering that, and the fact that the average cost per bottle was $50, I opted for a good old American Budweiser. Hold the glass, please. I’ll drink it straight from the bottle.
Next was the entre. On 39 Rue de Jean’s menu one could find such dishes as Salmon Bearnaise, Chicken Francaise, Shrimp Provencal, Coq Au Vin and more. I ordered the Brasserie Burger which was ground beef prepared to my specifications and served with cheddar cheese, onions, tomatoes and lettuce on a piece of bread baked specifically to hold these items together. This was served with frites, which are strips of potatoes cooked in oil until they are a light golden brown. In other words, I ordered a cheeseburger, fries and a bottle of beer. I got all done up to go out to a refined French cafe only to order the same thing I order at Applebee’s. Point is, I don’t need to spend eight to ten hours on a plane and fork out outrageous amounts of money only to eat the same food I can get a couple of blocks from my house.
On a side note, I must tell you about the appetizer Deb and I ordered. It was called the Plateau de Fromage. It sounded good, an assortment of appetizers from around the world inspired by the familiar travel guides. That’s when Deb informed me that Frommers wrote the travel guides. This was Fromage, which was French for cheese. Not a problem as I love cheese, as well.
The Cheese Plate offered five varieties of cheese and was accompanied by a short description of each. The first cheese was a Belletoile, which is “bold in flavor” and “bloomy”. Bloomy? I have no idea what a “bloomy” taste is. I’m guessing it’s supposed to taste like roses or something?
Next on the list was the Brescianella Stagionata which was “rich in flavor with grassy overtones.” I’m not particularly fond of grassy undertones, let alone grassy overtones, so I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a cheese for me. Who would be attracted to grassy overtones anyway? A cow? It was then that I began to wonder if the taste of the cheese depended on the cow’s diet. Bessie eats a lot of daisies and therefore her milk is used for the bloomy Belletoile, while Elsie, on the other hand, sticks to a more traditional diet of plain grass, resulting in a milk perfect for the Stagionata.
One particular cheese, the Sora, is a fine example of how it’s sometimes better not to know what you are eating. This particular cheese had a “firm, buttery texture with an indigenous mold.” I think you see what I mean.
So my lack of enthusiasm for other cultures while in the States is obvious. How well do I handle actually leaving the country? Well, I’ll tell you. It’s not like I’ve never been to another country. I’ve gone to the Bahamas on several occasions, but that doesn’t really count because the Bahamas is practically the United States with an accent. And then there was the time I drove through Miami. But other than that I have never traveled abroad. That changed when Deborah and I took a cruise that featured a stop in Cozumel, Mexico.
The entire time in port was six hours, less time than the average workday. Yet, it was six of the most stressful hours of my life. The first mistake I made was trying to save money by not signing up for one of the cruise sponsored tours. Instead, Deb, myself and another couple from the cruise were going to try to find a cheaper tour to the ruins once we left the boat. As it turns out we were separated from our friends and, after a few miscalculated events, we found ourselves on a ferry to the mainland. The best way to describe what happened next was that I had a major meltdown.
I was in a country I didn’t know, surrounded by people who I couldn’t understand, with no real idea where I was going or what I was going to do once I got there. I panicked. What if we miss the returning ferry? Are we spending too much money? Do we have enough cash on us? Can we even use American money? What if I do something wrong and get thrown in a Mexican prison? Do they cane people in Mexico? Why am I here?
(Deborah later told me she’d never seen me so out of control before.)
On the mainland, we made a few inquiries and realized we had no time to do anything other than go to a restaurant and order a few drinks and nachos. However, I couldn’t just sit back and enjoy. Without a clear grasp of the exchange rate I was too busy trying to figure out how much we were spending and what I needed to tip. (Do they even tip in Mexico? What if I calculate wrong and don’t leave enough? Will they send Paco the Bull after me to break my legs?)
When it came time to make the return ferry ride the ticket lady informed me that they do not accept credit cards (unlike the ticket booth on the other side where we purchased our tickets to get to the mainland). We had to use most of our available cash to buy our tickets and now I worried about having the proper change for the taxi ride back to port. By the end of our stop I was shoving people out the way in my mad dash to reboard the cruise ship. Deborah stated the obvious later when she said I would be a mess on The Amazing Race.
I have nothing against other cultures or their traditions. I’m sure the world is full of interesting and exotic places. I just look at it this way. I don’t tell people they need to come to the United States and, in return, I don’t want people telling me that I need to visit other countries. I find no practical benefit in leaving the U. S.. It won’t improve my health, raise my income, make me live longer, put food on my table and clothes on my back, give me better gas mileage or make my teeth whiter. No one’s going to lock me up or fine me for staying put in my little part of the world. Other people might find enjoyment in world travel and that’s fine. Travel away. Just leave me to be happy in my own little world where I know where things are, how much they cost and I can communicate with my neighbor. Yeah, I wouldn’t be long on the Amazing Race before I turned into that “Ugly American.”