On Being American in Europe
“I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything.”
We are four Americans in Europe. And we look it.
When we board the plane in Newark, the other passengers look as unexotic as any baseball loving, Baptist-church-attending Bill or Jane I ever met. But after the plane connects with a European runway, everything changes.
At the Zurich International Airport, I realize we fit into local culture as gracefully as if we’d draped ourselves in red, white, and blue and marched around the Lindenhof singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The Europeans around us look glamorous. I spent six hours silently cursing the frazzled mother of two, for her sniffily-nosed children look sleek, even cultured. The flight attendants, who sounded like natives of the Bronx two hours earlier, speak with an unmistakably Western European inflection. Their noses crinkle with practiced snobbery when I ask for seltzer water instead of “water with gas.”
Passing for European is a game to me. I’d anticipated it. Some well-traveled friends warned that, without a scarf, I might as well tattoo an American eagle on my forehead. The locals wear scarves year round. It makes them European. I bought a blue-striped one in lightweight cotton.
It was futile.
The lady in the Atlanta department store said the new line of scarves was “very Viennese.” I should have asked if she meant Vienna, Austria, or Vienna, just-south-of-the-end-of-civilization Georgia—population 2,793 and shrinking.
Color, pattern, or style doesn’t matter anyway. Only the way one wears it. An American wears a scarf to keep warm or to accessorize an outfit. The most adept American might evoke the image of a Hollywood starlet. Aspiring to anything more is pointless. To Europeans, the scarf is an extension of the soul. It becomes as natural as a hand or foot. European women—and sometimes men—have a manner of sweeping a scarf around their neck and letting it hang carelessly, as if to say, “I’m European. Fall at my designer shod feet, gauche Americans.” They tilt their noses slightly and squint their eyes.
My dad, whose fashion sense is distressing in America, let alone abroad, makes no effort to Europeanize himself. His cotton T-shirt sustains its standard noncommittal state, the front thrust into his khaki shorts, the back dangling behind like a beaver’s tail. It’s his wardrobe equivalent of a mullet. His thinning temples are pink-tinged, a ritual of every family vacation. He doesn’t need the sun to develop a tourist’s sunburn. His body does it purely out of habit.
My mom tries. But she insists her neck is too short to wear scarves. She also has a strange habit of cutting her bangs with kitchen scissors without the benefit of a mirror. A fit of hair-cutting compulsion set in last night and left her with a jagged fringe.
Sam, my boyfriend, looks the most European. With his coarse brown beard, disheveled hair, and V-neck T-shirt, he can almost pass for Russian. Until he says one word in his Southern drawl.
We approach the Swiss customs counter. The middle-aged agent surveys our group. The seven-hour plane ride has made us look disturbingly like our driver’s license photos. He narrows his eyes slightly, tosses his head back, and says in accented English, “Americans?”
We haven’t even shown him our passports.
Dining in Europe is different than in America. For one, the restaurant staff never wants you to leave. It’s as though they enjoy predicting how many patrons will die of old age before the final course.
We eat at a restaurant called Chas Stübli, which is only a short walk from our hotel in Interlaken. A waiter, Mr. Bianchi, greets us as we enter. He is a young Swiss man of about twenty-five with two mops of eyebrows so pronounced they nearly obstruct his eyes from view. He seats us at a table on the patio amid a stunning array of potted plants.
He sets the plates, the wine glasses, the drinking glasses. Then he focuses on the utensils. Each place setting requires precisely 12 spoons—big, little, oblong—and forks of every configuration from oyster forks to asparagus forks. Each is laid in a particular order with particular spacing on the table. If a single fork is out of place, Mr. Bianchi will be considered a vulgar disgrace to his country. Sweat beads on his forehead by the time he starts the fourth table setting.
We watch in intrigued silence.
At last he snaps upright, panting slightly. “Menus?” He hands us each a black folder. I open mine and study it intently. So do my parents and Sam. It’s for show since the menu is in German and the only German words we know are names of car manufacturers. After a few moments, we place them on the table.
“Ready to order, yes?” Mr. Bianchi asks.
“Fondue,” Dad says. It’s the only word he recognizes.
Mr. Bianchi smiles again, the bottom crescents of his eyes disappearing under the bush of eyebrows. “Of course.”
He clears each utensil not required for fondue in a practiced, calculated manner. Arms laden with unused silverware, he disappears through the wide glass doors back into the restaurant.
We wait. At first we’re busy swatting flies. Switzerland is where flies go for family reunions. There are 867 flies per capita. They land on your face, arms, dance along your food, and bathe in your drinking water. I used to think Europeans drank as a social custom. I was wrong. They drink out of necessity. Alcohol kills germs deposited by flies. After a while, our hunger outweighs our concern of cholera and parasitic worms, but our waiter is still missing.
When Mr. Bianchi finally returns, he’s balancing an extravagant array of food on his outstretched forearms. The Swiss cheese fondue is pale yellow and creamy. He brings platters of crusty bread, potatoes, tart apples, sweet pickles, and an assortment of unrecognizable vegetables.
I skewer a potato with my pronged spear and lower it into the pit, swirling it until every inch is saturated with cheese. Heaven on a stick. The pickle—a strange combination of sweet and salty, dripping with juice—is even better. Our silence is only broken by chewing and the occasional satisfied grunt.
We eventually clear the platters and are ready to roll ourselves back down the street to the hotel. But this brings us to the hardest part of European dining—receiving the bill. It appears as if they don’t want us to have it.
We place our napkins on our plates as a subtle hint. We crane our necks to make eye contact. Mr. Bianchi doesn’t notice.
“What great food, but would you look at the TIME!” Dad says at the top of his voice.
“Yes, it’s QUITE LATE,” Mom bellows in response, winking indiscreetly at me.
My dad stands to his feet and waves his napkin like a bullfighter, attracting the frustrated notice of everyone in the restaurant except Mr. Bianchi, who’s busy buffing his fingernails and staring at the wall.
Stuffed and exhausted, we give up.
“It was really delicious food,” Mom says as a sort of eulogy before her head droops to the table.
I’m on my second REM cycle when Mr. Bianchi returns.
“You are finished?” he asks with a smile.
Most Europeans are thin, which I’d always assumed is a result of exercise. Despite the weaving, mountainous landscape, there are more bicycles on the road than cars in Interlaken.
The Swiss love sports, especially the death-defying type. Our first day in Interlaken I browse tourism brochures. Suggested activities include BASE jumping, paragliding, white-water rafting, jet skiing, and skydiving. Switzerland will never struggle with population control.
After a few days in the country, I realize their trim figures may not be due to healthy eating and exercise, but in fact are a byproduct of a common Swiss hobby: smoking.
No law prohibits smoking in public areas in Switzerland. Clouds of nicotine swirling from the mouths of the European people hover over most streets. It’s common to see a young professional with a cigarette dangling carelessly from her lips, puffing away. Restaurants are the smoking venue of choice. Managers could save electricity after dark by relying on the flickering illumination of a hundred lighters.
One woman we see in a café, who can’t weigh more than 110 pounds, finishes her coffee and lights a cigarette. Then another. And another. By the time she leaves, she’s gone through an entire pack.
Europeans don’t wear scarves just for show. They wear them as gas masks.
I want to visit a European salon. Many Swiss women wear funky styles with shocking hair colors. I would hate to leave Europe the same as I came. I ask our pretty waitress, who sports a brilliant pink streak in her hair, for the address of her salon.
The doors jangle as I enter the shop the next morning. Planted securely behind a desk in the far corner is a plump woman with deep-set brown eyes. She wears a silk scarf. I don’t see anyone else, so I address her directly.
“I want my hair colored please.”
She crinkles her nose. “Yes?”
“My hair colored.”
She doesn’t understand English. Fair enough, since I don’t understand German. I point to my hair and then to a purple pen on the counter.
She tilts her head. Then her eyes brighten. She picks up the pen and hands it to me.
“No. My hair,” I say, handing it back.
I grab a chunk of my blond hair and point to the pen again and then back at my hair. I repeat this process several times until I feel ridiculous.
She nods, grasps my shoulders firmly, and leads me to the chair.
After she drapes a black tarp around my neck, she unpacks tools in strange shapes while softly whistling a dirge. I don’t think she knows what I want, but I hate to interrupt her.
She works busily for the next two hours, stopping only once for a smoke break. She offers me a magazine and a cigarette. I decline the cigarette, but skim the pages of the magazine to pass the time. Since it’s written in German, I simply look at the pictures and pray she doesn’t permanently damage my hair.
She smiles in the mirror when she’s finished. She’s awfully proud of her work. It looks nice. But it’s the very same as it was before.
It costs 45 francs.
Terminal T in Atlanta pulsates with activity when we return several weeks later. A group of kids from Stockbridge High School, all wearing matching blue T-shirts with a gaudy logo, pushes past me at a run. They are late for a flight. The hallway reverberates with the echo of boarding announcements from nearby gates.
We pass the food court and an elderly Asian man holds a lump of what might be brown meat on a toothpick. A sample from Manchu Wok. It looks like something one would only serve to a stray dog in Europe. Any dog of good breeding would refuse it.
A young couple sits waiting for their flight. They discuss the scores from a recent baseball game. Their accents startle us. We understand them, and something about that is strange.
I notice a middle-aged woman, heavy around the middle. She’s wearing a cotton scarf, tied primly in the front with a brooch clipped onto the side.
I realize she doesn’t know how to wear a scarf properly.
But, then again, neither do I.
About the Author
Carrie Camp graduated from Converse College with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing. She currently lives outside Atlanta, GA, with her husband.