Out There: Showing weakness

Why do we try to avoid looking like tourists when abroad?

‘Honey, put away the map, you look like a tourist,” The Wife said last week, as we tried to navigate our way through the green streets of Oslo.
“If I put away the map, how will we get where we want to go,” I replied, adding the obvious: “But I am a tourist!”
Not only did the map confirm that we were sight-seers, but the baseball caps The Wife and I both wore to keep our heads religiously covered made us look like part of a travelling softball team.
Confusing Norway with the Dominican Republic, I kept thinking any minute little kids were going to run up – bat, ball, gloves and cleats in hand – and ask us to join a pick-up game.
THE HUMAN psyche is a wonderful thing, and there are numerous reasons why tourists are allergic to appearing as tourists. They don’t want to stick out, they don’t want to show vulnerability, they don’t want to get taken by cabbies or robbed by muggers.
I remember the first time I visited New York City more than 30 years ago, and – as a young man from the Denver “sticks” – was captivated by the skyscrapers. My reflex was to bend my neck all the way back and just gaze.
But this was the 1970s. Manhattan was not safe, and a little voice inside kept warning me against looking up, afraid that if I did I would fall easy prey to the unscrupulous. For days I tried looking at the skyscrapers without glancing skyward – no easy task.
And then when I first moved to Israel, I tried desperately to fit in and not look like a tourist. I put on Nimrod sandals, didn’t tuck in my shirt and wore generic T-shirts with a combination of words that made no sense, like “College University” or “High Bread.” And when approached for directions on the street by real tourists, I would fake an Israeli accent and chart out their route: “Eh, you to want, eh, to take a turn right at the, eh, eh, tzomet.” I’d be super polite, nauseatingly polite, wanting the visitors to walk away with a positive impression of Israelis.
There I was, a tourist impersonating a native trying to get the tourists to leave with a good feeling about the natives.
What is it that makes us want to avoid looking like tourists in cities we have never been to in our lives, and where we don’t even speak the language?
It has to do with human insecurity, wanting to belong, not wanting to seem dependent, vulnerable or weak. There are few more humbling experiences than trying to maneuver – as an anonymous, unknown person – through a foreign city where you don’t know the language, the landmarks, how the money works or anybody at all.
The feeling of not wanting to look like a tourist comes off the same emotional shelf as taking a Hebrew menu at a restaurant when it would be much easier to take the English one; quickly hitting the remote and changing from the soap opera to the financial news when someone stumbles in on you watching television; or not admitting that you were – yes – sleeping when someone phones and wakes you up.
“TAKE THE English menu, you’ll understand it,” my youngest son said recently at a restaurant.
“Now, now, give me a break,” I said. “You don’t think I can read a lousy menu?”
But the boy was on to me. Sure I can read a Hebrew menu, but it’s a lot easier – and in ethnic or fish restaurants I’ll actually know what I’m ordering – if I swallow my pride and use the English one.
Samosa Keves, doesn’t mean anything to me, but Mutton Samosa (“mutton meat, carrots, green peas and onion, wrapped in dough and deep fried”) is something I can grasp.
Denis for me is the misspelled first name of a comic-strip character, but “sea bream” conjures up something I can relate to.
As for the television, I have been programmed since youth to think of TV as a colossal waste of time. So anytime I watch it, I feel a tinge of guilt: I should be studying Gemara instead, or playing catch with the kids or reading a book about the Israeli-Arab conflict.
And so if someone walks into the room while I’m watching American Idol or some inane romantic comedy, I’ll quickly flick the channel to something more substantive, like BBC or the History Channel, something more in keeping with my image of myself. That channel-changing reflex says something deep: I’m doing something I innately don’t think I should be doing.
And not admitting we are tourists in a foreign land is a first cousin to faking we weren’t sleeping when the phone rang. Now, I can understand not wanting to admit being awakened from a nap at 2 p.m. on a workday, but why the reflex to fake sentience if someone calls at five in the morning?
“Hullo,” I’ll say sleepily into the phone to someone from abroad whogot our time zone mixed up, or got confused with daylight savings andcalled well before wake-up time.
“Oh no, did I wake you?”
“No,” I’ll lie, shifting quickly to my chipper voice. “I was up.”
What I really want to say, however, is, “No, you didn’t wake me, I had to get up to answer the phone.”
Just as it’s no disgrace to sleep, there is no shame in looking like atourist (or, for that matter, ordering from an English menu or watchingsome television). We all do it, or at least want to, and the beauty ofreaching the middle of middle age is that I can now do it all withoutapologies. At least if The Wife lets me.