Foreign excursions require culture, civility, obnoxious American pride

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February 2, 2007

12:26 AM

A lot of us experienced some exciting travels over winter break. We went to grandma’s house (over the river and through the woods), to big cities, maybe even to foreign lands. And in these distant places, I’m sure all of us were on our very best behavior.

p. We attend one of the best colleges for studying in the country. We also attend one of the worst colleges for partying in the universe. Combine these two facts, and it’s easy to infer that, when we travel to different places around the world, students of the College go as ambassadors of culture and civility.

p. The average student most likely researches where she’s going at least a month before hopping on a plane or jumping in a car. She learns the customs, the culture, the sorts of foods she will be expected to eat and the ways she will be expected to act. She is out to prove to the rest of the world that Americans are not always rude, ignorant and obese — despite what our sitcoms would have foreigners believe.

p. When a group of my friends made the brilliant decision to visit Montreal in January (average temperature: -4 degrees — wooo vacation!), I was stupid enough to agree, but I was at least smart enough to check out some Montreal websites in the month preceding my departure. I learned all the cool coffee shops, the bars, the streets for night life and the proper way to ask the time in crazy Canadian French. I figured that, disregarding my despicable American accent, I would soon be welcomed into the Canadians’ frosty embrace.

p. I didn’t take my traveling companions into consideration.

p. Six out of seven of my travel buddies were really excellent. We drank tasty beer and shivered in the seasonally appropriate snow in a very non-offensive way. We practiced our terrible French together before heading out to town. We were ready to show those Montrealers that, hey, we “southerners” are not so bad.

p. But then there was the eighth member of our group. He was loud. He was rude. His version of a polite Montreal greeting was, “Hey, do you speak English?!” His efforts to embrace the Canadian culture started and ended solely with his purchase of an (albeit amazing) furry hat.

p. For the first couple of days, I silently resented him from behind the protective barrier of my own furry hat, scarf and layered turtlenecks. But then, I had a change of heart. Watching our eighth man lurch around the slushy streets of Montreal, harassing passers-by for directions to the nearest Taco Bell, I felt a small twinge of what might have been American pride. As I listened to him bellow, “Thanks!” loudly enough to drown out all of our heart felt “merci”s, I got a warm, mushy feeling inside.

p. It was like that feeling you get at the end of “King Kong,” or when you bring your child to his first day of school only to watch him run off and punch some other kid before he’s even assigned a seat — he may be a bit of a monster, but he’s your monster, and you have a soft spot for him. We had brought our own ultra-American monster to this strange place where he didn’t really fit in, where he was scared (most notably of the poutine) and where people tried to punish him just for doing his loud, English-speaking thing, and we were going to stick through it with him. Besides, it was really funny watching this giant, furry-hatted man terrorize the relatively diminutive Quebecois in his search for those most basic of American comforts — a cheeseburger and a “titty bar.”

p. As soon as I let go of my dream of becoming more beloved than Celine Dion and started embracing the much older American dream of going to foreign lands and then having your way with them, Montreal became a lot more fun. After all, the province of Quebec has been pushing for a split from Canada — whose official slogan is, “Can you think of any place more benign?” — for about a quarter of a century. If the Montrealers can’t even handle the rest of Canada, there really isn’t a lot of hope for their louder, crazier, somehow fatter (although we eat far less maple syrup) neighbors to the south. And so, there wasn’t really much we could do except set our monster free, send him our love and hope he didn’t get us all deported … or shot.

__Lauren Bell is the Confusion Corner columnist for The Flat Hat. She’s working on a summer project to bring Southern manners and Taco Bell to Quebec.__

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