Blending in, Glencoe, Scotland
I am not sure if I should be flattered or just slightly puzzled by the numerous incidents of mistaken identity I have encountered while traveling. I was once sitting on the local train in Germany, traveling the short trip from Mannheim to Heidelberg when a passenger turned to me and began conversing in German. I apologized and said I spoke English. She looked surprised.
“Sprecken ze English?” I asked in one of the few German phrases I knew.
“Nein, nein…” She turned away, asking her question to a native German.
I always feel a bit ignorant in those kinds of situations, like I ought to know more of the
language, although mastering the train station signs was accomplishment enough at the time. I was thrilled to get by with “please” and “thank you.”
Years ago in Ireland, I was face to face with a drunken man in the infamous “Durty Nelly’s.” He was speaking in such a thick County Kerry brogue, I found it hard to comprehend what he was saying, especially in the din of the pub, with the crowd and the music. I continued to repeat “What?” “Excuse me?” “Can you repeat that?” until the man uttered something regarding the Northerners from Belfast and stalked away in a huff. I am positive he insulted me but I felt complemented that I had been confused for a native.
I have been wondering what it is that causes my identity to be mistaken. I suppose first off, it is my family heritage, a Scotch-Irish-Belgian northern European mutt mix. I probably do not have any outstanding physical characteristics. However, the world is becoming increasingly diverse, especially in major cities, so I don’t know if ethnicity alone accounts for this blending in. Also, I tend to travel by myself, so I am not packed onto a tour bus with a camera around my neck.
I asked a few European friends how they picked Americans out in a crowd, and they said it was the shoes.
“White runners,” they said. One’s entire outfit could be black, except the blazing white sneakers that will make Americans stand out. I have never worn white “runners,” even to the gym (they are navy blue) and have a standard pair of black boots to wear in any major city. Was the difference as simple as a pair of shoes?
I believe, however, the answer to my blending in question became clear as I sat in an ice-cream shop this past summer in France. Suddenly, an obviously American family came in, with two teenagers clamoring for milkshakes. One look at them and my immediate thought was “Disneyland.”
These people belonged in Disneyland. Hawaiian print shirts (bold red and blue) on all four family members, and, what I believe to be the sin of all sins: the mother was wearing a white skort – you know, the weird half skirt and half shorts combination. (My second thought was: A skort! In France! A country dictated by its fashion sense! Please, where are the fashion police when you need them?)
I asked my European friends about the popularity of the skort on the Continent.
“The what?” They asked. Enough said.
That moment clarified for me the importance of street fashion. There is, apparently, a cultural gene that I have missed that makes Americans stand out. However, even when I have directly stated my nationality, there is still an air of disbelief. I was in Galway during the summer arts festival, chatting with a local at an out of the way karaoke pub. My neighbor on the next bar stool asked where I was from.
“Near Washington,” I said. The gentleman looked stumped.
“D.C.” I expanded. Still, my friend had a furrowed brow and a perplexed expression. Now, there had been quite a few Guinness’s flowing, but I couldn’t imagine he did not know where Washington, D.C. was located.
“The States, ” I tried again, “The United States.” Suddenly, his eyes brightened and a huge smile broke through his face.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” he roared and the entire pub turned to stare. ” I thought ye was a local girl comin’ into the city for the festival. I was sittin’ here the entire time tryin’ to figure where, in all of Clare, was the village of Washington!”