When it first became a regular feature of our subscription newsletter, Gemütlichkeit, The Travel Letter for Germany, Austria & Switzerland, in August of 1990, we vaguely envisioned our monthly Dear Subscriber column as a place to expound a sort of "Gemütlichkeit philosophy" where lofty ideas about the more cerebral and spiritual aspects of travel could be explored. Though a conscious decision was never made not to do so, the notion never became reality. The result of this aimless policy is that we left the deep stuff to those who beat the drum for politically correct travel; the ones who sometimes question whether ordinary Americans are even culturally advanced enough to travel abroad. The 60 Minutes reporter, Morley Safer, once suggested too many American visitors are partly resonsible for an accelerated decay of Europe's ancient treasures. His solution? Stay home.
Given year after year of record travel numbers to Europe, we North Americans have obviously rejected Morley's silly suggestion. Nonetheless, I suppose keeping we clueless, shorts-clad tourists on our best behavior overseas is a job somebody has to do. (Don't misunderstand, Gemut.com is all for good manners abroad: please don't take pictures in the cathedral when the sign says "please don't take pictures;" wear appropriate clothing; don't use the hotel's buffet breakfast to build your picnic lunch; do try to speak a little of the language; be observant of local customs, and so on.)
Though there are times I've cringed in the presence of fellow Americans acting foolishly, I wish I could say I was without sin. As an invited dinner guest to private homes, I took gifts of wine until I discovered that some European hosts interpret this gesture of goodwill as sending a message that the hosts' own wine isn't good enough. In my ignorance I have no doubt committed many similar gaffes of which I was totally unaware.
Others have been quickly brought to my attention. Once driving between Munich and Salzburg on the Autobahn, I passed a man in a $100,000 Mercedes sports coupe going at precisely the 80 kph speed limit marked for that section. As I eased by him at about 100 kph, he chastised my disregard for the law by flashing at me from his car's window a small replica of the 80 kph speed limit sign. No doubt he had more signs at the ready for other scofflaws. (By now you've spotted the cultural difference; Teutonic advance planning vs. the New World's cruide spur-of-the-moment single middle digit.)
A Navy friend told me this story: On a Christmas Day sometime in the '70s he and his family drove from his base in Italy to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. During the trip they ran into snowstorms and passed through highway construction zones. At the end of the trip, his car was a muddy mess. In Garmisch, however, roads were covered in fresh, packed snow and the sky was a deep, cloudless blue; in other words a glorious day. Pausing at a red light in the center of town he looked over at the car stopped in the lane next to him, a gleaming BMW, obviously washed that very morning. Its driver, a 60ish woman, passed her steely eyes slowly over the length of my friend's filthy car. After a few seconds she looked directly at him and, while slowly shaking her head, waved one long index finger from side to side like a metronome. Message delivered: get that hog washed.
My greatest travel humiliation came on our first trip to Germany many years ago in a restaurant where no English was spoken...whatsoever. To someone with zero German, the menu item Matjesfilet "Hamburger Art" might sound vaguely like meat. Wrong. It is several small whole, cold herring; heads, eyes, tails, fins, gills, scales, skin, the works. As appetizing as those dead fish were lying there on that bed of lettuce, they just weren't going to work as my dinner. I would pay for them, of course, willingly, but I needed something else, something hot, something, say, in a pig or a heifer or a duck or maybe a sheep. I would even take vital organs, but no cold fish, thank you. My attempt to communicate an apology to our most pleasant waitress for being an ignorant American, happy to consume one dinner but pay for two (I figured since I never touched the fish they could be re-sold as low-mileage, pre-owned Matjes), failed miserably.
The good woman naturally assumed it was all her fault for not speaking English. The cook, a broad-shouldered, NFL linebacker-sized woman, saw it differently. As the waitress related the sad story to our cook at the kitchen entrance, Frau Butkus' face darkened and her eyes blazed across the room at me. Thinking perhaps she spoke a little English, and that this could still be amicably worked out, I left my chair and approached her with my best pasted-on smile. She took a couple of steps toward me and we both stopped, facing each other about 15 feet apart. By now, of course, we had the full attention of the entire dining room. I've never seen an angrier German. She pointed a bratwurst of a finger at me and in German said, "When in Germany, speak German." At that she turned and marched back to the kitchen, leaving me like Ralph Kramden, mouth moving but no sound.
I slunk back to our table and rejoined Liz. The waitress brought us some perfectly good lamb chops, we ate quickly, paid and left. There was no charge for the fish.
So we'll leave the travel preachments to others and just keep pumping out the usual, where to sleep, eat, sightsee, and how to get around info—all the while trying to stay on our best behavior. — RHB