It’s probably news to no one that Americans don’t have the best reputation abroad. Choose any ten random hostel-goers and ask them what their least favorite nationality to encounter whilst traveling is; eight will say American. The ninth will say British, and the tenth is Canadian and thus will opt out, as they are far too nice to put any one country down.
We Americans aren’t always the most considerate of travelers. It’s pretty easy to locate us. Just listen for the echo of groans that inevitably follow the statement, “Well, in America. . .” We somehow manage to relate everything back to U.S. We have a hard time appreciating places, sights, and experiences without comparing them to our country of origin. You’re discussing seafood dishes on the Adriatic coast? Well, did you know that Maine is known for its delicious fish? Having a discussion about how difficult it is to drive through the narrow streets of Europe? Oh, we don’t have that problem in the wide open, spread out United States. Someone brings up health care systems? Well, in America. . .actually, no. There’s no way even the most nationalistic of Americans can spin that one in way that leaves the U.S. looking good.
We leave America, but we don’t really leave America.
We leave America, but we don’t really leave America. In order to avoid falling too deeply into this stereotype, I’ve often eschewed discussions centered solely on the U.S.—to a definite fault (but more on that later). But while in the middle of Montenegro, I found myself celebrating the Fourth of July in the most classically American of ways: with a good, old-fashioned barbeque.
To be fair, I didn’t start out planning this. I’m at the point in my travels when the days blissfully blur together; the only real marker of time I have at this point are my regular writing deadlines (hi, editors!) Beyond that, I have basically no ability to distinguish between dates. So when I signed up for a sunset barbeque, I didn’t realize it was the Fourth. I didn’t realize that I was about to participate in the most quintessentially Fourth-of-July-ian pastime while here in Kotor, Montenegro. But that’s exactly what ended up happening.
I was reminded of the occasion by an Australian, who was apparently more in tune with our nation’s holidays than I am. As our bus chugged up the cliffs of Kotor, he asked: “So, celebrating the Fourth of July with a barbeque? That’s pretty stereotypically American of you.” Touché. Then, once we reached our final destination (oh, you know, just a medieval fortress that overlooks the Old Town of Kotor and the majestic fjords of the Bay, it’s casual), I went an impressive five minutes before being approached by the other representative Americans. “You’re the other American, right?” they asked me. “USA! USA! USA!” Yep, there was no avoiding it.
Of our group of about twelve travelers, there were three other Americans—two Minnesotans, and a New Yorker. The guys began discussing all things America—apple pie, fireworks, and Party in the USA by Miley Cyrus (you know, the national anthem). But as other people began joining the conversation, the discussions of America began to engage with more complex themes.
Our fellow barbeque-ers—coming from places like Scotland, New Zealand, England, and other (for some reason, only English-speaking) nations—started to ask about the other side of the United States. This is what we most urgently need to engage with: the complex social issue and the kind of systemic change we are responsible for realizing. Funnily enough, this discussion felt perfectly suited to this Fourth of July barbeque. It’s important to recognize the strengths of your nation. But it’s also important to recognize where we need to improve. That’s probably the most patriotic thing you can do; blind nationalism doesn’t help anyone.
Lydia packed two pairs of shoes for her travels in Slovenia, Croatia, and Montenegro. She is counting on her well-worn, well-loved sneakers to carry her through coastal markets along the Adriatic, majestic ruins of ancient cities, and Balkan national parks. She also packed a pair of festive sandals, intended for long walks on the beach and questionable hostel showers alike. She considers this an exercise in versatility. When she isn’t carefully curating the most austere of packing lists, Lydia enjoys crafting incredibly niche Spotify playlists and reminding people that she is from California.